I witnessed one of the best missions presentations today at the Wisconsin School of Christian Mission. Anita Ayers Henderlight, Executive Director of the Africa Education & Leadership Initiative presented an uplifting, positive, informative, hopeful and highly motivational program on the Sudan. Uplifting? Positive? Hopeful? SUDAN? What gives? The United Methodist Church produces an unending stream of media decrying how awful and terrible things are in the Sudan, especially Darfur. And yes, there are many challenges in the region, but that’s only half the story. The real difference isn’t about who is telling the truth — the real difference is who is using motivation and who is resorting to manipulation.
One of the most immediate differences in Anita’s presentation is that it is about real people in real settings living their real lives. There are very few posed pictures; no sincere-looking Pastor Happy showing how concerned he is in every third shot. No images designed to tug at the heartstrings in a calculated way. No crying babies covered in flies with open wounds, no distended bellies, not hopeless empty gazes. What is striking about Anita’s images are the number of smiling, happy people. Are they struggling in difficult settings? You bet. Are they in danger from disease and violence? No question. Are they living lives of quiet desperation? No way! The images in this morning’s presentation were of possibilities, not problems; hope, not despair; people pulling together, not people coming apart. Anita is committed to creating something beautiful, not merely eliminating something bad. It is such a hopeful, powerful message — one which I wish our whole denomination would pay attention to.
Doing good is its own reward. Seeing our efforts make a difference is meaningful. Being beaten over the head by the immensity of the problems is not. Sure, we might guilt someone into giving a dollar or two, and we may manipulate people’s emotions enough to make them part with their hard-earned cash, but research shows that in such cases, once people give a few bucks they move on, figuring that they did their part and nothing more is expected. However, when people contribute to building something positive, they tend to invest for a longer period of time. Modern marketing techniques are all about behavior modification and short-term results. Too bad we have adopted so much from modern marketing…
Years ago (1985), I returned from a mission trip to Haiti. I put together a slide show and presented it all over the Northern (now Greater) New Jersey Annual Conference. The pictures showed our projects, the people we worked with, the people we worked for, and the children of the villages/towns. Scene after scene showed laughing, playing, singing people. Some of the poorest people I ever met laughed almost constantly. They were gentle and kind, and their spirit shown through the pictures. Even in an orphanage where the majority of the children were sick — some terminally so — most of the pictures showed smiling or laughing people. When I showed the slide show around the conference, many people commented, “This isn’t what I expected. On TV all you see are crying babies and sad mothers and fly encrusted sores. Where are all those people?” Well, they were there. They were just hard to find. Most people that I have met in Haiti, Africa, Central and South America are not living under a cloud of despair. They cope. They persevere. They prevail. Sadly, there are many leaders in our church who are afraid happy, contented people aren’t compelling enough to use to raise money. So, they look for the heart-tuggers and the tragedies.
I know well over a hundred people who serve (or have served) as missionaries. Almost universally they speak of the courage, strength, nobility and spirit of the people they serve. They are motivated to make things better, and while they honestly and realistically understand the life-and-death challenges people face, rarely do they use such information to manipulate.
Don’t get me wrong. There is great suffering and great human need. Most Haitians were not laughing, singing and dancing in the streets following the recent earthquake. It was appropriate to share images of that suffering and tragedy to raise both awareness and funds for the situation. Yet, people cannot long exist in that hyped-up condition of concern and compassion. The sad fact is that the needs in Haiti are as great today as they were a few months ago, but the support is no longer there. Many Americans believe that we “took care” of that problem; unaware of the needs and demands that continue. However, a news report the other day talked to some relief workers in Haiti who were commenting on how bad things still are. And in the background? A small group of children laughing and playing in the rubble.
United Methodists do not need to be manipulated. We don’t need another slick video highlighting how compassionate and caring the pastor is as he holds a fragile child on his lap. We don’t need cunningly spun stories and images telling half-truths and untruths aimed at raising money. What we need is to know what is really going on. We need to connect with people around the world to make this world a better place. We don’t need marketed campaigns. We need to build relationships with real people doing real work to make a real difference. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to see an authentic and balanced presentation on a significant mission opportunity in the Sudan. It made me proud to be United Methodist… something I don’t feel nearly as often as I would like.