The Hard Question of Missions

Photo: Gates Foundation

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Guest Contributor

I was covered in red dust, the kind that sticks to your soles, the kind that smells of Uganda and its long bumpy roads, our white van a flash of Westerners on our way to visit a non-profit’s work.

I traveled to Africa last January with a group of bloggers, and we all had our Purell and our baby wipes. And as we traveled from the slums where babies’ snot ran green down their faces to the villages where children ran alongside the bus in bare feet and oversized t-shirts, some with no pants, all of them caked in mud and smiles, as we stopped at different projects along the way and witnessed wells being dug and buildings being dedicated and former child soldiers all standing in a line, waiting to shake our hands, their eyes deep with sorrow, I wanted to weep for the chasm between us.

They had a word for us — “mzungu” — which they call every foreigner, and it means “someone who wanders around without purpose.”

How many of us go on short-term missions trips and do just this? Wander around thinking we’re accomplishing something but actually having no purpose? And in fact, causing more harm by going than if we’d never gone?

In spite of our good intentions, it feels like we are looking at a post-card instead of regular, everyday people whose lives deserved more dignity than a photo can offer.

Helping or Hurting?

At one point on the trip, I left the rest of the group (which was dedicating a building) and walked to a nearby well where men and women were taking turns filling up their old yellow jugs. And I offered to help them.

I struggled with the pump for a few minutes while they just stared at me. I laughed and sputtered along with the water, but for a minute, it felt like we were one. In fact, however, I’d just stolen precious time from them getting their own water — I hadn’t really helped at all, and in fact, had hurt them in my desperation to relieve my guilt.

After that, I wandered to the back of the school, found the cooks and dishwashers squatting over fires and buckets of water, making supper and washing dishes on the ground. I squatted beside one of them, and offered to wash.

They just giggled and handed me a tattered cloth, and we worked side by side. Only later did I learn the truth, that I washed the dishes in the dirty water. I didn’t understand how they’d set up their buckets. So I actually caused them more work by squatting there and trying to help them. They ended up having to re-wash all of the dishes I’d done.

Those two experiences opened my eyes.

And it made me wonder, is there a better way? Or a more honest way, at least? I think one of the most harmful things we can do as a church is to not be transparent with our motives or our intentions. We have such ideals for ourselves that this often closes us off to the truth about who we are, and the needs of others. If we were to truly ask God to give us the mind of Christ, and then entered another person’s country seeing through God’s eyes instead of through Western ones, perhaps short-term missions trips could be redeemed? And used not only to inspire long-term global efforts, but long-term change within our own hearts?

Missions with a Mission

If we are committed to serving a country and truly helping its people, we should consider one of two things: 1) moving there long-term and dedicating ourselves to learning the practices and the ways of the people as we try to help them, or 2) if we aren’t willing or able to move there long-term, entrusting the ministry to nationals as much as possible.

The latter doesn’t mean we can’t partner with these nationals; in fact, I think it’s beautiful when we do. I know of many churches which send short-term teams to the same location for years in a row to develop relationships there, to work on special projects, and to develop national leaders so that when they do move on, the nationals feel confident and equipped to continue the work that has been started.

In order for love to be felt on these trips, sacrifice is demanded of us. We cannot go in expecting to show much love if we’re not willing to listen and learn the needs, language, or history of the people. Love is our great goal, and this requires us taking up our cross and choosing the Calvary road.

When it comes to short-term trips, they can serve a good purpose — if we understand what that purpose is. But as Robert Lupton says in Toxic Charity, short-term trips are often more accurately described as “religious tourism.” It’s a venture to view another part of the world and how they live, to have our hearts broken for the things that break God’s, and to be changed because of it.

Simply put, these trips are intended to help us more than it helps others.

And that’s okay so long as we don’t go there with the wrong motive or impression: to erase some sense of guilt, or to do an act of service that will somehow “fix” the world.

The majority of kids who go on short-term trips will not become long-term missionaries, says Lupton. Nevertheless, those kids will always have the memory of what they saw, and this memory will no doubt impact how they live even in the developed world — inspiring them to give more to local charities, to sponsor children, and to shop more consciously and ethically.

But there will always be the few who will commit their lives to serving the poor because of what they’ve seen. And they never would have known — never would have had their hearts broken — if it hadn’t been for that short-term trip.

With Them, for God

Upon returning home from Africa last year, I spent months falling on my knees after my family went to bed. I would bow low on the carpet in front of the woodstove and cry. I didn’t do this because I felt guilty. I did it because my heart had been broken for the things that break God’s.

I kept seeing babies lying in the dirt crying for mothers who won’t come because they’re dead. Teenage boys sniffing glue to numb their hunger pains. Grandmothers working twenty-hour days to find enough food for their dead daughter’s children, asleep on the dirt floor while chickens defecate around them.

I kept seeing the child I sponsor, and then his mother — the one who’d walked four hours to the children’s home to meet this white stranger who could pay for her child’s education while she slaved away as a peasant farmer unable to make ends meet. And she could barely look in my eyes for it all.

I knew — in spite of not feeling equipped — that I needed to do something. I knew my life could not be the same, because once God opens your eyes to people’s suffering, he beckons you to respond. I could no longer pretend I hadn’t seen. I could no longer pretend everyone in the world lived as I did. I knew better. And it had wrecked me.

So I searched for an organization doing what I had seen a need for — preventing tomorrow’s orphans by equipping today’s mothers. That is, sponsoring mothers, like the beautiful woman I’d met, to care for their children so they didn’t have to lose them. When I didn’t find anything, it was then that I knew God was calling me to initiate something to fill the gap.

But it wouldn’t be until talking to numerous non-profit organizations and reading books like When Helping Hurts, The Blue Sweater, and The Hole in Our Gospel, that I knew I couldn’t rely on myself to do what was best for mothers in Uganda.

No, I needed to empower trusted nationals who had a heart for their people, who lived there, who understood intricacies and politics and social needs (like not giving the mamas too much sponsorship money or it would take away their instinct to survive).

It took all of this to realize, again, that it’s not about me doing something for them. It’s about us working with each other, to bring glory to God.

And oh, what joy when we do this. When we link hands — whether it’s across the water, or on their own turf in long-term missions — and watch the Holy Spirit do his work of reconciliation through us, his church. Faith works through love (Galatians 5:6) as we work in coordination with different parts of the body to rise up to alleviate suffering and meet needs, both temporal and eternal, in the name of Jesus.