From poverty tourism to pilgrimage

‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.’ ~ Mother Theresa

The Reverend Naomi Cooke, Chaplain at Bishop Druitt College, in Coffs Harbour, NSW, presents an overview of the very successful Transforming Service Conference held in Brisbane in April. Naomi has been in ministry in Anglican and Uniting Church schools in Queensland and New South Wales since 2002. This article first appeared in the July Edition of ASA News.

In April, educators from Australia and New Zealand gathered in Brisbane for the inaugural Transforming Service conference on service learning. It became apparent that the vision and need for the conference arose from both a sense of celebrating and sharing all that is being done in our schools, while articulating the challenges and pitfalls of service learning. Sponsored by the Australian Catholic University (ACU), the conference displayed ecumenism at its best as educators across denominational traditions shared ideas and experiences.

Human Dignity

As is best to do when beginning to contemplate an idea, we began with the philosophy behind the call for us to enable students in our schools to serve others. And so, some of the greatest thinkers in Christianity in Australia shared their thoughts around this subject. With Br Damien Price we explored what it means to meditate upon the human dignity of those whom we meet. Br Damien is the Coordinator of Developing Nations and Cross-cultural Engagement, Oceania Province, Christian Brothers. He challenged us to create opportunities for encountering the other. Jesus in the Scriptures went so often to the broken and entered into their brokenness, was deeply present, valuing the dignity of those whom he encountered, and people went away liberated. So we too are encouraged to imitate Christ in our service learning experiences in schools – spending time in the messiness of the human condition, being a companion to others as we acknowledge our own human complexity.

Poverty Tourism

A significant part of this conference was spent in naming the dark underside of service learning. There were many descriptions of it. It can be Poverty Tourism: “When we stare, when we parachute in, when we come with our gifts to their need, our answers to their unasked questions, our saving of their situations, our opinion of their sacred story” (Br Damien Price). This kind of experience can do significant psychological damage to those we are purporting to help. Sarah Bachelard articulated another side to the complexity: the “debilitating impact on students of being regularly exhorted to ‘make a difference’ and take responsibility for the world’s transformation, and the way this can issue in both anxiety and subtle arrogance.”.

Seedlings of Hope

Keynote speaker Sr Len Montiel came to us from Cambodia, and spoke out of her deep theological knowledge alongside her practical experience as director of “Seedlings of Hope’, an HIV/AIDS program. Her words were challenging as she is on the recipient end of much of the poverty tourism that has sprung from Australians desiring to visit and help the poor in Cambodia. Her emphasis and challenge was to realise the lens through which we view these experiences. Instead of seeing the poor and destitute, we should be seeing the resilient, creative, masters of living and learning who have been able to make something from nothing. Instead of taking our students to overseas experiences in the role of helpers and fixers, we should be acknowledging that we are actually coming as learners. We and our students, are the subject and object of our learning, not the people ‘out there’. We bring our own baggage that hinders our learning and impacts those we visit. She encouraged us to flip the perspective – go overseas to learn rather than to give, to come as learners from those we visit. Students overseas will be willing to be the teacher about their own expertise in culture, sport, food, domestic activities.


Being Pilgrims

Jude Butcher, Director of Institute for Advancing Community Engagement and Professor of Community Engagement at Australian Catholic University, encouraged us to take on the role of pilgrim in our service activities rather than tourist. When we enter into community engagement as pilgrim, we bring awareness and wonder, while acknowledging that we may not quite know the path ahead. Pilgrims become familiar with the generosity of strangers, and as in the Emmaus story from Scripture, they even encounter Jesus in the stranger. This attitudinal change, moving away from the idea of being providers of service, is imperative for true pilgrimage in service. Community engagement is about journeying together with others. Once again, we were reminded that genuine engagement involves a reciprocity, where we are transformed even as we seek to transform the world around us.

Spirit of Mutuality

Listening to Sarah Bachelard was like sitting at the feet of a spiritual director. She has been described as one of the great new voices in theological ethics by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Her gentle sharing of her own life journey of experiences with service activities was illuminating: “Implicitly, I realise now, I was trying to justify my existence by fixing the world – ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’… I had to make a difference, and the more spectacular the better.” As educators, we so often fall into the trap of presenting our service learning activities with this pressure, resulting in disenchanted graduates who never quite felt success in this arena. Instead of seeing themselves as part of the whole, part of the wide family of humanity, our programs can emphasise their privilege and fall into the danger of encouraging an implicit arrogance. Instead she encouraged us to embrace a spirit of mutuality and to face the discomfort of our own powerlessness. First, she suggested, we must learn to be with things as they are. She encouraged us to build in our students a sense of communion, belonging and humility: that they are accepted and loved and ok.

Contemplative practices such as meditation and mindfulness cultivate our capacity to let things and people be, and to be with unknowing and vulnerability. And from this steady base, we can then start to search how we can offer activities simply for love of the world. She brought to us the teaching of American theologian, Frederick Buechner: true vocation is ‘the place where your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep need’. We were encouraged to teach students that their own skills, interests and lives can be offered for love of the world and don’t have to be an overt service project.


Rules for Service

The Reverend Richard Browning will be familiar to many as one of the most influential Chaplains in Australian Anglican schools through his deep thinking and powerful teaching. From his role as Senior Chaplain and Director of Community at Radford College, Canberra, Richard is often invited to speak at conferences as he brings his great depth of theological contemplation to the practical role of pastoring a school community. Citing a definition of poverty as the lack of power to change one’s own situation, Richard shared his basic rules for service in a school community: firstly, build healthy relationships, which are about body heart, mind, soul, and include relationships with one’s self, others, life and God: secondly, Give power; and thirdly, never do for another what they can do for themselves. While acknowledging the integrity behind a student’s statement, “I just want to make a difference,” Richard gave us the tools to analyse the pitfalls that arise from our own good desires when not grounded with deep reflection and long term relationships.

Orange Sky Laundry

Many of us had heard about Orange Sky Laundry, a series of mobile laundromats servicing the needs of the homeless across Australia, for which the founders, Lucas Patchett and Nick Marchesi, have been awarded Young Australians of the Year. What many of us didn’t know is that these young men built years of experience in working with the homeless through their school service learning programs. Although young, they had spent years immersed in the experience of serving others, which gave them space to dream and eventually create an initiative that honours the innate dignity of those who are homeless. Their initiative is not only practical, its philosophy is grounded in valuing the human dignity of every individual. We were honoured in the conference when these two young men spoke to us at our conference dinner, and in particular paid tribute to the educators who had contributed to their own journeys.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Woven throughout the conference was the importance of engaging with our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities. The presence on a forum of significant elders and community workers gave us the chance to explore possibilities of our schools’ relationships with their local nation. We were reminded of the words of activist Lilla Watson – “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Community Partners

Now of course, as always when educators get together, there were plenty of practicalities that were exchanged. Much of this was connected to the importance of developing deep, meaningful relationships with community partners, to invite them into the school context so that they can know the parameters of timetables, bells, risk assessments and logistics that we work with as educators. Community partners are invited to quite honestly assess what they want to achieve from the partnership, and how these wants might intersect with the school’s. The importance of pre-briefing and de-briefing students in their service learning encounters was emphasised. Looking towards future service learning professional development, there was an awareness of including non-Christian religious schools in our dialogue.


It is always exciting to gather for professional development with the best thinkers around. Being immersed with deep thinking for a few days has led to much renewal around service learning vision and practice in my community at Bishop Druitt College in Coffs Harbour. The ripples from this conference will be far reaching, and I look forward to the ongoing learning and conversations that Transforming Service has begun.


Editorial Team Written by:

One Comment

  1. Ryan Holt
    October 16, 2016

    As someone who was not able to go to the conference thank you Naomi for your thoughtful summary.

    I particular like “Community engagement is about journeying together with others. Once again, we were reminded that genuine engagement involves a reciprocity, where we are transformed even as we seek to transform the world around us”.

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