Before I begin this post, I want to make clear that I am not writing this post to be passive aggressive. I am not responding to any one person in particular or have any one group or person in mind. I did recently reply to an email that inspired this post, however. My email reply addressed the topic of this post in a loving and gentle way, and as I continued to think about it, I decided that this was a topic worth writing about for others to consider as well. I appreciated VERY much the person who wrote to us to ask if it was a good idea before moving forward with it, and because of her question, I was inspired to address it publicly from the perspective of a missionary.
I’ll begin with my own short-term mission experience about three years before I became a long-term missionary myself. We were preparing to go on our first mission trip as a family. We were going to Brazil, and we were going during the same week that Brazil would be playing the USA in the World Cup! What a time to go to Brazil, right? Our younger son was an avid soccer player, and he asked me if he could take some soccer balls to give out to people. My reply at the time was, “Well I don’t know why not!” This mama’s heart was thinking, “Oh how precious that my young son wants to minister to other kids in this way!” I was so proud. So we contacted Eurosport and they agreed to donate 30 soccer balls! I emailed the team leader and informed him that one of our suitcases we would be bringing would be FULL of soccer balls to give out to the kids in Brazil. Looking back through hind-sight, I know now what must have been going through his mind. “Oh boy. How do I tell this proud mother this is not a good idea?” So he gently agreed (since the balls were already acquired and packed) and said we would talk about the “best way to share them” after we got there.
So the day arrived when we all went to Brazil and unpacked our things. We were so eager to see the children’s’ smiling faces when we placed a soccer ball in their hands. We began writing “Jesus Saves” in Portuguese on every ball. While we were writing, the team leader came and sat with us and began his gentle message like this: “Now we are going to need to be very careful how we handle this. We don’t want to get any child in trouble or cause harm. I need you to trust me and let me show you the best thing to do with these balls. We will NOT be distributing them to all the children.” Then he explained the reason why and informed us that we would give five balls to an orphanage, five to a men’s prison we would visit, five to a church/school, five to a local soccer team, five to the local mission we were supporting, and then he would let us keep aside the last five to give to someone in particular secretly. Hmmmm…. that’s not really what we had in mind, but we had agreed to be flexible and trust our leader. Throughout the week, our boys would play soccer in the dirt with local kids and use one of the five balls that was left. By the end of the day, the ball was busted and it would get left for someone to pick up. At the end of the week, we had one ball left, and we decided to give it to a little boy who had worked hard to help us all week. We put it in a bag to conceal it and we gave the bag to a translator to give to him in private. I remember the feeling I had when he left there with his ball. Fear came over me, and all I could think about was the danger I may have put him in by giving him a ball. It was a little disappointing and non-ceremonial for what we would have preferred, but still, we trusted our leader and prayed he made it home safely. We found out later that he did make it home, but he would not play with it because he was afraid someone would be jealous or try to fight him for it. My heart broke for him. Somehow giving away a soccer ball did not feel like I was expecting it to feel. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
Now fast forward seven years. We have been missionaries in Haiti for five years now. The tables have turned, and now we understand exactly what our leader in Brazil was saying when he said to trust him to know the best way to give the soccer balls. The first year we were here, we didn’t know any better, and we agreed to let a team bring 65 soccer balls to give out to children at VBS. When the day came to distribute them, we had massive chaos. HUNDREDS of people had gathered outside our gate because they heard we were giving away soccer balls. By the afternoon, children were getting jerked and trampled and shoved against the gate as people jockeyed for an opportunity to get a ball. The team was shocked and devastated that what they had looked forward to for so long had turned into massive, dangerous chaos. Many of the team members sat down and cried as little children in VBS were getting jumped by bigger kids that would take their soccer ball and run with it. We decided right then and there that Hope Center WOULD NOT be a place that would come to be known as a distribution center. We would never, ever encourage massive, unorganized distribution of anything. When teams would bring things to be given to people in our village, we would take them gratefully and explain that they would eventually be given to someone, but not all at one time.
Since then, my living room has become a “suitcase graveyard” of bags full of things to be given away. We have suitcases full of clothes; suitcases full of toys; suitcases full of shoes; suitcases full of hygiene products. You name it, we’ve got it in a suitcase in our living room. Sometimes we will have someone come in and say, “Why do you keep all of this stuff in your house when there are people in the village that need it!?” My answer is always the same, “Oh people will get it eventually, but they will get it when God shows us the need and not by distributing it to people all at one time.” We try to explain to teams when they come in that although we know they came here with a giving heart prepared to bless as many people as possible, sometimes we all have to let go of the need to be the one giving things and just know and trust that God will show us when there is a need to be met. We try to explain that distributing “stuff” just isn’t what our mission is all about. Our mission is about Jesus. Our mission is about loving on people, building relationships, praying with people, and meeting needs both materially and spiritually as God leads us. If all we do is distribute things from week to week, the mission becomes more about giving “stuff” and not about giving Jesus. It’s not sustainable. It’s not healthy. It’s not what God put us here to do.
So when someone asks me if they can bring or send 100 pairs of flip flops, my heart just fills up with dread because I don’t want to come across as uncaring or unappreciative or rude. I love a giving heart in a person who wants to know how they can best serve the people in our village. I love it when I am given an opportunity to share with people what I once did not understand before I became a missionary myself….but I do dread the possibility of being misunderstood.
Besides the fact that the terrain and climate in our little Haitian village is not conducive to the thin, rubber flip flops, and they will disintegrate and fall apart in a week, it just isn’t wise to pass them out like candy in a large group setting. What happens is, word gets out quickly that “the blans” are giving out sandals, then people come running from all directions to receive the free gift that the Americans are giving out. Little children, who were in the front of the line, suddenly begin to get shoved to the back of the line, or worse yet to the ground. Hands become stretched out over the sea of people, reaching for the next pair to come hovering out over the crowd. Someone will grab the pair, but another bigger person will snatch it out of their hands and run with it. People get angry and start yelling. Children start crying because their sandals got jerked out of their hands, and they ended up with nothing. Then suddenly, the “blans” pack up their empty suitcase, get on the bus, and leave the area, and not one word of Jesus has been shared. All that is left is crying children sitting in the dust left from a bus full of people who are already sharing their photos and stories with one another about what a great experience it was to give something to children “who have nothing.” I’ve seen the scenario over and over again, and it breaks my heart more and more every time I see it.
So perhaps you are asking why I felt it was necessary to write this post after going so long without writing. Well, I just felt led. We’ve recently had people question why we hang onto stuff instead of immediately giving it away. We’ve even had people get angry with us when we told them we didn’t need to distribute things that they brought in large quantities. What they didn’t know is that just last week, we filled six giant suitcases full of clothes, shoes, and toiletries and gave the suitcases to six local pastors to take to their churches and give to their members. They were thrilled and very appreciative that they could give some things to their people who need things – not the “blans” but the pastors.
The precious lady who emailed me asking if she could bring 100 pairs of flip flops had beautiful intentions. She wants to give of her own resources to help people in our village. I get that, and I am thankful. I am also very thankful that she was understanding and gracious when I suggested she take the same money she would have spent on flip flops and contribute it to buy Medika Mamba for our malnourished patients; or to buy recyclable grocery bags to make sponsor gifts to give to children when they come to get measured for their sponsor update; or to buy medicine to replenish supplies in our clinic…. Of course, I realize that it isn’t as much fun to contribute to causes such as these as it is to give out flip flops and have pictures posted with a big “thanks for sending flip flops!” in the caption, but if you really want your contribution to have the greatest impact, you will trust us and follow our lead. We don’t mean to steal your thunder. We just want to serve our Lord and bless our people in the most practical and loving way we possibly can. We want to make an impact and not create chaos. We want to share Jesus and not “stuff.” We want to be led by God. We want teams to join us in that.
That’s what’s on my heart today. Thank you for your prayers and your support. We appreciate you more than you can possibly know.
Mickie and Tony West