The other day, this tweet from People caught my attention:
Christina Aguilera takes an emotional trip to Rwanda, says "I know I will go back." http://t.co/aAU6D0QTeN— People magazine (@peoplemag) September 26, 2013
Having grown to love Rwanda during a mission trip there in 2011, my ears now perk up whenever I hear or see anyone mention it.
So naturally I clicked on the tweet to read more.
I was horrified by what I found.
This article paints Rwanda as “war-torn”, an adjective that conjures up images of blood, death, and chaos. Certainly, Rwanda was “war-torn” almost 20 years ago when genocide left nearly one million people dead. Even during the period immediately following the genocide, “war-torn” would still have accurately described Rwanda.
But today, nothing could be further from the truth. Rwanda is no longer “war-torn”. While far too many people still live in poverty, it's economy is growing. Instead of chaos, Rwanda has a strong, democratically elected government. What's more, it's a remarkably stable country in an area where this is rarely the case. Evidence of this includes the large number of NGO's and NPO's who house offices there.
Because of this, Rwanda is indeed home to many refugees from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These refugees have fled their country – a country which really is “war-torn” - for fear of their lives. Unable to be absorbed into Rwanda's budding economy, they live in the squalor of refugee camps simply because there is peace there. While there are several refugee camps throughout Rwanda, including Kiziba, where I spent time, despite what this People article suggests, none are located in Kigali, the capital city in Rwanda.
Nevertheless, while these inaccuracies bother me tremendously, what troubles me even more is the way this article focuses on Christina Aguilera rather than on the World Food Program she represents, the refugee camps she saw, or the Rwandans she met. Mind you, I realize this is an article in People, not the New York Times. I knew when I read it that this pop star would be the focus of the article.
Even so, as I read the article, I wanted to gag.
I think this was in part because I fear the article reflects attitudes prevalent not just in well-meaning pop stars, but also in well-meaning churches.
As Christians, I think when we hear about the world's problems, we long to help.
So those of us who are able, go.
Since we - by the color of our skin, our obesity, and our height – are novelties in many developing nations, when we go, we often find ourselves surrounded by people. In the process, we begin to think of ourselves as important; As gods; As Saviors to the “less-fortunate”. We begin to believe we are the bearers of God, hope, water, food, and medicine.
Before we know it, our trip becomes all about us and not at all about the very people we wanted so badly to serve.
When that happens, we tend to sound just like Christina Aguilera in this article.
In some ways, I understand this. As Aguilera claims, trips like these really are moving experiences that change us.
And maybe that's part of the point; Part of why God calls us to love and serve others in the first place.
The problem, I think, is not that we are changed. The problem is that in the process of being changed, too often we forget the primary purpose of trips like Aguilera's: Advocacy.
Dare I suggest that advocacy – not building a house or a church – is also really the primary purpose of any international mission trip churches take?
That's why, upon returning from international mission trips, we need to ensure we don't become our story's hero, nor it's primary characters. For when we do - when our stories become all about us and how we've changed - we steal the focus from those on whose behalf we are supposed to be advocating.
The stories that need to be told from trips like these are theirs – not ours.
We need to tell the stories
- Of the girl who sings in a choir alongside the guy who killed her dad in the genocide.
- Of the woman struggling to feed her children because nearly 20 years ago, she contracted AIDS when she was raped during the genocide. Since then, she's found it difficult to work.
- Of the villages where young children walk miles everyday to fetch dirty water for their family instead of going to school.
- Of the refugees at Kiziba whose creativity and ingenuity led to the start of a cell-phone charging business.
- Of how in the midst of the squalor of the camps, there are people who tend a garden in order to provide nutritious food to those in the camp who are most vulnerable.
- Of the deadly war raging in the Congo.
- Of people like Emile, who fled the Congo and who, despite suffering enormous loss and witnessing horrendous atrocities, is still hopeful about his future.
- Of long-term missionaries Jen & Serge and the work they do through Impact Rwanda to empower people and in so doing, change lives and communities.
These are the stories we need to tell. When they're told, others are moved.
And when others are moved with compassion, they act and change happens. Lawmakers make laws that are just, that truly protect the “least of these.” The UN funds rather than cuts food rations to refugee camps. And ministries like Impact Rwanda are able to continue working long after we've returned home because they're supported and funded.
As Christians, we are called to “do justice”.
Maybe that means that the point of mission trips is not just for us to be changed.
Maybe the point of mission trips is actually to learn about others so that our lives become intertwined, so that we see our own welfare as having a direct impact on theirs.
Maybe, therefore, the success of mission trips is not measured by whether or not we “go back” but by whether or not we faithfully continue to advocate on behalf of those we met; By whether or not we faithfully continue to support the work we saw there; By whether or not others are inspired to do the same; And by whether or not the lives of others are truly changed as a result.