The Good Missionary

After reading another article on short term missions, I felt it might be helpful to extract a few points to share with you. I realize many participate and look forward to going for a week to ten days to another country or different part of our own country to serve and share Christ’s love with others.

Several books over the past few years have challenged us to think differently about how we do missions and how our own religious and cultural biases influence our methods. “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton and “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert are recent examples. They both ask questions from different contexts. For example,  is the type of aid we give appropriate for the situation?  What are our deeper agendas and needs? Do we allow the host to participate and influence their own experience with us?

I found this article in Leadership Journal called “The Good Missionary.” It was written by Samuel Ikua Gachagua and Claire Diaz-Ortiz. Samuel grew up in Kenya and comments, “I owe my life to missionaries…[they] intervened at key junctions in my life”. His father died when we was young and his mother abandoned him shortly after. It was the beginning of a children’s home that allowed him a home, family, and the caring of his most basic needs. As missionaries came in out and out of the home, he talked about their interaction, their work, what they brought, and the smiles and joys. But, he also never escaped being viewed, indentified, and defined as a poor, orphan boy, from Kenya, even as an adult in the United States. With that in mind, he give five points to those who desire to serve Christ by going and what to think about from the eyes of one who has received.

1) Rethink the goals of your short term trip. Focus less on helping and more on cross-cultural exchange, and becoming friends.

Missionaries would come to the children’s home and engage in all kinds of work. They were extremely busy “doing” and focused on their project. What was funny is that they would be painting chicken coops, moving tires, very menial stuff. At the same time, Kenya’s vast unemployment left many without work who could have also performed these menial tasks. As missionaries, we should come and do only “what we can do and do well.” Samuel’s best experiences were with the missionaries that understood this and spent time with him helping him “work on his English, learn about the wider world and make lasting key connections.”

2) Don’t try to get too close too fast.

Younger children are especially vulnerable and latch on to missionaries who will stay a few days. They are devastated when the team leaves and do not understand why people have to go. If we allow these children to meet our OWN needs for love and acceptance we are doing great damage to them. Psychologists call it counter-transference. So, create healthy boundaries. This does not mean do not show love, affection, and care, but be careful not to lock on to one or two children. Be available to all and set appropriate emotional boundaries.

3) Learn what the partner needs.

Samuel shares story of a group of “mzungus”, the name of white people in some countries of Africa coming to help. They are playing and a bell rings that tells them to gather in a courtyard. A middle age lady with hand sanitizer strapped to her waist does a 15 minute presentation on brushing their teeth, oral hygiene, and then passes out toothbrushes to all the kids. They all run back to their areas laughing to add the next great toothbrush to their toothbrush stash. It’s as if white people don’t think the kids know how to brush their teeth.

Missionary groups should have extensive dialogues and ask questions with their host about not only the needs but how to best address them in the context.  It is so easy to assume…and be wrong. Samuel says, “ask, ask, and ask again”.

4) Don’t forget the money (this one deserves a lot of attention).

Have we ever considered the time, money, and burden upon the host group? Yes, we may spend/raise $30,000 to come and even leave a $2000-$3000 donation but is that what it takes? Samuel recounts groups that come and the orphanage has only one van that must drive 8 hours to the airport to pick up the missionaries. They stay in nicer spaces and have access to foods the kids do not have enough money to eat: fresh vegetables, milk, meat, and sugary treats. These items are out of the daily budget for the kids but must be provided to the missionaries to meet our expectations. Then there are trips to stores and shopping malls or special requests.

The bottom line is that we may not realize the financial and time burdens we have placed upon a host to meet our unique needs as middle class Americans with our own entitlements.  By the time we leave, the host is grateful for our presence but they are also exhausted and the trip may have “cost” them more on the backend. Then they have to repeat the same experience for the next group. Consider lasting partnerships and leaving more resources. Think of not only your budget but the host group in aspects of their personnel resources, time, equipment, and energy. Consider living like the people instead of having to live like you are still in the US.

5) Follow up, follow up, follow up.

The trip is not over once you go home. Samuel recounts that he did not have the money to buy a stamp or have internet access. When the missionary sent a letter and way for him to write back, it opened his world. Real and lasting friendships can be developed this way. As we go home, is the mission over? Can we engage in continuing to reach out through real communication and stay in touch?

Samuel  has come to the United States to complete his education. He now serves as a missionary and has been on both short and long term mission trips to include a year in Ecuador. Because of his unique experience as one who has received and now as one who gives, he sees himself as a bridge helping missionaries and host groups have meaningful conversations and set healthy expectations.

As you prepare for your next mission trip, especially if overseas, I hope you will take some of these points into consideration. Don’t go as privileged, but understanding what a privilege it is to go. Blessings as you serve and extend Christ’s love to others!

Lisa Pierce

For the full article see Leadership Journal Summer 2014 pg. 73-76


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