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The hard question of missions – are we helping or hurting?

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 on a bloggers’ trip and we all had our Purell hand sanitizer 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 mission 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.

Harming or helping?
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 but the truth is? 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 on purpose
If we are committed to serving a country and truly helping its people, ultimately 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 before we try to help them; or 2. If we aren’t willing or able to move there long-term, entrusting the ministry to nationals.

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 teams to the same location for years in a row to develop relationship there, and to raise up national leaders so that when they finally do move on, the nationals feel confident to continue the work that has been started. But ultimately, the idea has to be theirs to begin with, or there will be no ownership.

In order for love to be felt on these trips, sacrifice is demanded of us. We cannot go in expecting to speak or show love if we haven’t learned the needs, language or history of the people. Love is our ultimate goal and this requires us picking up our cross and choosing the least-walked path.

When it comes to short-term missions trips, they serve a good purpose – if we understand fully what that purpose is.

As Robert Lupton says in Toxic Charity, a short-term missions trip might be more aptly called “Religious Tourism.” It’s a trip 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.

In short, 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 white privileged 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, like Katie Davis of Amazima Ministries, 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 20-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 didn’t start a non-profit because I felt equipped to or even because I wanted to. No, 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 asks 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 researched online 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 hire nationals who had a heart for their people, who lived there, who understood intricacies and politics and social needs (i.e., 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 across the water and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work of reconciliation through us, his church. There is a letting go, a surrender, even as we encourage the different parts of the Body to rise up and be all that they can be – us cheering them on in the background.

It’s the gospel message.

The world is hurting, church.

How are we going to spend our lives on behalf of the poor?


  • Emily Wierenga is a wife and mother who is passionate about the church and lives in northern Alberta. She is the author of the memoirs Atlas Girl and Making it Home (Baker Books), and the founder of a non-profit working in Africa and Asia.

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