Her eyes twinkled behind her hip, square glasses, and her short afro puff bobbed as she nodded along to our conversation. My beautiful Ugandan friend Sophia listened intently as I told her this was seriously my dream job and wondered aloud whether I, like her, could potentially serve as a house mother and advocate for a group of young Ugandan women in a safehouse like this one, which is a refuge for girls rescued by local police from sex trafficking.
Sophia gently took both my sunburned hands in her soft, brown ones and smiled kindly. “This position has been the greatest blessing of my life, and I have never felt quite prepared for it,” she explained, “and I can see that your heart is very beautiful. But we seek Ugandan women to give our girls a picture of what it means to be a Ugandan woman of worth and integrity. Do you see?”
I did see, and though I was disappointed, I realized my new friend had a solid point. What could I teach one of these sweet ones? I was not raised in their culture and do not know what is expected of young women there. I have not grown up walking a similar journey to theirs, either geographically or economically, and I know very little of the struggles and secrets in the heart of a girl who has been removed from a lifetime of sexual abuse and trauma. I do have a personal understanding of what it means to come from a different kind of traumatic background, but I know nothing of what these girls have experienced—among them precious, eight-year-old Lucy*, whose mother did not protect her from being raped regularly by her mother’s boyfriend. Charlotte, ten and twirling in her pink skirt, told me she had been kidnapped and sold at the age of six and then rescued in a raid by the authorities after years of sexual slavery. Josephine is eleven, and her mother was a sex worker who could not stop one of her clients from breaking into her home and sexually assaulting and beating her young daughter.
As each story unfolded, I began to realize that I could not possibly meet their need for a mentor, and a light turned on in my mind: my desire to serve them was not primarily motivated by their needs but by my own. My heart was certainly in the right place because I genuinely wanted to help them, but that good and holy desire was mixed up with my own selfishness. These girls need someone who has walked in their shoes. Can God use just anyone to accomplish his purposes? Absolutely. But how much more beautiful a redemption could there be than a local woman being empowered to speak into the lives of young girls? Especially one who’s been through similar trauma herself? The potential for the deep and profound healing that could grow out of such a relationship is staggering and so God-written.
My story is a familiar narrative to many of us in the church: a young Westerner wants to change the world and make a difference, perhaps overseas. Her heart is to reach the downtrodden, speak life into the poorest of the poor, feed the hungry. She dreams of packing up and moving to Ethiopia, the Philippines, or China and preaching the gospel with her hands and feet as well as her voice. For those of us who have these longings, the question of ethical world missions becomes an important one—and if going about world missions in an ethical manner is not important to us, it should be. Our intentions are the very best, but could there be situations where we are actually doing harm when we mean to help?
If we are to do genuine good in the world and authentically serve others, we must critically consider our methods. Good intentions are not enough.
A friend of mine who used to run a children’s home in Haiti once told me a story about a precious youth group who came to visit once a year. The children’s home welcomed them with open arms, invited them to meet and play with the children, and asked them to bring needed supplies and medications if they could. Each year, the youth pastor and teens also did a building or improvement project of some kind. One year it was deep-cleaning and repainting the orphanage, and in 2012, two years after the earthquake that ravaged the country, the project was rebuilding two walls that had crumbled during the crisis. The youth group raised funds, volunteered their time, and worked diligently to make the necessary repairs. They cheered when they were finished—another project completed for the kingdom!
But, my friend revealed, when the group left, he had to hire a local team of skilled workers to come in and fix the shoddy workmanship that would have exposed the children and staff to a multitude of safety risks. He confessed that he wished the youth group—bless their hearts—had just raised and donated the money needed to hire the local workers in the first place. This approach would have done three positive things: made sure that money, time, and supplies were used in the most efficient way possible, allowed the children’s home to hire a team of skilled workers to complete the job according to code and safety standards, and stimulated the local economy by employing local workers instead of foreign volunteers. The youth group could have still contributed in a meaningful way by raising funds and then traveling to celebrate with the kids in their restored home.
If we are to do genuine good in the world and authentically serve others, we must critically consider our methods. Good intentions are not enough. Perhaps there are times to jump in and physically help build a structure or be a house mother, and and there are times to contribute in other ways, such as financially—even if that doesn’t give us as much of a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. There are so many ways to effect real change with the skills we already have, rather than trying to do things that require skills we don’t. The difference is found in whether we’re willing to ask—first, what others need and, second, how best we can help those needs be met.
I am learning, and it is a journey. I aim never to stop serving but always to learn to do it better. I will make it back to Uganda and its beautiful, red-dirt roads one day. I will make it back to my friend Sophia’s impossibly straight, white smile and the enveloping sound of twenty girls singing hymns in Luganda about how thankful they are to their baba in heaven. I will dance and sing and worship with them again and hug their necks, and I will do it as a respectful visitor in a land that is not my own. I will aim to do this in a way that ethically supports the organization, responsibly supports the local economy and needs of the local population, and ultimately honors God.
As it turns out, I am learning that we most faithfully honor God in overseas missions when we take the time to research what others truly need and humbly ask what role we can play in meeting those needs. I can’t wait to find out mine.
*All names of the girls in the safehouse have been changed to protect their identities.