What you are about to read is a story so gross, so horrific that it should have never taken place and it most definitely should never be spoken of…but because I love to be hated, here it goes…
Re-learning how to cook in Tanzania made me lose all sense of dignity, worth and femininity. The first meal that Shan and I tried to make was “tacos” which we found out later meant “butt” in Swahili so that totally makes sense why our guard was mortified when we asked him if he wanted to taste our tacos. I hate us. Cooking our taco meal took us 3 hours…3 sweaty hours! Every single thing had to be made from scratch. Our bodies had not climatized to the heat at this point, so the lack of AC mixed with the heat of the stove sent us into occasional attacks of heat strokes and tears. This would have almost been worth it had our meal been remotely tolerable, but it wasn’t. I think Shan and I both cried that night and we definitely had silent, but somehow very loud, wars as we knocked into each other’s sweaty backs in the kitchen and for sure bumped “tacos” at least once while fighting for a spot on the stove. So cooking was a problem; but so was starving. So we just kept going. We eventually found a grocery store that sold the most disgusting ham you can ever imagine and lived on ham sandwiches, egg salad and pickles for about a solid year.
The humiliation that I’m about to unveil with what happened next is so repulsive, so utterly disgusting that I can hardly bring myself to type the words. We burned banana bread. Ok, not that big of a deal, but it was like really, really burned. Uneatable, which made us 99% angry that we wasted a solid 2 hours of from-scratch baking time and 1% curious about a sentence we had heard our entire lives but never lived out…the sentence that every American parent has said but maybe we were the only ones to try out. A sentence that spurred on events that we would later grieve. It was none other than: “Don’t waste your food; there are starving kids in Africa.”
I hope you aren’t imagining what comes next because, if your brain already went there, it means that you too have just as much disgust in your desolate heart as we did. It means that you too are capable of such monstrous acts. Yes. Yes, we did. Yes, indeed we did do exactly what you are thinking. Yes, we tried to give our burned banana bread to our African neighbors. We had the nerve to wrap that bread up into plastic wrap and waltz ourselves down to our neighbors who were sitting in a group of about 4-5 beautiful women, with their joyful little ones scattered around playing and singing in the garden.
Per our usual, I shrunk back and urged Shan to go on with our plan. Also per our usual, Shan obeyed in the moment and then blamed me later (these are personal, weird, and highly co-dependent issues that we are fully aware of and equally fully unmotivated to change). Shan marched her little missionary skirt and rainbow flip-flops over to the group of women. Ducking down (proving that, innately, I knew what we were doing was wrong) All I could see from afar was something that resembled Shan performing a curtsy, a bowed head, and a slightly bent knee handing off of our neighborly offering. Only, there was no hand off. They only exchanged a full 5-second stare-off, broke the stare by simultaneously viewing the bread, grimaces met by Shan’s shame, and then the refusal. A refusal of our bread!? Our made-from-scratch burned-to-a-crisp blackened banana bread. This isn’t what we expected at all. Weren’t they hungry? Weren’t they ready to just scrape off the burned layers and enjoy what the inside had to offer? Weren’t they in so much need that even our burned scraps would be met with warm gratitude and the beginnings of our neighborly bond?
It’s funny to laugh at our mistakes, but it was wrong and repulsive what we did that day. We dehumanized our neighbors because of a stigma that we believed to be true. We would have never treated our American neighbors in such low regard. It was humiliating and I’m ashamed it happened. I hate the impression that it left, and I often wish I could go back and apologize to those lovely women.
Isn’t this a little bit of our attitudes though when we send loads of Americans on a mission’s trip with their Goodwill skirts because we want to “bless the people” with leaving them behind when we leave? It is kind of “in us”, isn’t it? Feeling proud of ourselves for giving so little? Feeling proud of ourselves for giving away t-shirts or stuffed animals but spending more money on plane tickets and hotel stays than most local families make in a year (we did this, by the way)? Something about this is off, right? We have to see it for what it is. It’s off and it’s also wrong. James 2 warns us clearly about showing preference to the rich over the poor. Isn’t that what we are doing when we sponsor our American students for thousands of dollars to take a “missions” trip across the world but then question the “sustainability” or “potential of dependence” when asked to help an African in need? Are you seeing the rub? We are thinking wrong about ourselves and about the way we treat those in the developing world.
I know I just threw a lot out there, but maybe to help soften the blow I can offer, from our own difficult learning process and mistakes, some advice before you ever think about taking a mission’s trip (we call them learning trips) or becoming a missionary. Learn! Learn! Learn!We learn most by asking questions, so here we go:
1. Ask yourself basic questions and be painfully honest with yourself.
- How would I feel if a group of foreigners showed up at my child’s school, passed out candy, and took selfies and videos with my child to post on social media without my permission?
- Would I want to be treated like this? *insert this question into anything you are about to do…like give away banana bread.
- If I knew that by not going on my trip I could send that money to help a local ministry instead would I still go?
- If I couldn’t take one single picture to share on social media, would I still go?
- Am I willing to be generous until it hurts? Did I spend more money to go on this trip than I am willing to invest in helping local long-term solutions trying to break poverty’s cycle?
- Ask questions of the people you are visiting.
- We would like to bless you, what would be most helpful to bring or NOT bring?
- Are things like flipflops, shirts, candy available there? (let’s bring money then instead and support the local economy). Ps, candy is not always the best option. ½ the children in the orphanage we worked in had rotten teeth from candy from the groups of visitors 3-4 times per week. (I have a lot to say about the destructive nature of group tours in orphanages coming soon…)
- Is passing out gifts even appropriate? Is there a better way to spend our money? Would it be better to donate to a local ministry and allow them the freedom to give in their timing, in the most culturally appropriate way?
- Does taking pictures communicate something different? *I have heard many ask if American guests are trying to make money by using their pictures.
- Would a group of foreigners visiting your ministry drain you of time and energy? Could it have lasting negative effects on the community you are working in?
- How can we best LEARN?
- Ask questions of God.
- Reveal and search my heart, Oh God. Show me where I am blinded and insensitive to those who are different from me.
- How can I love the way you love, God? How can I best learn from others in humility instead of feeling above people different than me or people who have less. What do they have to teach me?
Several years ago a mission’s team came blazing through with people coming to clean churches. Their mission was simple. Show up and serve by cleaning churches…”any random churches we see we are just going to stop, clean, serve and hopefully bless the socks off of them to see Americans serving them in this way”. Their desire was to show humility in their service. OK, great desire. What they communicated, though, was that they thought Tanzanian churches were dirty, so dirty in fact that dozens of people had to pay thousands of dollars to come over to clean up their places of worship. Can you see where these people thought they were doing right? Can you also see how by not asking questions they made painful mistakes that they could have avoided?
A mission’s team came with a group of teens several years ago. As they shared several translated testimonies to the Tanzanian church I heard accounts from both parents and teens of how God used their trip to Tanzania to help them see “how blessed they were and to be more thankful for what they have”. One boy even mentioned he was going to return home more thankful for his motorcycle instead of just wanting new ones. I watched the faces of the Tanzanian youth in the church. I watched them politely nodding while looking at each other sideways thinking “how touching that our difficult lives were able to help you feel thankful.”
Unfortunately, I could share story after story from both Tanzanians and missionaries who have experienced these things and worse. This is why it needs to be shared. We need to change how we think, how we come into foreign places, and how we view ourselves. Alternatively, I could share many more stories of missionaries and visiting teams who have humbled themselves, prepared their hearts to learn and be stretched and who God is using in mighty ways. I think about a small group who came last year simply to visit and learn from a group of Tanzanian young men; with missionaries in the background providing little more than translation and some help navigating between the different cultures. These Tanzanian men led them through a week-long journey of relationship building, discovery of what God was doing among their people, proudly showing their beautiful country and answering a million questions. Both the young men, the missionaries, and the guests received, learned, and were encouraged from this experience.
The answer isn’t just taking a critical look at missions or stopping it all together; but the answer also is not leaving things the way they are. Reformation is needed on both short-term and long-term missions and the way Christians view the world around them. If we are willing to learn and change and ask the tough questions, we will be uncomfortable, we will humbled, we will regret things we’ve done and maybe even have to ask forgiveness, but we will hopefully come out with more knowledge, more respect, and more effectiveness in our mission of sharing Christ and loving others.
We are proof that just because “God’s given you a heart for people” doesn’t mean you don’t carry an entire lifetime of baggage of stereotypes, beliefs, cultural misunderstandings, and in our case plain stupidity. We learned are learning though. We own our mistakes. We walk through the painful process of discovering what was really behind our idiotic actions. We ask tough questions of others and even tougher questions of ourselves. We have discovered a lot of pride and misunderstandings underneath even our “hearts of serving”. There was so much that we had, and still have, left to discover about the messed-up world we live in and how messed up we are within it. We have to be willing to learn though and we have be willing to change.
I shared banana bread story and often painfully remind myself of it because it helps keep me humble and patient with those who make mistakes but are willing to learn (less patient with those who are making mistakes and unwilling to learn…that’s a different story). It’s also great to know that no one can ever claim that anything good we have done or will ever do here is of us; it’s truly and utterly Christ’s powerful work…despite us. I often think that God wanted us to be missionaries because He knew that 1. I’m dumb enough to share all the stupid things we do 2. He will receive the glory from our lives and work because we are truly the most unlikely bunch of idiots just being used as broken tools in HIS Sovereign hands.
God does work despite our mistakes, but we still have our responsibility to learn to love others better. I pray that no one is as insensitive and prideful as we were on banana bread day, but I equally pray that God takes the humiliation and mistakes of missionaries (and short term missions) and breaks down lots of things that we have stored up in our American worldview which hurts the developing world. I pray that missionaries (new and “veteran”) will have hearts to learn, bravery to confess mistakes, and boldness to claim Christ as their only strength. If that happens then we will learn and grow and laugh and be a little more patient with the ones who come behind us. Because…at least they didn’t offer their neighbors burned banana bread.