If you yearn for economic justice and human flourishing in the southern hemisphere, you may be plagued by the nagging suspicion that there is little that you can do to promote this. Sure, you can give to charity or even go on a short term volunteering mission, but still there’s a sense that these efforts are at best band-aid ‘solutions,’ or at worst, volun-‘tour’-ism for rich Westerners to salve their consciences.
Dr Aidan Donaldson confronts some of those doubts in his new book, Encountering God in the Margins: Reflections of a Justice Volunteer (Veritas, 2010). Donaldson is Assistant Head of Religious Education and Chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Belfast. He writes out of his experience of the Christian Brothers’ Developing World Immersion Programme and its work on Project Zambia.
The book is an intriguing blend of reflections and vignettes, featuring the stories of people he has met in Zambia (including harrowing tales of poverty and death), an extended Christian critique of consumerism, the spirituality of ‘immersion’ in the worlds of marginalised people, a scathing condemnation of Madonna’s adoption of a Malawian child, and finally – stories of hope.
Donaldson’s experience is clearly one that is shaped by Christian spirituality, including his interaction with the Christian Brothers and an exploration of Ignatian spirituality. The text is bolstered by gospel passages in which Jesus takes the side of the poor and the marginalised, and condemns the rich or the greedy.
Donaldson sees ‘immersion’, as opposed to ‘voluntourism’, as an experience that empowers the locals rather than the visitors.
He gives an example of how this might work in a concluding section that he calls ‘the parable of the goats of Mapepe.’ In this story, Zambian and Irish people working together create a project that not only allows the community to feed themselves, but empowers the locals to take on a rich landowner when his goats destroy their crops.
At the same time, Donaldson recognises that this is a small step, a small story, on a continent where deprivation and disempowerment can seem overwhelming. He knows that Western voluntourists can make things worse with false promises, encapsulated in the Zambian mantra that ‘white people tell lies.’
But he thinks that the immersion approach – living with integrity and simplicity alongside people – offers a better way. This is summed up in Donaldson’s thoughts on what the people in Mapepe required from the Irish volunteers (p. 183),
All they required from us was solidarity, mutual affirmation and recognition, love and financial support.
Significantly, financial support is last on the list – reflecting Donaldson’s conviction that money doesn’t go far if it’s not accompanied by solidarity, mutual affirmation and recognition, and love.
One of the images from the book that sticks with me is Donaldson’s meditation on how a shopping mall in Zambia parallels a distorted vision of the kingdom of God (p. 85),
I got off the minibus at a brand new, glitzy shopping centre – one of those ‘bubbles’ in which the rich and privileged can go to ‘worship’ the gods of consumer capitalism and in which their status as ‘elect’ is confirmed by their very entry into such elevated places. … The Kingdom of God has most certainly been replaced – both physically and in the minds and aspirations of those who enter this strange kingdom – by the Kingdom of Consumerism with its attendant ‘cathedrals’ and rituals. There also appears to be strong pseudo-Calvinist doctrines in evidence. One of the most distinctive teachings of the Swiss reformer was the doctrine of predestination and the separation of humankind into those who will be saved (‘the Elect’) and those who will not (‘the Damned’). … An interesting, although somewhat modified process can be witnessed in the new Kingdom of Consumerism among the worshippers there. The whites – ‘the Elect’, who are confirmed as such by the colour of their skin (which in turn is quite a sure indication of the fact that they have wealth) – are welcomed into the ‘kingdom’ irrespective of their dress and appearance. … The security guards will look beyond even the most scruffy and unshaven backpacking muzungu to ensure that no street child or beggar will slip into the ‘cathedral’ and spoil the purity of the social and economic exchange that is taking place there.
The book also includes critical commentary on the activities of other Westerners in Africa, including American evangelicals (whose questionable practices when adopting children Donaldson equates to the slave trade) and Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
Doubtless, evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics have done social and economic harm in Africa, but having conducted academic research in this area I know that this is not the full story of their activities. It was disappointed to see such an unbalanced presentation of these expressions of Christianity.
But all in all, the book is a powerful and timely challenge to see Jesus’ love for the marginalised as the essence of the Christian gospel.