Why I think Slum Survivor is a good thing

Wednesday, 13th May 2009 at 8:00 UTC 8 comments

“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!)


Entry filed under: Church, Development, Faith, Materialism.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lois  |  Wednesday, 13th May 2009 at 12:10 UTC

    I’m with you on that (slightly hypocritically, I have to admit, as I wasn’t involved). Interestingly the feedback we had in the evening service after it had ended was from someone was saying that the thing that had struck him most was the lack of security, of vulnerability out there, and how that had made him feel. That’s possibly an aspect one thinks about less than the obvious lack of food and shelter.

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 13th May 2009 at 19:25 UTC

    And indeed, it reflects in the whole “nicely safely padded life” of the average middle-class individual (including myself). Actually the interesting thing is that its this very lack of vulnerability which makes people with wealth less ready to step out in faith very often, and is perhaps what Jesus was getting at when he told the man to sell everything and follow him: we who live in luxury have most to loose if we up sticks and move with the spirit (ouch, camp Christian waffle alert!)

  • 3. brainduck  |  Thursday, 14th May 2009 at 23:29 UTC

    ‘a way of giving young people a short glimpse of what life is like in a slum’
    um – it doesn’t. Can I turn up with malaria, cholera, and kill any nearby under-5s, for added realism? How about giving one in three of them HIV, then add MDR-TB, parasites, illnesses you’ve never even heard of, high dependency ratio, no health and safety rules so lots of disability, lack of access to basic medications, illiteracy, lack of dental treatment, chronic malnutrition with all the developmental handicaps that brings, lack of legal status, gender-based violence, war and civil unrest, no welfare state, etc, etc, etc…
    A bunch of healthy and well-looked-after teenagers (and why’s it only teenagers?) sleeping outdoors with permission & back-up is not remotely giving them any idea of what living in a slum is like. It doesn’t even give much of an idea of what life’s like for homeless people *in York*, which could be fairly easily done by having the youth-group help with a few meals at Arclight or something.

  • 4. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 15th May 2009 at 0:20 UTC

    Whilst there’s no way to cover all the issues you list in a 48-hour project, the various challenges do cover some of those issues.

    The Saturday morning slum clearance challenge wasn’t quite as brutal as it should have been (most people managed to pick up the pieces and rebuild rather than start afresh) but some of these things have been taken into account.

    For starters, a lot of the studies cover the health situation, which is probably easier to appreciate in the middle of Slum Survivor than it is whilst at one’s desk reading media stories.

    Sure, having your mates hide you stuff is no match for gang violence, but the aggrevation of having what little you do have stolen regularly is made pretty clear.

    I might try and find a copy of the leaders manual. And no, it wasn’t all teenagers, but they were all younger than me with about one exception. Next year, hopefully they’ll open it up to a much wider audience, starting younger and ending much older.

  • 5. robertjessetelford  |  Friday, 15th May 2009 at 14:28 UTC

    I think Slum Survivor is OK as a way in to global justice issues but I don’t know why Soul Survivor and other Christian evangelical “big things” are not showing young people how important CAMPAIGNING is.

    Should we be elliciting sympathy or passion for change?

  • 6. John Cooper  |  Friday, 15th May 2009 at 16:06 UTC

    Rob, as ever you begin to hit the nail on the head. I haven’t ‘experienced’ Slum Survivor but do have a problem.

    Compassion without Action is, to be honest, a waste of time. You can do all the ‘awareness raising’ you like but until you ensure you provide inidivduals with the information to tackle the injustice you find – then you might as well go pee in the sea for all the good it will do.

    I also think that BrainDuck has a very good point – you cannot fully simulate the experience. I will never forget the short time I was some awful tourist and visited the slums of kenya. I’ll never forget it because if I do I’ll become complacant in allowing such horrors to continue.

    I suspect I may have more respect for it if, and maybe it was said in jest, one report didn’t start

    “It wasn ’t the easiest weekend for slumming it! During our slum survivor experience, the group battled against the elements, at times getting very cold and wet.”

    reading other reports makes it all sound like well intentioned camping.

    Now if it was for a week or so I might have had more sympathy.

    with regards


  • 7. Brain Duck  |  Saturday, 16th May 2009 at 2:47 UTC

    Graham: ‘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.’
    Its tagline is: ‘spend a few days the way a billion spend a lifetime…’, when rather obviously it isn’t doing anywhere near.
    See also: http://tinyurl.com/qf89d9

    I’ve had a proper look at the website now, and the more I look at it the worse it gets. The quality of their information is *shockingly* poor – when you have to tag the factual section of this year’s leader’s booklet with ‘This section adapted from Wikipedia’ you are in trouble, particularly given the ready availability of reliable open-access and/or Creative Commons sources of information.

    There’s no real attempt to engage with the causes of marginalisation, and it’s very apolitical with the emphasis divided between prayer and fund-raising and nothing on systems, structures, patterns and causes – no bigger picture.

    I appreciate that a detailed examination of the impact of international trade rules followed by a call to worldly revolution might be a bit much for most churches – though Christian Aid amongst others do produce accessible ‘Sunday school’ level material on the former which they could have chosen to link to but didn’t. The site doesn’t mention the MDGs, or debt, or WHO, or WTO, or access to medicines, or – well, much of anything really.

    There are good background resources produced by other groups for work with young people which they could have used, but I’ve not been able to find a ‘links’ section to other groups with similar aims. There’s nothing about how, once people’s ‘awareness’ has been ‘raised’, they might take further action, whether it’s writing to their MP or joining Christian Aid.

    Given the particular focus on this year’s site on street children, and statements like:
    ‘In Latin America, a common cause is abandonment by
    poor families unable to feed all their children. In Africa, an increasingly common cause is that children are being orphaned
    by AIDS.’
    I was particularly disappointed at seeing no discussion of reproductive rights and particularly condom use, and gender issues appear to be another area they just haven’t noticed despite a massive impact on health and education (not stumbled across on Wikipedia perhaps?). No discussion of why children are being orphaned by a preventable and treatable illness, or why life-prolonging treatment for HIV may not be accessible, or even on MTCT.

    The ‘educational’ material appears to have been written by someone with *no* background whatsoever in the area. It’s appallingly poor. Before reading the ‘slum survivor’ website I thought I was maybe being a bit unfair on what could be an interesting and worthwhile event, provided it acknowledged the purely symbolic nature of the ‘slums’. However the quality of materials provided are so poor as to render any event dependent on them almost meaningless. What upsets me most is the sheer waste of the enthusiasm, idealism and time so many well-meaning people will have poured into this with the best possible intentions. It wouldn’t even take that long to make it much better, I’m sure Soul Survivor could pull in a few volunteers with relevant background, co-operate with other organisations who have already written good relevant content and campaigns, and have meaningful activities with some depth to them in a week or two – *I’m* putting more depth into writing workshops for Antara in a week. Soul Survivor & Tearfund should be embarrassed to put their name to this year’s pack.

  • 8. tiggs  |  Monday, 18th May 2009 at 13:58 UTC

    *Quietly mourns the death of the charity sponsored swim to keep the youth group out of trouble*



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