Marshmallow Wars: Why Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Author’s Note: By now you have surely noticed that each writer at TTAF has his own style of writing, You have also most likely noticed that each writer has a “go to” topic for posts.  A “go to” topic is one that a writer addresses often.  My go to topic thus far has been my experiences living in Haiti, the topic of the post below.  Haiti is my go to topic mainly because the stories do not require any amount of writing talent; rather the post’s merit lies entirely with the story itself not in my ability to tell it.  Also, my experiences in Haiti have been the most life changing events for me to date, and so, as the other authors write about fatherhood among other topics, I write about what has meant the most to me in my own experiences.  All this it to essentially say that I apologize for writing another post about Haiti.

When I was eighteen I lived and worked in an orphanage in Haiti for a year.  A large part of what I did at the time was facilitating short-term missions groups from churches in the states.  I would help them to organize programs, learn the kids names, and maybe translate here and there when needed.  I, along with the leadership and other staff, were the go betweens for the Haitian and American cultures, trying to find a middle ground, aiding in interpreting various actions and experiences for both cultures.

I have long been quoted as saying that Americans lose all rationality as soon as they step off the plane in Port au Prince, and I could fill volumes with examples to back up this claim.  In the meantime allow me to leave you with one of my favorites.

When short-term missions teams came to Haiti they often brought with them the supplies and curriculum from whatever vacation bible school (VBS) lesson they taught their own children that very Summer.  If David and Goliath was the theme of the 17th Free Will Methodist of The Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church of God’s (17FWMOTHTPCOG for short) VBS in Indiana then it was also the theme of the vacation bible school when they took their annual short-term trip to Haiti.  A typical group would often travel around to a few towns and put on the VBS for the kids in the area.  One of these stops was always the orphanage in which I worked.

I forget the theme of the program in which the incident took place but it may have actually been David and Goliath (they were always David and Goliath).  After the lesson there was a craft and a snack, and after the snack there was a game, the typical docket for a middle American VBS.  This particular game was a sort of dodge ball, which makes me think that the topic was in fact David and Goliath and the attempt of tying in dodge ball was a tenuous connection to David slaying Goliath by hurling stones at him.

The kids were gathered in the yard and then it happened.  The Americans reached for their supplies and pulled out bags upon bags of marshmallows.  This game was to be dodge ball with marshmallows.  At this point I stood back and decided I would watch the events unfold.  To me it seemed obvious that a food fight (albeit marshmallows) in one of the most food insecure countries in the world was a bad idea, but the kids in Indiana had a blast when they did it so the kids in Haiti would most certainly do the same right?

Marshmallows were lined up in the middle of the field and the kids separated into two groups.  The whistle was blown and the kids all ran to the line of mallows in order to hurl them at their opponents.  And by that I mean kids rushed to the line and immediately began eating every marshmallow in sight.  Some were bowled over for another marshmallow; others ran across the line and took marshmallows from others.  It was a hilarious scene of kids being kids.  Even more so it was a scene of kids being kids in an environment where food is not thrown or used as a game, it is eaten.  The efforts were most certainly based on good intentions, and there was no real harm done inside the walls of the orphanage other than frustration on the part of the Americans that their game did not go well, but the lesson to be learned here is that

good intentions are not enough.

Again, nobody was really harmed or offended in the story above, but it is a great example of how even our best laid plans can often fall apart.  We all know the phrase it’s the thought that counts as we undoubtedly heard it as children when we received that pink bunny costume from our great aunt Mildred for Christmas.  Reality is, this statement is not always true.

I am reminded of the story of a group of churchgoers who bought presents for needy kids in the community for Christmas.  When it came time to give the presents to the kids the people went door to door delivering Christmas presents to the children right in front of family members and neighbors.  The gifts were most certainly enjoyed and appreciated and the giver’s intentions were most genuine but the action of providing for a family in front of the male leader, often viewed as the person in charge of providing, furthered the shame and distance of the male leaders in the houses.  The intentions were good, but there were some negative results.

Non-profits could tell story upon story of programs, donations and other actions that people have undertaken in the name of good intentions that fell apart, and even had a largely negative impact on those that were meant to be the beneficiaries.

Another truth is that we often do good deeds because they make us feel better or because we reap some type of reward because of it.  If these are our intentions, then they certainly are not good and we must reject any type of charity or humanitarian work in which our main goal is to help ourselves more so than the people around us.  We may decide to pack up all of our heavy winter coats and send them to Haiti because we want to feel like we helped someone, but the reality is we just sent a wool coat to a tropical island (trust me it happens).  We may have a huge food drive in which we empty our pantries of all the pumpkin pie filling and cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving, or decide to ship our excess corn to Africa when reality is we are using funds to ship useless food or flooding a rural farming town with free corn, destroying the corn market and endangering the livelihoods of farmers.  When given the option to send money so an organization can buy food and services for those in need or to go to an event in which we pack food for a country in need we will always pick the latter because it makes us feel better when in fact it would be more efficient and beneficial to local economies and people to buy food in the country in which we desire to help.  The list could go on, even our beloved Tom’s Shoes falls under some criticism on this level.

This is a big issue for me and I want to encourage everyone to take the time to read through the book When Helping Hurts for more information on the topic.  You can also check out the links below if you are interested (if you have further resources on the subject please share them).

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Other Worlds Are Possible

Aidwatch

Helping Without Hurting

Wanting to do good is an admirable thing.  But simply wanting is not enough; we have to think critically about what we are trying to do and what some unintentional results may be.  We are all called to help those around us and that we simply think we are helping does not mean that we actually are.

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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