Missions is Messy
Helping people is hard. This is true, not only for the obvious reasons, but for a few unexpected ones as well.
When I help someone, I have certain expectations that come with my investment. For example, I expect people to appreciate my efforts. I also count on the people I have helped to use the resources I have entrusted to them wisely and, hopefully, having been helped, to see the benefit of helping someone else.
While these expectations are sometimes met, it is not unusual when they are not.
We, as help providers, see the world in a certain way, while those who have lived their lives in perpetual need often view the world in another. A friend of mine used to describe the differing ways of people from different parts of the world this way. “That is not a good thing. That is not a bad thing. It is just a thing.” But it is those “things” that make missions messy.
Our best intentions are executed with all of our western assumptions providing incentive and energy. However, our help is often not met with the reaction we expect. When the house we sacrificed to raise money for sits empty for years, unused, or when the new motorbike we provided is sold not even 24 hours after the presentation ceremony, we can start to either lose heart or worse, become embittered toward missions in general and toward those who show such apparent ingratitude in particular.
Beyond these unpredictable outcomes, political or corporate factors can also creep in that neither the helper nor the helped could completely anticipate. We, as Canadians and Americans, understand political corruption. We lament the incidents when the media and the occasional inquiry expose them. But unless we have experience beyond our own borders, we have no idea just how bad corruption can be. I experienced one small example of this on a recent trip to Haiti. Since the earthquake in 2010, for instance, between $500,000,000 and 1.5 billion dollars have been invested in the people and infrastructures in Haiti. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the aid ever gets into the hands of the people it is intended to help.
The United Nations, the World Bank, and Christian aid organizations of every description have poured money, resources, workers, and expertise into relief efforts, only to find that the internal systems deflect many of those resources before the poorest ever benefit from them, while a small portion of the population becomes quite wealthy. Haiti is by no means the worst country for this, but the levels to which the government has become a kleptocracy have surprised even those who remember the administration under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Yes, great strides have been and are being made in Haiti. But the residue of history and imbedded dysfunction makes progress slow going.
Of course, deep poverty causes many other social issues, which, in turn, make things even messier. I saw an example of this in April as I stood beside a very nice, albeit very simple, public washroom in the Cité du Soleil neighbourhood near Port-au-Prince.
The area I was in, “Sun City,” is a shantytown that has grown into a city-within-a-city of several hundred thousand. It is one of the largest slums in the Northern Hemisphere, by some accounts as dangerous as the infamous favelas of Rio. Various gangs, some more violent than others, control the streets.
Several months before, a short-term missions team came to Haiti and built a washroom facility across from one of the churches in the area. It gave access to clean water, sanitary toilets, and showers to the people living tightly packed into that little section of Cité du Soleil. After the building was dedicated and the pictures were taken, the team boarded their plane to return home. Just a few days later, the facility had a few new additions and modifications. The doors were padlocked and the keys were in the hands of the new self-appointed attendants to the facility – enforcers from LP street gang. The facility was still available, but only to anyone who could pay to use it, all proceeds going to the gang who now “owned” it and was now in charge of its management.
When I asked the pastor across the street about it, he simply shrugged and said, “Sa a se kote Bondye te mete nou.” (This is where God has placed us.) Oddly enough, the same gang would later agree to provide protection for the church facility and the 300+ children who go to school there. And in a negotiated compromise, the children are also allowed access to the new washroom facilities at no charge during the school day. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is – quite.
So, what does one do in the face of such realities?
Keep giving. Keep sacrificing. Keep praying. Keep going about looking for trouble. When you find it, get off of your donkey and climb into the ditch. Bring all of your best self to the task of serving God and others. AND recognize that, in a badly broken world, missions will always be messy.