In her article “‘These People’ Have Names”, Heather Reynolds of Experience Mission presents a seemingly innocent way that a hero complex exposes itself in our vocabulary. It’s as subtle as the way we distinguish ourselves from the people we serve. It’s not purposeful, and certainly not malicious, but it highlights the need for careful self-reflection because often we devalue the dignity of other people even while doing our best not to.
“If you’ve been a part of mission work for long, you’ve probably noticed it, too. It’s a harmless phrase on the surface. Often packaged in a sentence like: “These people have so little, but they’re so happy” or “These people sure like their moonshine.” But it quickly gives way to generalizations or jumping to conclusions about an entire culture based on one interaction. It creates a separation between “us and them”. Although it may not be our intention, this kind of subtle phrasing keeps us at the center of the story—the hero—someone here to help “these people” who we believe cannot help themselves…
The life of Jesus modeled something entirely different, and our approach to modern day missions has a lot to re-learn from his example. He knew names. He healed by name. He slowed down in the midst of a crowd to look people in the eye. He was involved in the messy, broken and nitty-gritty parts of their lives. He made friends with some of the most unlikely people of his day, who society or the religious elite would have preferred to overlook. But he didn’t just treat them with compassion because it was a nice thing to do. He saw each person as truly deserving of dignity and respect because of their inherent value—the image of his Father looking back at him.”
We’re convicted by Reynolds’ observation and encouraged by her example to evaluate even the words and phrases we take for granted. We’ve all used the term “these people” to describe a community we’ve visited. Thankfully, Reynolds also has some suggestions for a better way forward:
“4 Ways to Build Authentic Relationships During a Mission Trip:
1. Pause long enough to know the color of someone’s eyes.
We don’t want to just paint a widow’s house because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we see her as a person with inherent value who deserves kindness, respect and a home she can be proud to call her own.
2. Remember names and use them.
Even if the ability to learn and recall names doesn’t come naturally, we can all take steps to improve. The simple act of calling someone by name is a small way of demonstrating we see them as people who are worth knowing, not as projects we’re just trying to cross off the list. Worried you’re still going to forget? Consider keeping a journal or notes in your phone with names or information about people you meet. Often, simply writing down someone’s name or something about them after you first meet can help you have a more personal interaction the next time.
3. Consider how you talk about a project or task.
Even the way we name a project communicates something important. By calling it “Mary’s House” vs. “the roofing job on Maple Street” we’re keeping Mary as the priority. Instead of just becoming a nameless recipient of charity, we see Mary as the center of what is happening.
4. Recognize you may just be a small part of the ongoing story, not the solution.
Often, we go on a mission trip with a desire to see real, lasting change. But with limited time, we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish in the week. There are often deep-rooted challenges in communities or in the lives of individuals, which can’t simply be fixed in a week. Our role is to humbly serve in whatever way we are asked, really listen to people’s stories, and trust there is a season for everything. (1 Cor. 3:6-9)”
We hope that Heather Reynolds’ reflection serves as a helpful example and spurs you on in ministry that preserves human dignity!
- Heather Reynolds poignantly demonstrates how the phrase “these people” alienates us from the people we intend to serve. Can you think of another subtle way we undermine human dignity without meaning to?
- How does a theology of “God at work” change the way we frame our role on a 127 GO Team or any other ministry engagement?
- 127 Worldwide is committed to mutual-edifying relationships with local leaders, but all relationships have the potential for mutual impact. If our aim is the mutual building up of believers (including the people our partners serve), what suggestions can you think of to add to Reynolds’ “4 Ways to Build Authentic Relationships?”