Just about everyone has seen these TV commercials at one point or another urging people to “sponsor a child” overseas. Advertisements often tell the story of a young child in Africa or Central America growing up in some degree of deprivation, the public being told that for a certain amount of money per month they can “sponsor” a child with a similar story and help make a positive difference in that child’s life.
In his latest book Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States, Hillary Kaell, professor of anthropology and religion at McGill, uses the phenomenon of child sponsorship as a case study to better understand how viewers come to see themselves as global players and then begin to invest in global projects. Recently, Kaell’s book received the prize Philip Schaff Award 2021 of the American Society of Church History – an award given annually to the best book on the history of Christianity by a North American scholar.
Trying to make global connections
Kaell, an anthropologist and historian of North American Christianity, says the idea for the book grew out of her lifelong interest in how people imagine places and people they may never meet – especially with regard to Christians in North America.
“From my perspective, Christians, like many religious people, provide a fascinating example because they often try to connect with something beyond their everyday experience,” Kaell says. “You see this phenomenon concerning the biblical ‘Holy Land’, for example. [This was the subject of Kaell’s first book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage.] Christian Globalism at Home takes the question one step further and asks, how do people at home come to feel that global connections are real and compelling? What impact does this have on their commitments and how money and resources flow around the world? »
Kaell notes that Christians often express these connections as “the global church” or “the world” under one Creator. But the question is broadly relevant, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to make disembodied connections feel real on Zoom, imagine a “global pandemic,” or navigate interruptions in global product supply chains.
Child sponsorship plans
Christian Globalism at Home explores this broader question through a specific case study: child sponsorship schemes. Commercials have been shown on American and Canadian television for decades, all with the same basic principle: the cameras take you to a distant land where children are often raised in poverty or have lived through traumatic experiences: famine, natural disasters , civil war. A narrator then focuses on the story of a particular child. Next, the narrator asks the viewer if they can help a child like the one whose story has just been heard, for a small fee per month.
Kaell says this method of fundraising has been hugely successful over the past few decades – although the concept isn’t entirely new.
“Christian Globalism at Home is the first study whose roots go back two centuries to Protestant missions,” says Kaell. “Today, many NGOs that use sponsorship are still Christian, like World Vision. The central aim of the book is to demonstrate how these programs have encouraged a wide variety of performative, aesthetic and discursive techniques for Christians at home to connect with the imagined global “elsewhere” they are called upon to support.
In short, Kaell argues that sponsors produce and reproduce connection through a range of practices, including relatively understudied embodied practices, such as acting, hymn-singing, eating, and fasting. Kaell also examines issues related to morality and economics, such as how sponsors think about God and economic justice, or how they come to trust global charities.
“Better understanding this process is essential if we want to know why people invest in certain types of projects,” says Kaell.
Kaell says she is honored to receive the Philip Schaff Prize, named after the Swiss-born, German-trained theologian and teacher who wrote extensively on the history of Christianity in the 19e century.
“I am blown away to receive the American Society of Church History’s annual grand prize. It’s a venerable society – founded in 1888, in part by Philip Schaff himself – so it has a big impact on how North American scholars think about what “counts” as Church history.
“My book is interdisciplinary and I experiment with different modes of data collection and analysis, as well as semi-fictional writing. It’s wonderful that the Society rewards this kind of approach, and I’m delighted to see all the innovative ways that other historians in my field are beginning to approach their subject.
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