Have you ever done something on a mission trip that, upon looking back, makes you feel sick to your stomach? Sometimes our best intentions result in actions that make us cringe in hindsight.
I once led a short-term mission trip to southern India where we went door to door with local pastors sharing the gospel. We rolled up five Americans deep with one local guide and translator, carrying a bag of food and other hygiene supplies for families in need. It’s worth asking whether we needed so many foreign arms to carry this donation or if most of us functioned primarily as onlookers, curious to peer into homes that look very different than our own. But that’s a topic for another time.
This story is about my blunder. During one of our village tours, we visited the home of an elderly woman suffering from cancer and chatted with her after giving out the supplies. As we were turning to leave, I reached into my Patagonia bag, pulled out my iPhone and pushed the shutter button to get a quick picture of the woman. That night as an update to our church at home, I captioned what looked like a National Geographic candid photograph with these words:
Today we gave out end of life care buckets to HIV and cancer patients and shared the gospel. This lady received a bucket and heard for the first time about the Father who has loved her all along.
Years later, I’d like to share three reasons why this moment stands out as a worthy candidate for a rewind and do-over.
First, I’m embarrassed that I took her photo at all. By not asking her permission, it could look like I assumed I deserved a photographic souvenir of my charitable act. I never gave her the chance to fix her hair or to smooth her clothes or even to smile — things I always do before someone takes my photo. I valued the “raw moment” more than treating her the way I expect to be treated.
When I think back, I put myself in her shoes. If I were the recipient of a bag of food because I was struggling through a really difficult season, would I feel empowered or humiliated to have my picture taken at such a vulnerable moment?
Second, I posted her photo as if I had a right to broadcast her and the inside of her home to my followers. I try to imagine if I would have done that to someone in America. I probably would’ve been worried they might log on and see it, but almost everyone in the world has a smart phone and the capability to access the internet now. Would I want someone in another country putting a similar picture of my family member on their account? Or would I assume we have some right to privacy that I denied this woman?
Third, I wrote the caption as if our short-term team was the hero. I made no mention of the local pastor who works in that village, arrogantly assuming he’d never told her about Jesus even though he arranged our visit to her. I cast us as swooping in to be the solution to her problem when I actually had no relational context to understand her needs at all. Imagine for a moment all the elements of the story that might be missing — the years this woman labored in the fields to provide for her family, children and neighbors who have sacrificially contributed to her needs in old age, a humor and quick wit with which she still brightens conversations. In that moment, a person with a lifetime of stories was transformed into my single snapshot prop. I was content with a story that kept me at the center, minimizing or neglecting the worth of the person in front of me and the contribution of the community who supported her before and after our visit.
Coming to terms with past mistakes is hard, but I recognize that humility is the only way forward. Repenting of ways that I’ve unintentionally caused harm and striving to do better for the sake of the global church is a worthy cause. Now I ask proactively as I take photos, ”What story is this image really telling?” I think about how my followers who will never visit India might stereotype all of the country in light of the content I post. I consider how a simple click could undermine human dignity or how a caption might elevate myself over others. I look for ways to build up the community with my camera and to make much of local leaders who are doing gospel work there. I believe we are called to a higher standard, even if it means I miss getting the picture altogether. I’m committed to dismantling these attitudes in myself, and I believe that these efforts both help me to live as a thoughtful, global Christian and honor the name of Jesus in the spaces he’s given me to serve.**A version of this article was originally posted at intersectproject.org.