What happens when you sponsor a child overseas? 

McGill Anthropology and Religion professor wins prestigious literary prize for her book Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States 

Just about everyone has seen those television ads at one time or another urging people to “sponsor a child” overseas. The ads often tell the story of a young child in Africa or Central America growing up with some degree of privation, with the audience 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 her most recent book Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United StatesHillary Kaell, a McGill professor of Anthropology and Religion, uses the phenomenon of child sponsorship as a case study to better understand how viewers come to think of themselves as global actors, and then begin investing in global projects. Recently, Kaell’s book was awarded the 2021 Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society of Church History – a prize awarded each year to the best book on the history of Christianity by a North American scholar. 

Trying to make global connections 

Hillary Kaell is winner of the 2021 Philip Schaff Prize

Kaell, an anthropologist and historian of North American Christianity, says the idea for the book came out of her longstanding interest in how people imagine places and people they may never actually encounter – particularly when it comes to Christians in North America. 

“From my perspective, Christians, like many religious people, offer a fascinating example because they often try to connect to something that’s beyond their everyday experience,” Kaell says. “You see this phenomenon regarding 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 a step further and asks, how do people at home come to feel that global connections are real and compelling? What impact does that have on their commitments and on how money and resources move in the world?” 

Kaell notes Christians often phrase those connections as “the global church” or “the world” under one Creator. But the question is broadly relevant, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to make disembodied connections feel real over Zoom, picture a “global pandemic,” or navigate interruptions in global product supply chains. 

Child sponsorship plans 

Christian Globalism at Home explores this larger question through a specific case study: child sponsorship plans. The ads have been running on American and Canadian television for decades, all with the same basic premise – the cameras take you to some far-off land where children are often raised in poverty, or have been through traumatic experiences – famine, natural disasters, civil wars. A narrator then zeroes in on the story of one particular child. Then the narrator asks the viewer if they’ll help a child like the one who’s story they just heard, for a small fee per month. 

Kaell says this method of fundraising has been enormously successful in recent decades – though the concept isn’t entirely a new one. 

“Christian Globalism at Home is the first study to trace its roots back two centuries to Protestant missions,” Kaell says. “Today, many NGOs that use sponsorship are still Christian, such as World Vision. The book’s central aim is to demonstrate how these programs have encouraged a wide variety of performative, aesthetic, and discursive techniques for Christians at home to connect to the imagined global ‘elsewhere’ they are asked to support.” 

In short, Kaell makes the case that sponsors produce and reproduce connection through an array of practices, including relatively unstudied embodied ones, such as playacting, hymn singing, eating, and fasting. Kaell also looks at issues related to morality and economics, such as how sponsors think about God and economic justice, or how they come to trust global charitable organizations.  

“Better understanding this process is essential if we want to know why people invest in certain kinds of projects,” Kaell says. 

‘Blown away’ 

Kaell says she’s honoured to receive the Philip Schaff prize, named after the Swiss-born, German-educated theologian and teacher who wrote extensively about the history of Christianity during the 19th century. 

“I am blown away to receive the major annual prize from the American Society of Church History. 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 some semi-fictional writing. It’s wonderful that the Society is rewarding that kind of approach, and I’m excited to see all the innovative ways that other historians in my field are starting to tackle their subject matter.”