By Wes Magruder, Special Contributor…
A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa
Beacon Press, 2012
Hardcover, 200 pages
I saw it happen several times as a United Methodist missionary living in Cameroon, West Africa.
A church mission team from America would visit the mission and travel across the country for a week. One or two of the team members would become completely captivated by the living conditions, particularly of women and the young. They had a deeply profound spiritual experience. And they became convinced that they had to do something—something immediate, tangible, and visible—to “help African children.”
Many of them followed through, either by returning to Africa for a longer term of service, or by becoming regular contributors to a particular ministry.
This pattern has been repeated thousands of times over in the last couple of decades; this “torrent of American do-gooders,” as journalist and author John Donnelly refers to it, has flooded Africa to help children in record numbers, efforts which have largely gone undocumented by state or governmental authorities.
Have these efforts actually made a difference in the lives of children? And are these differences positive or negative? Mr. Donnelly attempts to answer these questions in his book, Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa.
Mr. Donnelly frames the debate with the story of one particular American Christian, a man named Paul Dixon from North Carolina who visited Malawi in 2002.
While visiting the country, Mr. Dixon felt as if he heard God instruct him to give his life in service to African children. The story of Mr. Dixon’s adventures (and mis-adventures) in Malawi are interwoven with interviews with workers from non-governmental organizations, missionaries and State Department employees, as well as a closer look at some of the high-visibility efforts to assist children in need, including Oprah Winfrey’s academy in Swaziland and Madonna’s charity, Raising Malawi.
What Mr. Donnelly discovers is that good intentions often go awry, when Americans arrive on the continent and try to “fix” every problem they can find by throwing money at it. Most of the time, this approach leads to disappointment, shattered relations, and wasted money.
His research revealed, for example, that the cost of educating one child in Oprah’s school at the time of its opening was $263,158. During the same period, U.S. government officials considered a program which would place orphans with grandmothers, but were balking at the price—just $200 per year to support a child’s involvement in a local school, including meals and after-school care.
Mr. Donnelly is generally critical of orphanages established by well-meaning outsiders, and not just because they tend not to be cost-efficient. He finds evidence that cloistering orphans away from their communities can stunt child development. After interviewing some grown Ethiopian orphans, he concludes that their orphanage “failed to give them the tools they needed to live on their own and according to the customs of their country.”
But Mr. Donnelly is sympathetic to the fact that so many Americans are driven to mission service on behalf of the world’s poor by their strong Christian faith.
This is certainly true for Mr. Dixon, whose story is typical of Christian do-gooders. He arrives with grand plans to build an orphanage, but almost immediately has to temper those plans after meeting with local folks who convince him that an orphanage is not what they need. Instead, Mr. Dixon builds a school which, after a string of obstacles and hardships, becomes a moderate success. He faces a crushing blow when he is betrayed by those closest to him, and almost loses his school. He stays the course, but by the end of the book, Mr. Dixon is a changed man—wary and chastened, though stubbornly hopeful.
The problem is not so much that Mr. Dixon was unsuited for the task, but that he wasn’t responsive enough to the community into which he’d moved. He wore his naïveté on his chest like a badge of honor. This stubbornness was buttressed by a strong sense that he had been called by God to Africa.
Mr. Donnelly does a masterful job of slowly unraveling the troubled, complex, multilayered Mr. Dixon. In the end, it appears that much of what Paul Dixon had been doing “for” African orphans, was really all about Paul Dixon.
Mr. Dixon and Mr. Donnelly both arrive at a rather humbling conclusion: What African orphans need are not more orphanages, rock star donors, or bags of rice. Instead, African governments and U.S. faith-based groups ought to cooperate in promoting sustainable small-scale farming and better education for children.
It’s not a sexy answer, and it doesn’t necessarily make for great photo ops, bulletin board material, or the evening news.
But it might just be the best answer.
The Rev. Magruder is senior associate pastor at First Rowlett, United Methodist Church in Rowlett, Texas, and blogs at http://newmethofesto.com/.