'White saviours' and the value of mission

(Photo: Unsplash/Sander Hartog)

As our nation prepares to opens its state and international borders, churches are keenly awaiting to send their best out into the mission fields once more.

Over the past 18 months, many charity organisations have seen a decrease in funds raised as Australians have tightened their purse strings during the pandemic, but the churches of this nation have continued to support global missions through their generosity, and ceaseless prayer.

The need has been great; organisations have had to be creative and take steps of faith in a time when getting people on the ground is easier said than done. But in many ways, the pandemic has set a new standard of support for our international missionaries.

I had a conversation with a leader in the Australian Christian Churches missions branch, ACCI Missions, in the very height of Australia's experience of the pandemic. Out of concern, I asked the simple question, "Are our missionaries OK?"

Unsurprisingly, this was a common question; the answer, however, was surprising. While many Australian mission workers and their families had made the difficult decision to return home amid the uncertainty of Covid, those who chose to stay only had testimonies of God's faithfulness.

He went on, telling the stories of field workers in Iraq who, on the frontlines of the pandemic, have been blessed by a level of constant support and communication via new technologies that simply weren't available or considered prior to this.

And the stories continued; while secular philanthropy relies entirely on man-power and finance, both in short supply; the work of the missionary is entirely motivated by faith in a God who so loved the world, a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and feeds a multitude with a basket of bread.

If any area of international missions has been limited by Covid restrictions, it is the ministry of short-term missions. It would be remiss to speak on this topic without sharing my own experience.

In 2019, I was invited to speak at a conference for pastors and leaders in Kakamega, Kenya. When I spoke to friends about the opportunity I was often met with, 'Sounds great, just don't be a white saviour.'

What an assumption to make! The invitation was an honour for which I felt completely unqualified; in fact, I felt I had so little to offer of my own ability and experience, that I could only conclude I was being sent like Gideon's 300; there would be no question that any victory belonged to God alone because, believe me, I'm no white saviour!

Between speaking engagements, we met with community leaders, bishops of different denominations, pastors all over Kenya and surrounding nations, doctors, and international missionaries. We witnessed the processes of life-changing projects; the cooperation of local churches and international partners. It seemed as though the 'white saviour' had all but been abolished by our hypersensitive, post-colonial society.

But things were not entirely as they seemed.

For all the excellent intentions, there were a few problems. One project involved supplying those disenfranchised and impoverished, with interest free loans and supplies to establish maize farming.

This seemed the perfect balance of support and empowerment; however, in speaking to locals, this project caused serious disruption to the market. Farmers of other crops made the switch, hoping for financial freedom. Only, this then flooded the market with an oversupply of maize. The produce was worth next to nothing, and many farmers continued to struggle, now with debt over their heads.

How quickly I had judged a plan as good and effective without the wisdom of recognising expertise and experience. This is exactly the attitude of the white saviour I was warned not to become.

For the remainder of my trip, I was cognisant that my greatest influence lay not in my ideas or opinions, but in my testimony; yet there were still a few who would rather hold my image on a pedestal. There were moments I was shuttled around for photo opportunities, being fed lavishly in the same orphanage as children who were served a single, bite sized cube of meat with their rice.

The inequality was jarring, and while some may be tempted to revel in the privilege of royal treatment, I was tempted to quick judgement. Was I again letting my ignorance get the better of me in an attempt to avoid ignorance?

The question is one of culture, not character

In this instance, I judged the character of my hosts - the showmanship, the excess, the inequality; but perhaps it is culture that should stand trial. The issue of the white saviour stems from a misplaced focus. While we are called to care for the poor, orphaned and widowed, the only lasting answer is in the gospel. So, what is the point?

I was asked upon returning whether my newfound brothers and sisters in Kenya would have been better off had I simply donated the money I spent on flights to various projects - a tough question to answer if we are to count our treasure in earthly terms.

In asking Australian missions organisations the question 'why are short term-missions important?', the answer tends towards the invaluable experience the new missionary gains, and perhaps a fresh awakening of desire to minister long-term.

I believe the answer is much more profound. As a society, our perspective is blinded by our culture. Our assumptions are shaped by our culture. Even our understanding of the truth of the Gospel can be coloured by culture.

International missions cause us to question and expose the inconsistencies of our own broken, human culture, and the culture we are ministering in, in the light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We go to overcome the shackles of the sinful nature that pervade every human culture by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, and in turn, have our own assumptions transformed toward the culture of the Kingdom. We cannot save the world, but the Gospel can, and that is the priceless value of mission.

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