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.
Thanks for this post– it’s so true. I’ve been on several short term trips and served full time with a well known missions org. Now, as a leader at a missions’ base, when sending out short term teams, I remind them that short term trips are usually more about positioning your heart before God and allowing Him to stretch you past your American comforts, not about helping/serving/supporting the nation you are visiting. We have a very cushy life and our presumption that we can rush in and in 2 weeks change anyone’s situation is ridiculous, however, God can use those 2 weeks to separate us, get our attention, move our hearts and radically renew our love- just to name a few things His finger might land on.
Do the nations need evangelism? Of course. Do they need compassion and mercy ministry? Of course. Should we be willing to go as sent? Of course. But…our hearts have to be in the right place.
That’s true Jenn! It is so important to deal with the “Savior mentality” before going on these trips – otherwise we end up causing harm. Even worse, chances are that we end up turning the attention and dependance toward us instead of God.
That was the exact statement my wife made quite a while ago when we were just talking about mission trips. Some of these trips really do more harm than good. And most of the time, it just makes the “mission workers” feel better about themselves.
Just a thought. Some of these building projects could actually go towards providing jobs for the locals so that they can earn a decent wage while holding a decent job, rebuilding their community and their homes and family at the same time. Instead, we start sending people to build homes to “show” that we care. But maybe more could have been accomplished if properly thought through.
That is such a sad story about the children. I haven’t watched the film, but wonder if any of those children are in heaven now because of her efforts, even if they died. Living a worse “earthly” life may be worth it if they accepted Jesus as their Savior and can spend eternity in Heaven.
This post really does have some good points. We’ve kind of adopted an idea of mission ministry as a short term contract, and there can be good things about that, but you’ll never know people’s hearts in a week or two of time. That isn’t to say that type of work isn’t useful, but still.
My church has a huge food give away every other week, and one thing I’ve been appreciating that they do is that they bring in people to talk to, and pray, for those who come for food. This means that they are trying to get to know those they are serving, and treat them like people, not just “poor people.” Does that make sense?
It grieves my heart to know what happened to those children. It can be hard for someone from outside a situation to understand what their actions will do. Still, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try right?
Such a great post. I can’t tell you how often I think on this very topic! You stated it so beautifully. So sad to hear about those children……but it doesn’t surprise me. May God guide us as we seek to do better! Thanks for sharing.
Wow! This is not something that I had ever thought about. Thank you for bringing it up. The one point I could relate to was making sure that we are helping people the way they need to be helped, not developing a savior complex and thinking that we must help them the way our way in order for them to be helped. As a birth doula I must remind myself of this every time I go into a birth, I need to observe how the woman is coping and wait for her to tell me how to help before I can jump in and help. I need to wait for her to ask me, not take over and control her.
Very interesting post. You make a great point!
There is so much truth to this. We are not saviors but conduits of God’s grace…Self gratification is laced in pride. Thanks for highlighting this.