Thursday, August 13, 2015

When Helping Hurts training in Soroti

By Anthony:

Recently Sara and I were able to lead a When Helping Hurts Training together in our town of Soroti.  Many were invited from all kinds of churches, but most of the participants were PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) pastors, deacons, youth leaders, and women's leaders from the many PAG churches in and around Soroti.  Overall, we had about 40 participants.  This training was our first chance to test out the third version of the training manual which I developed (in communication with one of the authors) based on the book When Helping Hurts.  Sara and I together have been continuing to edit and improve it and this is by far the best version yet.  I've talked a lot about this training already in other posts, so this time I want to highlight the very interesting discussions we had about common frustrations Ugandans have about missionaries and vice versa.  I'll put those reflections at the end.

This was a particularly unique training of all that I've done so far.  Firstly, Sara and I took turns leading the lecture portions.  Secondly, we had several missionary friends who attended the training as participants.  One was Geoff, who we met on the farm in Texas.  He just finished a year working in Tanzania and was visiting us for a week before going back to the US.  Then we also had Eric, who is volunteering at Pentecostal Theological College in Mbale (where we used to teach).  Then we also had Jennifer, a local missionary nurse in Soroti who also works in Karamoja.  Having so many people from different walks of life fostered many interesting discussions.  Here is Geoff below and his discussion group from the first day.  You may notice a couple of my TLT co-leaders in the photo below.

You can just make out Sara and Jennifer in the background of this photo.

We met over three days: two days one week, and one day the next week.  We met in different places and one day we decided to use our vehicle as our wall for papers.

About half the training is lecture and large group exercises.  The other half of the training is small group discussion.

As I noted at the beginning we had some heavy but gentle discussions about missionary / Ugandan interactions and frustrations on both sides.  This was the last lesson of the manual but it relates to all the complications about how to best help the poor, how to work together, and money issues that we dealt with in the rest of the training.  I was very happy that we had several missionaries taking part in the small group conversations about this.  I was also happy to see that the conversations were done gently and with love.  I did not detect anyone feeling uncomfortable or tense.  If anyone was uncomfortable, it was me!  I was worried about how the discussions would go because this was the first time having this discussion in any of my trainings.  In addition, I was trying to get myself ready to be a humble listener in case any of our Ugandan friends gave a frustration about me!  There were helpful things I learned, but overall I sensed that they very much appreciate Sara and me as missionaries.

I want to give you a few of many reflections from those discussions.  There were some stories that were especially interesting but I don't want to break any confidentiality so I cannot share those.  Some stories were very funny, trying to imagine silly things missionaries have done.  Other stories were disturbingly awful, and some hit close to home because I could see similarities in myself.

One of the things that touched me (because I have a dog who I take for walks publicly), was how offended Ugandans can be by the way we treat our dogs.  Many Ugandans use the term "dog" as a symbol for immorality or an immoral person.  "Dogs are security animals, not friends."  They are shocked by how much money Americans spend on their pets while there are people who are hungry and dying.  In general, I can tell you that stories were shared of missionaries caring more about their dog's food than the person's hunger who was working for them. 

A very important point in relation to the book When Helping Hurts, is that Ugandans want to be fundraising partners and contributors and don't want the missionaries to do everything or raise all the funds.  They should be asked to help with projects financially too.  (When missionaries don't ask, this is to treat Ugandans like dependent helpless children, which only sustains poverty and dependency, prevents development, and makes missionaries feel superior and prideful).

Another interesting point was that all the Ugandans agreed they would rather have a few long term missionaries than a few or many short term missionaries.  Short term missionaries leave by the time they start learning the culture.  This is very frustrating.  Not all missionaries come with a learning attitude, and even if they do, there is only so much they can do or learn in one week or one month.  I heard some lovely stories of missionaries who came with a learning attitude and formed deep relationships and the Ugandans were so sad to have them leave so soon, and then they have to start over with new missionaries again.  And we all, missionaries and Ugandans alike, laughed and lamented over the missionaries who think they can come and solve all the problems of Uganda in one week.

Another issue raised that is difficult for Sara and me to adjust to is that Ugandans get frustrated when a missionary only wants to meet a few people when visiting a home.  Ugandans just cannot understand why missionaries do not want to meet and fellowship with the entire extended family and other friends.

Also touching to me (since my Ateso is still so limited) is that Ugandans get frustrated when missionaries are not willing to learn the local language and expect all the Ugandans to know and speak in English.

They also shared frustrations about donors.  Many donors from other countries around the world say: "we want to give such and such, and the money can only be used for that."  Even if the Ugandans know that such a project is not fitting or unwise or will only create dependency, it's very difficult for them to say, "No."  Many donors will not listen at all and will be very "stubborn."  And if the Ugandans refuse to partner with them, they know that the things will be given to another church or city anyway, so again it's hard to say, "No."

There was also a significant discussion about missionaries not taking the time to greet people fully, asking how is home?, how is your family?, etc.  Ugandans know our Western cultures and they try to be understanding, so most of the time they don't force us to do these long greetings and just let us go our way in our hurry.  But they did admit that it frustrated them and it is much better for the relationship if the missionary is willing to spend more time greeting and talking and not be so rushed.  I do fairly well with this one most of the time, but it is not easy.  I have to force myself to ask all of those questions.

They are also frustrated when missionaries are sent from the USA who are not trained, or who are not strong in faith.  Someone asked, "are the donors back home actually strong in faith but are just sending middle-men?"  They want missionaries who are strong in faith, theologically trained, able to preach, and willing to abide by the standards of the church (such as not drinking alcohol).  They wonder, "if they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?"

Connected to the above, Ugandans are frustrated when missionaries teach against the local teachings of the church.  Even if this is done by accident, it is frustrating that the missionary did not take the time to learn about the beliefs of the local churches.

Last, Ugandans are also very offended when missionaries do not accept gifts from them.  Ugandans want to be able to experience the joy of giving.  So if a missionary always says, "no, you cannot pay for that meal, or guesthouse, you must let me pay," or they refuse to accept a gift in the village like a chicken, this is really offensive and it shows that the missionary feels superior and feels like Ugandans have nothing to contribute.

Although I'm not going to write about it here, the Ugandans were also able to learn about the frustrations that missionaries have with Ugandans.  Those exist too and some of them are quite important, especially with the issues of money.  It's easy for us and probably for you to think about and imagine those frustrations.  That is why I wanted to focus on how Ugandans feel so we can all learn from these reflections.
At the end they said this was the first time ever that they ever heard of missionaries being willing to talk about the "dirty part of missions" which they appreciated very much.   The training did a lot to crush superiority and inferiority complexes and build better relationships.

Here are some of the fun drawings of community development.  On the right is Eric who is working at PTC.  In the middle are Lazarus and Betty who also help me lead TLT. 



  1. Wow, Anthony. Sounds as though you are really making some progress in your work and in the understanding of your role as missionary. I'm think that your perspective on missionary work and how it impacts the culture and the problems that are associated with it may make a wonderful book that would benefit folks in US churches and future missionaries. Thanks for writing about it.


  2. I want to affirm what Bill said, Anthony and Sarah. These insights are so helpful! Thanks for taking the time to share what you learned.

  3. Thank you both! Most of these insights are written about in the book "When Helping Hurts" so I don't know if another book is necessary, but I'll keep it in mind :)

  4. Nalini Suganandam-Van Den BoschAugust 13, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    This is great - very helpful (at times, a painful reminder) and something we can use in our pre-field training sessions. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. We are always learning. Many blessings to you both.
    - nalini

  5. Really enjoyed reading this, Anthony! Thanks for taking the time to share the feelings of the Ugandans towards American missionaries. Thankful the Lord is using you and Sara in encouraging ways through When Helping Hurts training. Praise Him!

  6. Thank you for sharing all the details, so we all can learn from these sessions! This is a powerful exchange of insights and God will use it for His glory in your ministry there. Praise be to God!

  7. Another excellent post Anthony! Thank you for doing the hard work of developing lasting and trusting relationships with the local believers.

  8. Wow. Obviously an important discussion to have had. And to continue to have. I am reminded of a time many years ago when I think I deeply offended an Ethiopian man. We had had him at our place for a meal the week before (we lived in Canada at the time). He returned to our church the following Sunday and wanted to give me a small gift. When I had refused a few times, he eventually just thrust it at me, and stalked off. I still recall the look of hurt and disgust/frustration in his face. The shame I felt after that encounter really caused me to think about becoming a gracious receiver, not just a giver.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this! How I would have loved to have been there to hear the deep conversations.

  10. This is breakthrough stuff. So good to see these question and issues taken so seriously, and dealt with so openly and constructively.

  11. Nice work! Love to see you and Sara in action! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Wow Jacci, it's been a long time! Hope you are doing well, God bless you in your ministry!

  13. Inspiring and crucial lessons, your message is a tremendous gift. May God bless you as you bless so many others! Deep admiration and gratitude ~ Shalom

  14. Inspiring and crucial lessons, your message is a tremendous gift. May God bless you as you bless so many others! Deep admiration and gratitude ~ Shalom