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 nonprofit’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?