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Volunteer Service Abroad

Investing Yourself As a Volunteer

By Reverend Dr. Henry Bucher, Jr.

As a college chaplain and professor in the U.S., I encourage students to volunteer for local excursions to assist refugees in our area (Sherman, TX), usually working through non-government organizations: translating, filling out legal forms and counseling. Returning to campus after their first service the usual comment is: “I feel so good after doing this. When can we go again?”

After the second trip, however, good feelings turn into more probing questions: “Why is Juan a refugee? Who killed his family and why?” Students who have gone this second kilometer and continue to serve, ask, listen, and learn hardly notice how quickly their world view is being reshaped. The world has not only become more complex, but they also see the role of North America through a new pair of glasses.

When I was in college my volunteer service projects focused on reconstruction after World War II: building a church in Finland or homes in Israel for Jews whom had left Iraq after 1948—always with volunteers from around the world.

Later, some of my projects in Senegal and Gabon related to nation-building after independence from European colonization. Each experience was part of a process that nudged my motives from doing something good for the less fortunate to asking why more and more people in the world, including the wealthy countries, were getting poorer while a few were getting much richer. How can the power of the poor be manifested in their communities, and how do the rich understand their role in possible change?

In the long process of being a volunteer and leading other volunteers, many ideas developed as I tried to determine what a good volunteer is and what pitfalls should be avoided. Completing a building project in a “developing” nation may send tingles of satisfaction down our spines, but did we have the time to learn from and talk to people who are leaders in grass-roots projects involving development, people in sweat shops, leaders in sustainable development, or students and professors? Did we listen to leaders of women’s co-ops who are doing wonders in micro-loans or community health projects? Did our building project take all our time and energy, and perhaps even take jobs away from local workers?

In between my early volunteer experiences in other countries and my work with college students, I was a volunteer with civil rights projects in the South and later in Chicago with the “End the Slums Movement.” A factor that soon became clear was that I and other “outside agitators” could be even more effective by organizing “up North” to change laws and attitudes in Washington that would help create systemic change.

During the global “Cold War” with “low-density conflicts” for the industrialized world, but a high intensity of deaths in the less powerful nations, some of the same messages came through: “When you return home, work to change the power structures that disempower us!”

Some volunteer projects can be downright dangerous. Being on a peacemaking team in the West Bank today is probably more dangerous than assisting runaway slaves in the early 1800s. In Central or Latin America, accompanying to a court case a witness whose life has been threatened can be more dangerous than it was working for a voter registration project in the South in the U.S. just forty years ago.

But the real “danger” is that volunteer service challenges socially determined ideas when an involvement elsewhere frees people from the prison of our cultural cocoon. During the 1950s I wondered what the young German volunteers were thinking as they built homes in Israel. Would I have similar thoughts were I to go help rebuild Iraq after Gulf War II?

Volunteer service changes the volunteer while it is helping others, and thus can be a catalyst for social change. I am very uneasy about volunteers through NGOs getting government and corporations “off the hook” for nationally needed social services, especially when the money saved may be used to strengthen the military-industrial complex. Yet what could have more potential for changing our country than thousands of young volunteers actually experiencing the lives of our poor, listening to them, and then acting on what they learned?

Investing yourself, immersing in other cultures, listening and bringing hope, and then acting on what you know is right, will change you; and your impact on society could be more than you can now imagine.

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