Savior or Partner? | Missions in Kenya

As I was reading Pocahontas to my children the other night, a particular part of the story stuck out to me.

“Smith told Pocahontas that it [his fancy compass] came from London, a very big village filled with carriages and bridges and big, tall buildings. “I’d like to see those things.” “You will. We’re going to build them here. We’ll show your people how to use this land properly, how to make the most of it.” Pocahontas glared at the Englishman. “Make the most of it?” “Yes. We’ll build roads and decent houses and – ” “Our houses are fine.” “You think that, only because you don’t know any better. There’s so much we can teach you. We’ve improved the lives of savages all over the world.” (I’ve never seen the movie, but apparently this is when Pocahontas breaks into “Colors of the Wind,” telling him exactly how she felt about her people being considered “savages.”)

The attitude of John Smith, although not unique to this particular story or time in history, reminded me of an attitude towards both short-term and long-term missions that Christians so often adopt. We may not consider our friends in other cultures “savages,” but like Smith we approach missions with the attitude of “Let us help you become more like us.” We step into materially poor cultures and are tempted to think that we have what they need.

We are overwhelmed by the needs we see and quickly our minds go to “How can I fix this?” The author of When Helping Hurts in Short-Term Missions says, “The needs within a community appear like flashing red lights around us, and it is tempting to slip back into an attitude of ‘doing’ and ‘fixing’. Focusing primarily on their needs, however real they may be, initiates the very dynamic that poisons our relationships: a dynamic that says we are superior, they are inferior, and we are the only ones with the power to change their situation.”

So what should we do? How should we act?

If you’ve been at Grace Church any length of time, you probably have heard the word partnership paired with the word missions time and time again. This is based upon the idea of building relationships with the community we are visiting, not based on what we give, but rather on how we can use our strengths to serve each other. With this type of thinking, the attitude is more “Let us be a part of what you are already doing and what God is doing through you.” The Lord is very much alive and at work in places that have no indoor plumbing or Targets.

And I thought I had this concept nailed down. My husband has had the privilege of being on many trips to Kenya and our family considers our Kenyan partner, Bernard Kabaru, a very dear friend. I have heard the word partnership explained many times and was excited to experience it firsthand last month on the July teaching trip.

At breakfast one morning in Kenya, Bernard reminded us of how we can help in Kenya. He said, “You can’t be our savior. We don’t need a savior– we have One. That’s God’s business…We need to ask Him, ‘God, I see you at work. What can I do? I want to be a part of what you’re doing.’ “I nodded in agreement. It made so much sense in my head since the idea was first introduced to me when this partnership was formed. But not even two-hours after that reminder at breakfast, God showed me that what I believed in my head didn’t necessarily match what I believed in my heart.

While our team was supporting a children’s and student ministry conference that Bernard’s ministry was hosting, a few of us had spent most of the morning outside with three of the children who had come along with their mothers. One of them was 6-year-old James, a seemingly shy boy who was full of laughter. He appeared to be happy and very bright– counted to 100 in English for me– and was excellent at soccer.

God showed me that what I believed in my head didn’t necessarily match what I believed in my heart.

After some questions, I learned his older sister was at University and his brother was in high school. He said his mother was working in Nairobi; I figured out later he was there with his grandmother. I asked about his father to which he replied matter-of-factly, “My father is dead.” I had to hide my tears. My heart was crushed…. oh, how I wanted to give James a home! He was clothed, well fed, and apparently educated, but wouldn’t he be better off with us?

I thought I had it down, but a small boy named James stirred the emotions in my heart, and I immediately wanted to save him. I held it together for a while, but had to walk away and find a place to cry. I was shocked by my own tears. Hadn’t I just agreed that I wasn’t in Kenya to “fix” the people there? Why did I think that bringing James to America to live with us would make everything better?

Do I believe that Christ is the Creator, Sustainer, and Reconciler of all things, and not just our souls?

I had to wrestle with this new realization about my heart and rehearse the Gospel to myself many times. The Gospel is the only thing that can be life-transforming.  A relationship with Jesus Christ is more beneficial and life-giving than living in the most affluent place on earth! I had even witnessed this all week long through the relationships I had made with the people there.  Their faith in Jesus and their commitment to making Him known were inspiring. Why did I feel differently about James? Was it because his clothes were a bit tattered?  Was it because his father was gone? Is God not bigger than that? Do I believe that Christ is the Creator, Sustainer, and Reconciler of all things, and not just our souls?

I wanted to be the functional savior in a situation where there wasn’t truly a need.

Let me be clear,  I’m not suggesting that adopting from another culture isn’t right. There certainly is a place for that, and I think it’s wonderful. My point is that I wanted to be the functional savior in a situation where there wasn’t truly a need.

I committed to pray for James that day– that He will come to know Jesus. That he will become a leader in Kenya- leading his family and leading within the local church. That God will use him in mighty ways as He is using Bernard, Mary, Robert, Erastus, Boniface, Elizabeth, Lucy and countless other brothers and sisters of ours in Kenya. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be a part of what God is doing over there.

I just looked up Pocahontas’ lyrical response to Smith calling her people savages:

You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you….” Let’s not have this attitude, Church. Let us allow the Lord show us His strength, power, goodness, grace and movement wherever we are — not just in Kenya, Nicaragua or Allendale. How about in our neighborhoods, schools and even within the local church? Like Paul challenges the Corinthians, let’s strive to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10)

-Mary Beth Spann