A visit to Belarus raises questions about ‘voluntourism’
Francis Hall and I have just returned to Rome after nearly a week in Belarus, seeing the work of the Burren Chernobyl Project (BCP), with Brother Liam O’Meara from Ireland as the Director on the ground in Belarus. Liam’s presence, personality and relational skills, the great commitment of a good number of Irish volunteers, and meeting many people in Belarus, made it a very stimulating time.
The BCP, with its sister organization in Belarus, the Dobra Tut Foundation, aims to help with responding to the needs of children and adults in institutions in Belarus. They have done some wonderful renovation of buildings to add colour, light, freshness and necessary items. A further stage is to look at the types of programmes operating for the people. The presence of significant numbers of people in institutions raises a lot of questions about social policy and practice, and it is easy to come in with immediate (and therefore very simplistic) answers on what is needed. I was impressed with the very good partnership between the Belarusian state and local authorities administering the different institutions, and the BCF, and their shared commitment to addressing the longer-term needs of the people.
At the end of the experience, I am left with many questions and emotions. It seems providential, and quite unplanned, that I have been reading Dr Aidan Donaldson’s book Encountering God in the Margins, a book describing Aidan’s experience of taking groups to some African countries on immersion experiences. Aidan is Assistant Head of Religious Education and Chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Belfast. What I was reading from Aidan and seeing in Belarus were constantly nagging at my comfortable level of existence.
A group of Irish volunteers & staff in Minsk
On the last morning, when we were leaving and a number of Irish volunteers were going home too, one of the girls made the comment: ‘Oh well, back to the real world!’ I think she was saying it from a sense of not really wanting to return to her usual life, because she had been touched in new ways by her experience in Belarus. Maybe she was in fact asking: What is the real world? In Aidan’s book, it is very clearly pointed out just how fake the ‘real world’ is, the ‘real world’ being the blanket of consumerism which dominates and controls so-called developed world countries. ‘If you are not spending, you are of no value.’ ‘You are only as good as what you have.’ ‘People have no intrinsic value; they are expendable to be sacrificed for the benefit of the rich.’ ‘I must constantly become more upwardly mobile, or I am not a success.’
Mary Rice House, Cherven - a day-care centre for people with disabilities
All of these statements took me back to Belarus. On two days, I fed Nikita, a young boy in a wheelchair. I don’t know how old he was, maybe six or seven. He couldn’t speak, but he could take the food from the spoon well, and I found just being with him a deeply intimate experience. My efforts in English to encourage him, to offer some humour, and to clean his face at the end of the meal were moments of connection which touched me in an eye-opening way. In fact, it was his eyes which I noticed most. He had beautiful, clear, blue-green eyes. I wondered, and don’t know, why and how he was put into the children’s institution. In terms of the wider world, Nikita is a non-person. His existence is of no significance in the bigger picture. If he were not there, few would notice or grieve. He is not a mover and shaker; basically, he’s just a statistic, one of many who are unknown and whose life holds little relevance for the ‘real world’
Francis Hall, Liam O'Meara, and fellow staff-member Irina
Yet, in feeding Nikita and reading Aidan’s book, I was struck forcibly again with the clear fact that it was to the non-people that Jesus went. The ones who were despised, hopeless, spurned, illiterate, sick, outcast, were the ones who were at the centre of God’s plan. Jesus was scathing on those who wanted to maintain the status-quo for their own advantage, meaning that the downtrodden were kept in their place – a system of injustice. He was not concerned with another world called ‘heaven’, but with the reign of God right here and now in proper relationships of justice and love. You don’t find God in some heaven somewhere, but in the very real here-and-now of those who are the poor ones of the world. How easily we in the so-called developed world turn this radical stance around to suit ourselves and find ways not to have to change our status of advantage! Our being advantaged is at the cost of those in our world who are forced to remain poor and outcast for us to live at basically too high a standard of material living.
Dom Zara (Sarah's House), Minsk - day-care centre & accommodation for volunteers
Aidan speaks with some passion about ‘voluntourism’, which he calls one of the latest Western fads! People come to areas of the world where there is great poverty, contribute a week or so of their time to ‘help’ in slums, in health-care, in building, etc, and then go home thinking that they have done a good job, while continuing to live as they had before. There is no doubting the wonderful good-will of such people, but the question has to be asked: whose needs are being met here? It was a question that I had to ask myself in Belarus. I could feel good that I had done something worthwhile in feeding Nikita, in playing with other children, in being present in a supportive manner to people with real needs. I could make some financial contribution to help. But if I come back and effectively live as before, back to the ‘real world’ of trying to ensure my comfort with all my needs met, including needs that have been imposed (and accepted by me) through advertising, then can I claim to be a disciple of Jesus in any real way? Somehow the gospel has by-passed me because I don’t want to hear it. I’m the rich young man, who feels he has too much to lose. Has living a form of life called Religious Life any meaning in this situation?
As opposed to voluntourism, Aidan speaks of ‘immersion’. He says:
"To be immersed is to say ‘no’ to the way the world is and begin to create a new world built not on injustice, greed, individualism and passivity, but rather a world based on justice, community, solidarity, action and love of the other. In short, immersion is to help the world stand the correct way up. To allow oneself to become immersed in the margins is to abandon and reject the power structures and social practices that keep the Third World poor and oppressed, and to become part of something much bigger, infinitely more intelligent and rational, and certainly more real, necessary and true than anything the false world we live in can ever offer. Immersion is nothing less than building the Kingdom of God".
So, I am sitting with these questions, and trying to be open to what it may all mean. If it doesn’t mean anything in action and attitude, then I have been a good ‘voluntourist’ but not allowed the experience to become a genuine ‘immersion’ one. There seem strong links to trying to live in a specifically downwardly mobile way in terms of consumption, if the global imbalance is going to be addressed.
Liam O'Meara, Peter Dowling, & Francis Hall in Minsk
I take much encouragement from Liam, from Aidan, and from the many whose lives keep pulling me where I find it hard to move, but where I know deep down I must move. One such person whom I know from Australia is well known in Melbourne as a very public figure. Fr Bob Maguire is celebrating fifty years as a priest. In a newspaper quote this week, Bob says (and it perhaps sums up what I have been chewing over here):
But he [Fr Bob] has never lost his inspiration or his concern for the poor. Of the latter, he says: "Look at the founder of the firm. The logic is, there's a down and out, hungry, on the cross, executed while innocent, on a rubbish tip outside the walls of Jerusalem. That's always inspired me."