If you get on Facebook during the summer, you're bound to see people you knew in high school or people you know now posting dozens and dozens of photos in an album, the title of which is a Bible verse. In these photos, the person you know is posing with impoverished children.
They might be in Haiti. They might be in Honduras. They might be in the Philippines.
The person you know looks a little dirty, but much cleaner than the people they're taking pictures with. Their pictures are captioned with Bible verses about serving and evangelism. Yes, they're serving, but you get the feeling that they're just on vacation.
This phenomenon of service – usually conducted by teenagers and college students – of visiting Third World areas to do missionary work and service is sometimes called voluntourism.
Before discussing the selfism that encompasses voluntourism, it's important to ask ourselves whether or not the ends justify the means. Is it OK to go build Habitat houses if you're only doing it because your grandpa said he'd buy you ice cream? Is it okay to work at a soup kitchen if you're only there because the cute girl you know asked you to come?
Voluntourism looks great on a resumé. You go out of your comfort zone to another culture, potentially dangerously, and give aid to those who live in onerous and barren circumstances. However, in doing so, you suppose a theme of white, American godliness that gives those people not a promise of hope but one of dependence.
The Telegraph (UK) details one of the most inefficient examples of voluntourism, when a travel agency's program to help orphans in Third World countries actually stimulated the need for volunteer orphan care when those children may have been better off in homes.
There is a place for going to Third World locations to help those who have been ravaged by disaster or famine. But sometimes, what evangelical Christians completely miss is that there are plenty of hungry, impoverished, homeless people who live a matter of miles from them who need help too.
For record, the City of Knoxville has more than 182,000 people. In 2009, nearly 30 percent of all Knoxvillians lived below the poverty line. In 2012, the city of Knoxville released a report that each month in 2011, nearly 1,600 people every month accessed resources for the homeless. Of them, about a quarter are disabled and about a third suffer from mental disability. And the percent of chronically homeless people are rising.
To put it briefly, there are a wealth of opportunities to those who wish to serve people who are less fortunate than them, and not one of these opportunities requires a passport. Just up Broadway, there is the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, which are always in need of volunteers. There's the Red Cross. The Community Action Committee. The Urban League. For more, check out the City of Knoxville website.
In a great "Christianity Today" article, Rethinking the $3,000 Missions Trip, Doug Banister points out that children in a lower-class Knoxville neighborhood with B averages scored in the 30th percentile on standardized tests, but those in more affluent neighborhoods with the same grades scored in the 90th percentile. Maybe they have it good compared to earthquake victims in Haiti, but where would our money be better invested?
At the University of Tennessee, we are frequently presented with service opportunities. It's in our blood, after all, as Volunteers. But if we're not helping those who are an arm's length away from us, how will we ever build a network of social justice?
Perhaps it would also be worthwhile not to boast about our service, not to crave others' affirmation of our selflessness. When we volunteer for those who need help, instead of updating our Facebook status, we should invite others along.
I think that if we Christians hope to live like Christ, we might want to turn to chapter 8 of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus heals a leper and then commands the man that he not brag about Jesus' service to him.
Maybe if Christians tried to follow that example, we could do a lot more good here, at home, where it matters most.
Wade Scofield is a senior in Latin and religious studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.