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Home > 2014 > May > The Good Missionary

I owe my life to missionaries. Growing up as an orphan in rural Kenya, missionaries—some long-term, some short-term—intervened at key junctions in my life.

Missionaries helped start the children's home that saved me from being destitute. Missionaries sent some of my most beloved friends, mentors, and supporters to my doorstep. And through the years I learned the difference between mission teams that helped and those that didn't. Perhaps my story will be a tool for your own discernment as you reach out to others.

For the first time, I saw what it was like to be the one offering help.

I lost my father at a young age and was soon abandoned by my mother as well. So at the age of 11, I lived with my 13-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister. We found ways to survive, selling plastic bags of water to earn money for food. But we regularly dropped out of school.

My life changed when a pair of pastors—one Kenyan, one American—started a children's home. When I was able to live there, I knew my life had changed forever. One day, after a few years of living there, I met two young American women who were traveling through the area. They had blonde hair that hung in their eyes, and they talked to me in a grown-up way I'd rarely been talked to before.

They lived at my orphanage for a year, starting a non-profit called Hope Runs, and ultimately bringing me to the United States. The book Hope Runs: An American Tourist, a Kenyan Boy, a Journey of Redemption tells the story of the strange, makeshift family we have formed.

At first, though, I was wary of them, and so were my friends. Living in an orphanage, I'd had many experiences with missionaries who came to help over the years. Some had done just that, ultimately changing my life and the lives of my peers. Some had only added to our hardship (more on that later). White people—mzungus, as we call them in Kenya—had not always been the best visitors. What would it be like to have this pair of girls around for so long? With time, though, I grew to know, trust, and love them.

Over time, I understood in a way that many of my friends did not, that mzungus couldn't drop their lives in the U.S. to live with my friends and me in our orphanage. I saw, eventually, that sometimes good things could happen in those few days when missionaries were there.

Years later, I would gain a much more comprehensive perspective. When I came to start high school in the U.S., I felt that my American peers saw me like the missionaries did—like a needy orphan. With time, though, I learned to walk and talk and think like my new high school friends around me. Most important, I learned what it meant to be able to extend resources to others.

Focus less on "helping," and more on cross-cultural exchange.

In my senior year of high school, I ran a campaign that made the local news, collecting thousands of pairs of running shoes for my peers in orphanages back home. The year after high school, I took this concept of service a step further and spent a year volunteering on a service project in Ecuador. For the first time, I saw what it was like to walk into a community and be the one offering the help.

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Related Topics:DiscernmentMissionsMistakesPovertyPrioritiesValues
From Issue:Discernment, May 2014 | Posted: April 29, 2014

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Displaying 1–5 of 12 comments

Kevin Jones

September 25, 2014  2:17pm

Yvonne, I agree that there have been many deficiencies with short term mission teams but I would encourage you to not let some bad experiences so negatively affect your thoughts about them in general. Our organization does community health evangelism on the island of LaGonave where we focus on building long term relationships and partnering with local communities. We have asked them if our coming matters because we do not leave large amounts of money but do have two Haitian trainers whom we pay to to the actual training. While we do have our medical folks conduct physical assessments while going from house to house (we despise doing clinics as very little relationship building happens in that context) our primary goal is to build trust and to learn from one another. The reality is that we all live in poverty of some sort; it just may not be financial in our case.

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Edward Udell Sr

June 07, 2014  7:20pm

It would be good for many who have been recipients of short-term and other missionaries to share their feelings so that we who could do, and should do, more on behalf of missions, can be educated from those we serve on how to serve better.

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June 07, 2014  12:06pm

Very good article, taking in mind that the writer acknowledge he is still a teenager. im coming from South Africa - I get a lot of requests via Facebook to come and do short outreaches to your country. In all cases, the costs It for my own account. Never ever accommodation was offered to me, while staying there. Ive been told to check in to local hotels. It cost me 10 SARand for one USD. By the time the flight ticket for me and a companion is paid, the extra charges for weight restrictions on luggage, to bring clothes with, as well as accommodation and local transport paid it cost me about R30 000 . For me a gift of 2000USD is a lot of money. In total, the sum of R50 000 is the average yearly salary of a person in SA. The Bible also say : "be thankful for everything you get". this attitude caused that my husband refused me to do any more short term outreaches, although my heart long to do it. So, in my case, rather dont invite us to come.

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Monte Lalli

May 31, 2014  8:01pm

Thank you for your honest, heart-felt view on this subject. Having served as a short-term" missionary, I find I already subscribe to your way of thinking. I was a short-term missionary who lived in El Salvador for one year, working with several different congregations there. I've also gone and led several week-long trips back to El Salvador and Honduras. Though I agree with all of your points, I find that it is vital - imperative - to get number 3 right. If you are going to go and help, make sure it IS helpful. Coordination with the local congregation/school/orphanage is the best way to make a positive, significant impact on the lives you hope to serve. Jesus was the only one who knew what people needed perfectly - for the rest of us, as you say, "Ask, ask, and ask again." Thanks again. I have shared this article with the other members of our church's mission focus group and the local ministers in Honduras and El Salvador. God bless you in your continued walk with Him.

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May 31, 2014  7:44pm

I don't usually post comments on articles. In fact I don't believe I ever have. But, I appreciate the way this article is worded and the intent behind it. It is a very humble and accurate opinion from someone whom has experienced both sides. In response to a previous comment, I too am a long term missionary and while I haven't been on the ground for many years I also see that we need to be very careful with not being self righteous in our long term efforts. Long term missionaries can have the same positive and negative impacts as short term missions. I have seen it many times. This really addresses both. We are guests in whatever country we are serving and we need to be sure that we have the attitude of a servant. l feel that if we keep a humble heart that God will be able to use all of us. Lack of unity is one of the major factors that suffocates the impact we could have. We need to remember that God doesn't need any of us. He wants us all to learn to be obedient to Him.

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