Laowai Quake Relief Part V: Emergency Evangelism

What follows is the fifth part of a series of posts we’re running by fellow Laowai – Turner Sparks. Turner and his friend Jake decided just sitting around Suzhou and watching quake relief efforts on TV was not good enough, and so hopped into Turner’s car and pointed it towards Chengdu. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV


Our friend Shannon arrived by plane from Suzhou Wednesday night after hearing about the work we were doing and deciding that his experience as an EMT would be of use. As I mentioned earlier, the Red Cross was chalk full of volunteers so the three of us decided to head over to Heart to Heart International. Heart to Heart is an NGO that has been doing a lot of work with the relief efforts and the only non-Chinese organization allowed access to the disaster area.

After working with a large, cumbersome organization like the Red Cross we were excited to get involved with what we thought would be a smaller, more organized and efficient group like Heart to Heart. However, upon arriving we realized that what we had envisioned as a slick multinational NGO headquarters was more of a converted classroom in an English training center. This seemed curious as we had heard that Heart to Heart had been working in Chengdu for 10 years, but we decided not to pass judgment and simply get to work.

Shannon told them about his EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) qualifications and they immediately put him in a group that would be going to the mountains for rescue missions the next day (Friday). Jake and I told them about our EBL (Experienced Box Lifter) qualifications and they pointed us towards the warehouse and told us to start lifting.

As the afternoon wore on, individually all three of us began meeting other volunteers and interestingly enough all of the conversations seemed to go the same.

Me: “So, where are you from originally?”
Dude: “I’m from Texas/Arkansas/Alabama”.
Me: “Oh, so why are you living here?”
Dude: “Oh I live in Kunming”.
Me: “Ok, well what do you do there?”
Dude: “Yeah its south of here…(changing the subject)…what do you do?”
Me: “Oh I work in the ice cream industry…haha…yeah I’m serious.”
Dude: “We’ll thanks for coming here. You are a blessing.”

…Rinse and Repeat…

Laowai ReliefDespite the unwillingness to answer our questions we came to find out more and more. Nobody seemed to have a discernible job outside of volunteering. People were of varying ages between 20-55 and nobody had EVER had a job, and as such had no idea how to run an organization like a disaster relief NGO. Many people were from out of town but nobody stayed in hotels as they either stayed “with the group” or “at a member of the group’s house”. Everyone was either from China or the southern part of the United States. There was a grandma and grandpa from Texas who appeared out of nowhere every lunch and dinner time to serve up an amazing feast. Grandpa used to be a pastor in Texas.

By Thursday evening we had pretty much figured out that they were an underground Christian organization. Jake was a little sketched out by this, but Shannon and I had both grown up in Church-going families (Shannon Catholic and myself Methodist) and we decided that they seemed to be doing good work so as long as they didn’t harm anyone we didn’t really care.

As Thursday wore on Jake and I showed our mettle in the warehouse and were rewarded the jobs of assistant TO the warehouse manager and assistant TO the assistant TO the warehouse manager, respectively. What did that mean?

“We need you guys here at 7:30 am tomorrow morning to divide all the supplies that will be going into the vans, and then load them into each vehicle accordingly.”

“Ok, no problem,” Jake and I said, happy that we got a steady job.

We spent late Thursday night discussing the predicament of working for an evangelical group and reviewed their website again to see if we had missed something on the first read through.

From the NGO’s site: Heart to Heart International is a leading global humanitarian organization that works to improve health and to respond to the needs of disaster victims worldwide. We specialize in delivering essential medicines and supplies, as well as providing the necessary training to increase the level of medical care in underserved regions of the world. It’s a challenging task, but it is made easier through our network of partners and passionate volunteers — both of which fuel our ability to respond to human needs on a global basis and keep us on the cutting edge of humanitarian work around the world.

We didn’t…


Friday morning Jake and I arrived at 7:30 am.

“Ok, there will be eleven cars going up to the mountains today,” explained our manager. “Here is a list of what everyone gets.”

It read… “Four hygiene packs, two large bags of bread, a bunch of more stuff, and two tarps”.

As we were sitting on a stack of roughly 75 tarps, it seemed odd that only twenty-two would be going to the affected areas. Jake and I wondered about the decision making process here, but it was our first full day and we weren’t really in a position to question.

Jake and I started dividing everything up and by 8:30 am we had eleven groups of divided supplies ready to load into eleven cars.

The first car was a silver SUV with mud stains on the side and a group of four ready to hit the mountains. We loaded the car up and off they went. We were fired up.

Laowai ReliefThe second car came about fifteen minutes later, and knowing the urgency in the mountains we were a little annoyed at the lack of efficiency. The car was an old beat up mianbao che that didn’t look like it could make it through Chengdu, much less through the mountains. When people started piling out of it in order to load supplies our eyes widened.

A Chinese church group of seven or eight people wearing matching bright green shirts were all attempting to fit into this car built for five. The car was built for five if supplies were not meant to be put inside.

The group reminded me of my high school youth group. Everyone was young, roughly half girls and half guys. People were laughing, chasing each other around the parking lot and play fighting. This was not the rescue/relief team we had envisioned. These people did not have rescue training and were not equipped to deal with their task. Jake and I were about to explode, but we chose to keep our cool and try to solve the problem.

“We need to fit all of these supplies into your van, so at least half of you can’t go today,” said Jake.

After talking for a few minutes the group came to a decision and sent a member to come speak to us.

“All of us would like to go to the mountains today, so we will put all of our supplies in that car and all the people in this car,” they said as they pointed to a car the size of a mini cooper, which was also set to take five people.

Laowai Relief“Well, that doesn’t really change your problem,” I explained, realizing that their solution meant one car would take little to no supplies just to accommodate people who were of no use in a rescue effort. “You should be taking more supplies in both cars and less people in both cars.”

“We will take what we can fit, but we are bringing all of our people.”

Jake and I immediately reported this to our manager, who told us it wasn’t her decision and she told us to talk with someone else. We followed it up by asking another two people and finally got the answer to “let them be”.

This event repeated itself at least one more time, and by 10:30 am we found ourselves dumbstruck as we sat on a pile of over 50 tarps in a parking lot in Chengdu. We had just helped close to 100 untrained people with no relief skills push their way into a disaster zone that didn’t need more onlookers.

It became apparent to Jake and I that Heart to Heart were more concerned with getting people to the mountains than getting supplies to the affected areas. Not long after the earthquake they had received an all access pass from the Chinese government to go anywhere in the disaster areas under the guise of an experienced relief team, and they were intending to use it to flood the recently stricken areas with evangelists.

My purpose with this post is not to tell people to stop donating to Heart to Heart International, but simply to let people know what they are really donating to when they give to this group.