Book Review: Seeking the best way to help orphans in Africa

By Wes Magruder, Special Contributor…


A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa
John Donnelly
Beacon Press, 2012
Hardcover, 200 pages

 I saw it happen several times as a United Methodist missionary living in Cameroon, West Africa.

A church mission team from America would visit the mission and travel across the country for a week. One or two of the team members would become completely captivated by the living conditions, particularly of women and the young. They had a deeply profound spiritual experience. And they became convinced that they had to do something—something immediate, tangible, and visible—to “help African children.”

Many of them followed through, either by returning to Africa for a longer term of service, or by becoming regular contributors to a particular ministry.

This pattern has been repeated thousands of times over in the last couple of decades; this “torrent of American do-gooders,” as journalist and author John Donnelly refers to it, has flooded Africa to help children in record numbers, efforts which have largely gone undocumented by state or governmental authorities.

Have these efforts actually made a difference in the lives of children? And are these differences positive or negative? Mr. Donnelly attempts to answer these questions in his book, Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa.

Mr. Donnelly frames the debate with the story of one particular American Christian, a man named Paul Dixon from North Carolina who visited Malawi in 2002.

John Donnelly

While visiting the country, Mr. Dixon felt as if he heard God instruct him to give his life in service to African children. The story of Mr. Dixon’s adventures (and mis-adventures) in Malawi are interwoven with interviews with workers from non-governmental organizations, missionaries and State Department employees, as well as a closer look at some of the high-visibility efforts to assist children in need, including Oprah Winfrey’s academy in Swaziland and Madonna’s charity, Raising Malawi.

What Mr. Donnelly discovers is that good intentions often go awry, when Americans arrive on the continent and try to “fix” every problem they can find by throwing money at it. Most of the time, this approach leads to disappointment, shattered relations, and wasted money.

His research revealed, for example, that the cost of educating one child in Oprah’s school at the time of its opening was $263,158. During the same period, U.S. government officials considered a program which would place orphans with grandmothers, but were balking at the price—just $200 per year to support a child’s involvement in a local school, including meals and after-school care.

Mr. Donnelly is generally critical of orphanages established by well-meaning outsiders, and not just because they tend not to be cost-efficient. He finds evidence that cloistering orphans away from their communities can stunt child development. After interviewing some grown Ethiopian orphans, he concludes that their orphanage “failed to give them the tools they needed to live on their own and according to the customs of their country.”

But Mr. Donnelly is sympathetic to the fact that so many Americans are driven to mission service on behalf of the world’s poor by their strong Christian faith.

This is certainly true for Mr. Dixon, whose story is typical of Christian do-gooders. He arrives with grand plans to build an orphanage, but almost immediately has to temper those plans after meeting with local folks who convince him that an orphanage is not what they need. Instead, Mr. Dixon builds a school which, after a string of obstacles and hardships, becomes a moderate success. He faces a crushing blow when he is betrayed by those closest to him, and almost loses his school. He stays the course, but by the end of the book, Mr. Dixon is a changed man—wary and chastened, though stubbornly hopeful.

The problem is not so much that Mr. Dixon was unsuited for the task, but that he wasn’t responsive enough to the community into which he’d moved. He wore his naïveté on his chest like a badge of honor. This stubbornness was buttressed by a strong sense that he had been called by God to Africa.

Mr. Donnelly does a masterful job of slowly unraveling the troubled, complex, multilayered Mr. Dixon. In the end, it appears that much of what Paul Dixon had been doing “for” African orphans, was really all about Paul Dixon.

Mr. Dixon and Mr. Donnelly both arrive at a rather humbling conclusion: What African orphans need are not more orphanages, rock star donors, or bags of rice. Instead, African governments and U.S. faith-based groups ought to cooperate in promoting sustainable small-scale farming and better education for children.

It’s not a sexy answer, and it doesn’t necessarily make for great photo ops, bulletin board material, or the evening news.

But it might just be the best answer.

The Rev. Magruder is senior associate pastor at First Rowlett, United Methodist Church in Rowlett, Texas, and blogs at

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Thank you so much for this review Rev. Magruder. My quest for an answer to the question, "If we are so charitable, why are things getting worse?" led me to be profoundly interested in Robert Lupton's work. I heard him speak recently at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. His book, "Toxic Charity" reveals his theory that while we are super at emergency response – we are part of the problem when we remain in crisis mode, rather than a redevelopment strategy such as small-scale farming support. This is an area that needs to be seriously examined by our church… Read more »

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