Why I think Slum Survivor is a good thing
“How bloody patronising” exclaimed my housemate as soon as I began explaining why I needed to locate cardboard boxes in earnest. Last weekend was Slum Survivor here in York, and whilst I wasn’t taking part in slum life, I enjoyed watching the project flow as I stopped off each time I passed St Mikes on my bike.
Whilst I do understand why some people will have major issues with Slum Survivor, I really want to stand up for it as a way of giving young people a short glimpse of what life is like in a slum, under the conditions experience by a full 1/6th of the world’s population.
For starters, Slum Survivor doesn’t set out to say “how can we experience life in a slum”, no one ever could without having a life in a slum. What it does set out to do is give people, with just a weekend and no flights to Africa/Asia/Latin America, a brief glimpse of what life is like for people living in Slums.
To my mind, it beats sending people on flights to tourist around projects for a few weeks in a summer vacation; as much as I also think that’s useful and its great that a few young people do it every year, we need that experience to be more widespread and less carbon intensive, and besides, most visit-a-slum projects don’t actually involve staying in a slum after dark, for various logistical and safety reasons.
I would hope that Slum Survivor, even if not in a big way, has convinced some of the adults who took part to include service to the poor in their careers and future lives. I’m pretty sure somewhere a student doctor will have been convinced to focus on practicing in deprived areas or overseas. You see, the experience is necessary. The facts are really just statistics, and we will never connect with people through them.
Every so often, I find myself having to stop and imagine life in a slum, or a sweatshop, to get a grip on reality, and how privileged I am. For those less conversant in the facts, Slum Survivor is a real way to deal with the emotional aspects of an issue, and I think it definitely is having an effect, particularly in lower-middle-class church environments.
The problem, of course, is getting the really well-to-do kids to do Slum Survivor. You know, the ones who don’t even go camping, and who only ever experience muck when dealing with their horse. In a sense, that’s the one big failing of Slum Survivor. But deal with the middle class affluent young person we must, for they make up a huge proportion of both society and more specifically the church.
But if the church in Britain has a problem, its Affluenza, its the middle class having-enough-to-not-bother-caring disease, the independence, disconnection and isolation that having enough adds up to. We live far too comfortably; after all, if we are to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, it would be nice to not have to disturb ourselves too often, wouldn’t it?
Obviously, I wouldn’t wish real slum life on anyone. But to simply say “oh well, its not quite the real experience” is to miss the point: we need a way of engaging emotionally with that reality, even if we can’t do it directly. Besides, perhaps people could bare in mind that the church which started Slum Survivor received a letter last year from a prominent church leader demanding to know why they were allowing themselves to be distracted by social action when they should have been evangelising. We can’t just assume everyone starts with a pre-existing understanding of the imperative for action.
The bible says a lot about Love: that the amongst the fruits of the spirit Love is greatest, and that Jesus disciples will be known by the fact they have love for one another, and that even “if I had faith that moved mountains… I would be nothing unless I loved others” (1 Cor 13, 2). We may need to change a system, but we need first to love and seek to begin understanding its victims if those changes are to be meaningful.
(And thanks to Jonny Spoor for help finding the 1 Corinthians reference!)