A few years ago, I was asked to share a lesson I have learned from doing mission work.
What is the one thing I would take away from all my missions and social projects? Well, I would have to say this is it: The world needs people to stop going on mission trips.
Now before you ring in the morality police to come shoot me, please hear me out. I am in no way encouraging NOR endorsing apathy. In fact, I absolutely detest it.
What I mean by the statement is that the world needs us to learn not to be presumptuous in our compassion – and not to use compassion as an excuse for self-gratification.
In going to another place (China/Philippines/Thailand, etc), or in missions right at our doorstep (friends/family/neighbors/someone in need), I have discovered that we as the “mission workers” can often do more harm than good. Simply because we rush in to help them the way we think they need to be helped.
Some call this compassion. But I say that there is a need to probe deeper. Are we meeting the true needs of this person/people, or is it really just a cover-up for us to scratch the “need to be needed” itch? If we were to truly meet the needs of the people, it has to be birthed out of seeking God. For only God knows the depths of the heart – my heart, and the heart of the one I’ve been sent to.
I want to share something about the documentary “Born into Brothels” by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. It has been years since this documentary burst into media limelight, but it is still a much talked-about film today. For those who have not watched it, I do recommend it – it is quite moving.
In this documentary, Zana Briski records the years she spends with the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. You can watch the film here.
As much as I liked the film, I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by the filmmakers, media, and viewers, that the efforts by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman were able to uplift the children from poverty and destitution. In fact, that presumption is not true.
I have a friend who has been to these brothels and spoken with the people living there, and here is what he found out:
1. Some of the children featured in this film have been killed. As children of prostitutes, they are at the rock-bottom of the Indian caste system and a disgrace to the society. With Zana Briski’s lack of discretion, the whole world now knows exactly who they are, where they live, and what they look like.
2. Almost all the children are living a worse life now than before Zana Briski worked with them.
3. The children’s despair has exacerbated because they’d hoped that with active involvement in this project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life.
What this film failed to portray was the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite together, change their lives, as well as the lives of their children. The film did not show the victories and triumphs that these sex workers had over their circumstances (e.g. considerably low HIV rates).
Instead, this film has taken on the typical mindset of the short-lived, one-of-a-kind, savior’s mentality mission to the God-forsaken, “third world”, and under-privileged.
It is an extremely absurd implication by the makers of “Born into Brothels” that it was only them that were the source for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents.
Philanthropy is fake if it is disconnected from learning and appreciating the political and cultural history of the people it is professing to save.
I am not questioning Zana Briski’s motives; it is quite evident that she had affection for these children of the brothels. But that is precisely my point – compassion in no way negates the fact that it brought death instead of life.
Good intentions go nowhere. Furthermore, do our good intentions and our efforts to help someone else do more good for ourselves (self-esteem, feel-good factor, feeling more godly) or for that person?
This is just one example out of many. Whether it is a friend in need, someone at the bus stop, or in an orphanage in Thailand, it is so so so SO important to seek God and wait on Him for His plans, His strategies, His heart – so that His will and His will alone be done, here as it is already in heaven. Conventionally, it is called “prayer”.
It is so very, extremely, utterly, absolutely critical because our failure to do so is not mere impudence or presumption. Our failure to do so could cost lives.