Cover image courtesy of Young Life Africa
–by Patrice Houston–
In this article, I will look at Young Life’s involvement in Africa, and I’ll investigate the consequences and motivations behind that involvement. Young Life was founded in Dallas, Texas in 1941 by Jim Rayburn and has since expanded their mission to almost all seven continents. Young Life has several established departments in Oklahoma (where I have been involved), and they do missionary work in Oklahoma and around the United States. None of these local departments seem to promote work done out of the country and/or the continent of Africa. These local American departments don’t talk much about what kind of help goes to these countries and whether or not they are similar to what Young Life practices in the states. Young Life Africa’s mission statement says “Young Life Africa introduces teens in African countries to Jesus Christ and helps them grow in their faith” (Young Life Africa). Interested persons have the option to donate, to sponsor families, individuals and/or churches, and to go on “expeditions”–meaning mission trips. Firstly, I would like to find out how many of these interactions between Young Life staff, local or international, go about bringing the gospel to these teens and young adults; I would like to compare these interactions with those of other organizations that have been criticized. Secondly, I want to find out why these people feel so compelled to do mission work in certain countries over others.
For those of us in the Western world, it is not uncommon to hear peers talk about their mission trips abroad. They brag about how they built a house from the ground up, how they fixed an orphanage, or how they preached at a local church in a village they visited once. Most of these trips are connected to a church or some sort of Christian organization that wants to do what the Lord told them to do which is to “To spread the gospel throughout all nations” and provide for the poor. It seems that most mission trip volunteers have little to no cultural or historical understanding of the country they are volunteering in–nor do they speak the language of said country. What exactly led them into wanting to serve the Lord in countries outside of their own? From personal experience, it’s one of two things: they feel guilty, and think it’s the best way to help the less fortunate; or they jump at the opportunity for a trip to a new country (they had no other plans–why not?) and as a bonus, the pictures of them at orphanages will definitely get the most likes on their instagram. So we have this underlying theme of being compelled to help and specifically to “help Africa”. There are hundreds of organizations that donate and take mission trips with young, usually Christian volunteers, who take photos of the “sad African” or the infamous African carrying a jug of water on their heads. These sad, guilt-inducing images are used to invoke pathos and reel in more volunteers. Unlike these other organizations, Young Life Africa shares more upbeat pictures: prayer circles, teens dancing and laughing, and staff/leaders hugging on teens with a mission caption on each picture. These images may seem less duplicitous than those that “trick” people into volunteering merely out of guilt. But has Young Life Africa successfully avoided portraying Africans as being only in need of Western help? And what “help” does Young Life Africa provide for the communities pictured on their site?
When did it all get started?
As stated before, Young Life was established in 1941, but Young Life Africa wasn’t created until 2001 in Arusha Tanzania. According to “Our Story” on their website:
“Late in the 1990s, Deo Kyara, along with a group of prayer leaders from across Africa, began to imagine a gathering of people from all over the continent coming together to pray for Africa. This is the Dark Continent: slavery, wars, genocide, corrupt leaders, human trafficking, disease, broken families, poverty, HIV/AIDs. These leaders knew their continent needed a holy intervention (Our Story).”
Almost every one of the things that happened on this “Dark Continent” has not happened only in Africa. In fact, Atlanta Georgia has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the United States according to the AIDSuv. How important was it to highlight these issues to get their point across? By overly emphasizing these issues alone, Young Life Africa pushes the same, tired narrative that Western media has fed us for decades about African countries. By using emotionally charged words, Western media has created an image that may be effective if you are only trying to get support from poorly educated outsiders–people who believe that those things are still true to this day. Portraying Africa in this way can attract the wrong people. The people who end up coming in to “help” want to change the area into what they believe is the “standard” way of life, and they intend to teach the gospel in the “correct” way. It’s important to know how this rhetoric affects the children in this countries. “Diseased” teenagers have the same right as a “healthy” kid to be treated with respect and to not be dehumanized from something out of their control. It seems as though these leaders and volunteers mean well, but good intentions alone are not enough. In Ivan Illich’s “To Hell With Your Good Intentions” he speaks about how it’s genuinely impossible for foreigners to understand and actually help people from different countries–especially when these volunteers do not speak the local language and come from a different social status and ethnic group. Although we’d all love if we could step in and solve poverty, disease and danger… the actions of unqualified, uneducated outsiders cause more harm than good.
Money, Donated or Earned
Like most organizations, Young Life Africa needs funds for their activities: having a club, sending kids to camp, helping out churches, etc. They have a few donation options, including donating monthly, donating to a camp and/or sponsoring a student. It’s important to note that other missions such as World Vision have sponsorship programs that don’t end up being what the kids expected it be. According to the New York Times there was an incident where a man had been sending donations to a child he’d sponsored in Palestine for 13 years, but he eventually found out that none of the money was sent to any child at all–instead it was spent on community projects. “He thought his monthly sum was going to the boy in the cardigan. A letter he received from World Vision when it raised the sponsorship rate in 2004 said he was ‘helping to provide Othman Naser H with essentials like enough food to eat.‘”(Hadid). It’s shocking to find out how easily a well-known organization can knowingly mislead people who trusted them, all in the name of philanthropy. Although Young Life Africa may not deliberately lie in order to more effectively tear at Western donor’s heartstrings, Young Life’s marketing emphasis can come across as somewhat disrespectful. In a video on their Facebook, a representative says “…It cost $50 dollars to send a kid to [Young Life] camp. $50 to give an African kid the best three days of their life! $50 dollars to beginning the journey of a lifetime.” It’s somewhat redundant to emphasize to a donor on Young Life Africa’s page that the child being sent to camp is one from Africa; the representative seems to imply that Africa is an exotic new thing, and the least you can do is donate and send them to camp because these kids do not know any better. Having been involved in Young Life in Oklahoma for over four years, I know that Young Life also fundraises and asks for donations to send kids to camp in America. Unlike with their Young Life Africa branch, there has never been a focus on anything other than them going to camp. They make no mention of their race, class or location. I have not seen a video that has said “Send a kid to camp. A Baltimore kid to the best week of their lives!” Would that not be uncomfortable to watch?
Converting or guiding
It’s important to not forget how Christianity got to the continent of Africa. Missionaries came in to try and “save the heathens” from hell. In the documentary “AFRICA,” the episode named “The Bible and the Gun” we see clips of White Europeans burning traditional masks that are used for tribal and religious reasons. For Africans in America, this was nothing new; mutilation, torture, separation from family members and even death were the fate of those who refused to forget their African identities. This may seem long ago, but a version of the practice lives on today. Though Young Life Africa does not do this, other Christian organizations go to poverty-stricken places and offer up resources such as food, clothes and clean water–but only to those who convert to Christianity. In European countries, Muslims are converted to Christianity in hopes of trying to have a better life. In a book by Kendra Mutongi, we discover that the Quakers, a famous group of missionaries, came to Kenya and sought out widows and fatherless children; the Quakers offered resources only to those who came to their church. Young Life Africa intends to “invite kids” into the gospel by taking them to camp, joining the kids in their day-to-day life and encouraging them to spend time with the Lord during designated time at the end of camp. None of these kids are forced to convert before they can access resources, but I have yet to see Young Life Africa do anything for the communities around the cities they’re established in. Giving support with nothing in return is the best way to earn respect from locals.
From the information given, Young Life Africa uses an “open arms” technique to reel in students and teens to participate in camps and hear the Christian gospel. Young Life Africa has a lot improve when it comes to ensuring that their volunteers, staff and donations are monitored and put to the best use possible. Although is seems as though it was a local Tanzanian who established Young Life Africa, it’s important that they too want to better their communities and “help Africans.” These leaders a compelled to help because they want to make a change in their communities and countries and even though they do not offer visits to an orphanage or build chicken coops, they still want outsiders. International or not, Young Life Africa wants you to be a humanitarian and help these young “Africans!” lives.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
Agape Scholars International, “Young Life Camp Africa: The Continent of Young People” Agape Scholars International, 12 Aug. 2016 https://agapescholars.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/young-life-camp-africa-the-continent-of-Mutungi, Kenrda.
Davidson, Basil “The Bible and The Gun” AFRICA ep.5 6 Jun. 2007 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNWA2cOS7sg Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
Hadid, Diaa. “A World Vision Donor Sponsored a Boy. The Outcome Was a Mystery to Both.” The New York Times. 2 Aug. 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/03/world/middleeast/worldvision-palestinians-sponsor-a-child.html Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
Illicitly, Ivan. “To Hell with Your Good Intentions”. 20 Apr. 1968 http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
“Our Story”, Young Life Africa. https://africa.younglife.org/about/our-story/ 2018, Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
“Tanzania”, Young Life Africa. https://africa.younglife.org/country/tanzania/, 2018, Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
“Worries of the Heart, Widows, Family and Community in Kenya University of Chicago Press 1 Sept. 2007. Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
“Young Life Camp Africa!” Young Life Africa Facebook https://www.facebook.com/YLAfrica/videos/1636076423314906/ , 2015 Accessed 27 Jul. 2018
https://agapescholars.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/young-life-camp-africa-the-continent-of-young-people/ Accessed 27 Jul. 2018