Too Nice to Help?

The story begins familiarly enough: a young person on a service trip to a poor country is rocked by the poverty and the suffering she sees. Upon returning home she finds that she can’t carry on with life as usual. The knowledge that, even though she lives in relative comfort, others suffer profoundly from a lack of the most basic provisions is too much. It’s hard to settle back into ‘normal’ life. Where this particular story takes a different line than most, is when the young woman decides to return and volunteer at one of the charities making a difference. And where the story gets even more surprising—and for a time inspiring—is when the young woman decides to start her own charity. She was 19 at the time. The needs were obvious. The people back home were generous. God was in it, at least that’s how it appeared.

This story ran not long ago on National Public Radio.  The reason it made the news, however, was not because of inspiring self-sacrifice but because of a lawsuit. It turns out that an alarmingly high number of children served by this particular charity died. And it turns out—at least this is the allegation—that the organization’s leader was regularly performing medical procedures far beyond her level of training (she had no medical training). You can read the details of the developing story on the NPR website (link above).

I have to admit that if I had heard the story of this person’s work in its early days I probably would have found it inspiring. The woman obviously had a lot of courage. Who knows, maybe I would have even made a donation. Her story has the bones of narratives we like to praise: entrepreneurialism, hands-on difference-making, a person of privilege helping those with less. The setup is all-to-common in Christian circles: we give good intentions and passion too much credit. We (North American Christians) are also often guilty of assuming that high standards of care, or teaching, or whatever are necessary for us, but negotiable for the poor across the seas.

The NPR article is right to point out that if someone with no medical training opened a clinic here with the intention of treating the critically ill, the place would have been shut down before the end of the day. Oddly, when it comes to international work we seem willing to give our money to such projects. All it takes is a slick video, a story and a sense of urgency. It makes you wonder what’s shaped our imaginations in such a way that this is possible.

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