All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Emily’s Story

Emily joined the African mission work because it “sounded good. It was the way we should be helping.”

The mission hosted an orphanage and had plans to build a school and tech center for women. It was holistic in its service to the poverty-stricken community. 

Emily had just graduated from college and was ready to begin her life in a foreign land, serving people as Christ would want her to serve. Emily bought her plane ticket with the intention of being a career missionary. She was excited to serve the Lord in this way.

Emily began our discussion saying that the mission was “shiny,” but when she had been with the Christian organization for a little while, that glitter began to wear off. She said, “When I saw the other side of the mission, it was like a one way mirror.”

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It started with small things.

The soap that they were teaching the nationals to make had a variety of ingredients. But, when it was marketed in the United States certain ingredients were left off the label.

“It was not a big deal,” she said, but she was curious why the ministry was leaving them off.

There was a constant flow of visitors. As Janice (the mission Director) would show the visitors around, Emily heard the same refrain over and over. The orphans they were serving were put on display. Emily said, mockingly, “Come and smile for these white people. Sing songs because they like that.”

Emily noted that there were so many visitors that Janice didn’t even know the children because she was so busy “showing off” the mission. Emily explained, “She didn’t know the culture, the values, important things to raising a kid. Yeah, she knew that in America, but in Africa there was a completely different value system.”

She saw a disconnect from the culture and seemingly little interest in getting to know the people on a real day-to-day level.

It was like the image presented of the organization was all that mattered, not whether it was actually serving the community or not.

Racial Boundaries

One day she was confronted by Janice. She said, “I need you to be in charge of those women in back. Yer the boss.” Emily said she felt so uncomfortable with that. “I was 23 and some of these women had grandchildren.”

Rather than allow the nationals do works of ministry, the “white girl” from America needed to be in charge. Why would Emily, who had so little experience with children, be the “boss” to a group of women who had years and years of experience?

But, there was a disturbing boundary between the Africans and Americans.

They would go to a local church together, but the Americans would be put in the front row seats and everyone stared at them. Emily explained that they would “pretend to cross the cultures periodically,” but there was no real interest in tearing down racial divides.

Laws of the Land

Janice was also breaking the country’s laws in a variety of ways in the name of “ministry.”

The ministry was saving money by purchasing rice on the black market.

They were forging birth certificates. They made up the ages for the children to encourage adoptions.

When Emily questioned Janice, she said, “This is how things work over here. I’ve been here a long time.”

But Emily, said, “As a 23 year-old you begin to think its okay to do all these morally wrong things while saying we are standing for righteousness!” She said, “There was so much truth mixed in with it that over time I began to question whether it really was the way to do it.”

Be Warmed and Be Filled

There is a passage in James that challenges our tendency to do what is expedient rather than providing real, tangible help to others in need.

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James 2:15-17 (ESV)

Emily shared that Janice was gone one day and a local family came asking for help. They needed food or money. Emily told me,

“We said no, we can’t help you right away. Then later that day we had the realization, ‘What did we just do?’ It was almost like we had been brainwashed. We couldn’t help unless we got something out of it.”

She said it was a sobering moment. Emily reflected, “Shouldn’t we be helping – pushing back a bit?” But she said Janice would just say, “We can’t help everyone.”

There were more stories and it seemed to Emily that what they cared about was looking good and making money but didn’t really care about taking care of the kids there.

Emily told a heart-rending story of a two year-old who was brought to the orphanage. The child had a broken leg and was malnourished. She needed traction on her leg, but Janice was too busy and wouldn’t be of any help. Emily spent much time talking to doctors, but finally the child’s mother came and took her to Doctors Without Borders.

Getting Out

When Emily decided she needed to get out, she sought to bring some accountability to Janice by going to the board of the ministry.

She said, “I had a list of all the injustices. I laid it out for the board. But they simply responded, ‘Well, she’s been there so long. We just have to trust what she’s doing.'”

Emily sadly said she was in a long line. There were at least four others who had gone to the board before her.

She moved to a house nearby before returning to the United Stated. Emily explained, “I didn’t want my name associated with the ministry.” One of the boys in the orphanage begged her, “You can’t leave us with her!” She said it deeply hurt. She felt guilt that she was abandoning the children.

Learning

When I asked her what she focused on in the midst of the fire, she said, “I kept thinking about what Jesus would be doing? What would that look like. Thinking about how faith works into this? What does it look like for an organization to follow Christ?”

She said she read the gospels. Her experience put into perspective what the Bible said about the outcasts of society. 

And Emily talked to anyone she could when she came home. She wisely noted, “I knew who not to talk to because of cultural clues.” Her experience like so many was that some people just don’t want to hear about apparent failure on the mission field. Some just want you to get over it and move on. They tire of hearing your story.

Some people had the attitude, “you made a commitment.” That was not helpful, she said.

Healing

I asked Emily what has been most healing for her over the past years since returning from the mission.

She said, “Talking to other people in similar circumstances.” Emily would realize that she wasn’t crazy when hearing other stories. She had been living with that feeling of insecurity.

In addition, it has been helpful to share frequently with a friend that was with her there at the mission. She tries to remember the sweet times. She doesn’t want to throw the baby out with bathwater and forget that there was good ministry there as well. 

She met her husband three weeks after getting back to the United States. Emily said,

“He loved me no matter what crazy thoughts I had. Especially in the beginning. It’s an experience that will never leave. It impacts everything about me. Having someone who isn’t judging was incredibly healing.” 

When she and her husband moved to a small town in the west, she crossed paths with a woman who had had a similar experience on the mission field in Africa. They sat down at Emily’s house and she told some of her story and Emily told hers. Emily said, “That was one of the most healing times.”

Forgiveness

I asked her what her journey of forgiveness has been like. She said it was a “big question everyone asks.” She said, “I don’t care to have a relationship with Janice, but have come to where I can have grace for her knowing her brokenness. She’s a human too.”

But, she added, “I could never trust her again.”

Emily noted, “Not forgiving only hurts me. She doesn’t know I haven’t forgiven. It only creates bitterness.”

But, it has been a slow process. She doesn’t think forgiving is just a “one and done” kind of experience. “I still can find myself getting up and angry again. It is more like a spiral . . . I just keep coming back to it. It is such a complicated thing.”

Some Advice

When I asked Emily if she had some advice for others suffering under toxic organizational leadership she said,

“Get out!”

She has seen others stick it out in abusive church leadership situations and the trauma and pain it has caused has convinced her that she took the right step of getting back on the plane.

“You can tell when someone is being called to do what they do and it never looks like an abusive situation.”

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