Finding Redemption in My Addiction to Short Term Missions
~ By Michelle Schmidt
A few years back I fell in love with a place called Rwanda.
Like all good love stories, it was love at first sight, it felt like we were meant for each other, I was swept off my feet, etc. as the beautiful country and its people stole my heart. It was dazzling and exciting; I saw true miracles take place. And it would’ve been a proper Disney fairytale had the credits rolled shortly after the magic happened. But the story kept going. And it got unfairytale-y.
The short version of that story is the same as almost every story of pain, which is that I wronged others and that I was wronged — so everyone acted like humans, pretty much. Except when it’s your own life, it’s a bigger deal.
Between the two — wronging others and being wronged — it’s the first that’s stung the most. Hurting people was never intentional. I was naive, I did dumb things, ended up in dumb places. But whether you mean to or not, you carry shame from something like that.
A lot of people go into short-term missions packing a messiah complex along with their anti-malaria pills. I was no different. I thought that I could fix a lot of people and situations. I wanted to be the hero, change the world, make my mark. At the age of 29, with zero experience in international development, I was pretty sure I had what it took to rescue a child, a village, a nation — and in so doing, grab hold of some sense of personal significance.
I knew I had this ego-centric mindset, but I couldn’t shake it. Maybe because I hoped to be the exception to the rule — everyone else had this false messiah complex, but what if I was the actual messiah? Well, you can guess how that turned out.
I also became an addict. If you’ve ever gone on a short-term mission trip, you probably got a taste of the emotional high that comes with a cross-cultural experience. It’s something I later began to call “Rwanda sugar” — though cocaine might be a better equivalent.
Missions addicts and crack addicts act pretty much the same with their erratic bursts of irrational, super-human energy. But instead of drugs, there are these deep, sub-surface emotions driving it all.
In between the altruistic and faith-filled motives — because those were certainly present as well — I craved adventure and was desperate to be someone special. Rwanda fed that. Rwandans are exceptional at making you feel good about yourself. Somehow it’s endemic in their culture. I have never felt so valued, so amazing as in my interactions with Rwandans. It left me euphoric and all I wanted was more of it.
And I didn’t even need to go on a mission trip to get it — thanks to the glorious world wide web, it was constantly available. For a time, my thoughts, emotions and energy revolved around the relationships and potential roles I could play in Rwanda. I took on inordinate roles in my Rwandan relationships; I couldn’t not pour every ounce of myself into them. It was draining and yet I felt so fulfilled by these emotions that they became my food — to the point that I was hardly interested in real food and reached my lowest adult weight. That also felt good.
A couple “Rwanda sugar” cookies here and there is fine, but a steady diet of them is dangerous. I neglected real friendships and real opportunities in favor of relationships and opportunities that shimmered like a desert mirage. I neglected my family, investing my heart in a country on the other side of the world.
Because of my messiah complex and emotional addiction, I did not always relate to Rwandans in ways that affirmed their value. They were people to be helped — which made me feel good, but what did it make them feel? “Serving” and “loving” can bring shame rather than affirmation, a sense of being used rather than being empowered.
In the high emotion of all of this, I was oblivious to wrongs done to me. But over time, these things became harder to ignore. If I was using Rwandans for emotional gain, I began to wonder if I was being used too? All the things that were said to make me feel good began to look a little bit more like flattery, or emotional manipulation. Were they saying these things because they really liked me? Or did they just want money, connections or something else from me? I cannot judge intent. I only know how I felt.
There were also culturally accepted wrongs I wasn’t prepared for like dishonesty and the abuse of power and finances. Every culture has their pet weaknesses, things everyone does and so somehow it’s OK, but I didn’t see these coming and when they did, it hurt personally and left me disillusioned and cynical.
And amidst all this I began to see that cross-cultural ministry wasn’t the perfect, happy, effective system it had appeared to be. For all those who benefitted from the exchange, there were also emotional repercussions and spiritual fallout on both sides of the ocean.
At the beginning, Rwanda made me feel like I was soaring but within a few years, it felt more like drowning. My emotional cravings, my guilt, my sense of failure, my hurt and disillusionment threatened to overwhelm me.
I felt alone and misunderstood. Everyone in my Christian community had praised and encouraged every step in my journey — missions work is gold-star stuff, after all. And when I’d bring up this darker side of missions, my and others’ behavior would be excused with a “well, no one is perfect” — which, while true, felt dismissive. I felt like a little kid trying to convince a grown up to save her from the green monster under the bed.
I felt too ashamed to open up and ask for help. I was worried about how my mistakes would be received. I felt fragile and broken and wasn’t sure I would be handled with care. Maybe this fear was unfounded. I know stories of grace shown to people in my place. I also know stories of judgment.
It’s hard to describe this place to someone who hasn’t been there, but I was stuck in a way I had never experienced before. I wanted out of the emotional addiction, the ties formed by my cravings. I could see it was hurting me and the people I loved most, but I couldn’t break myself free. It was like I was swimming as hard as I could to get out, but the water kept pushing me down.
So I cried out to the only safe person I knew, the only one who had been near me the whole time. God heard and he answered. Someone I knew only as an acquaintance sent me a message and offered help; this person had once been where I was and, sensing I was struggling similarly, took a bold step in reaching out.
It was nothing other than a miracle. It was the hand that reached into the deep waters and pulled me up for air. I was offered grace, which is what I needed most in those days. Slowly, gently, I was able to let go of my attachments and break the emotional ties I had to that place.
I visited Rwanda twice: once to say hello and once to say good-bye — at least for a time. The first time I returned from Rwanda, my husband later said, it was as if I didn’t come back — my body was present, but my heart was not. It wasn’t until two years later, after my second visit, that I came home completely. If there is any one thing I could go back and undo, it would be hurting my family in this way.
With that mess behind me, I just wanted to forget everything that had happened. There was too much shame, too much confusion. It was easier to just close the door on Rwanda and move on. So that’s what I did. I maintained minimal relationships, but quietly cut off many of the rest.
But guilt and pain don’t disappear just because you isolate them and wait. Evidence of it would pop up in different places. I became more high-strung and noticed that I had started eating emotionally when I felt badly about something. Plus there was a lingering anxiety over what to do about cross-cultural missions — writing it all off didn’t seem like a long-term answer. I knew I couldn’t ignore that part of my story forever and after a few years was finally ready to do the hard, emotional work of facing it.
Over a couple weeks of focused prayer, I recalled and verbally released to forgiveness every instance of hurt and abuse against me. I was able to identify what I wanted my remaining Rwandan relationships to look like. I took time to confess every single moment that brought me shame or regret — to acknowledge it and hold it, and the emotions it brought, up to God. Others had forgiven me, God had forgiven me, but I still held these things against myself.
Those years before, I had broken away from the damaging behaviors, but with this final step of forgiveness I was finally free from the shame and pain I had been carrying around because of it. About a year after this, I realized my anxiety had decreased and I had stopped eating emotionally.
It’s been good for my Rwandan friendships too. Having shared these challenges and receiving forgiveness, we are free to relate as friends, true equals. We interact only occasionally, but when we do, it is honest and rich — a meeting of souls.
Last year I attended the wedding of one of these friends. Some of the other guests were those who I have come to know in my journey, both Rwandans and Americans. They share many of my experiences, adding mountains of their own sufferings and wrongs; they have been closer to it than I ever was.
I can’t even describe the beauty of the moment, all of us carrying these scars and wounds in varying stages of healing — and just being together, enjoying each other and celebrating the goodness God has given. I mean, that is a taste of heaven right there, right? All of us, with our giant wounds and messes, entering into love anyway?
I can’t tell you their stories, I can only tell my own. But I can tell you that there have been deep moments of healing for each of us. And God’s not done yet; this is only Chapter 4 and there is more grace and redemption ahead — there always is.
I know what yet needs redemption in my own story. I am still stuck in knowing how to help the poor without hurting them. I am stuck in knowing how to be generous because I still believe money can hurt people as much as it can help them. I am stuck in knowing when to speak up against wrongs and when to show grace. Probably because, underneath it all, I’m still stuck in knowing how to love — which has turned out to not be as neat or tidy, fun or easy as I had thought.
I ask myself sometimes why this happened? There have been times I have hoped it would be for the purpose of establishing a new and better system of cross-cultural ministry. There have been times I have hoped it had value as a lesson to others.
It is likely neither of these things.
What’s probably more true is that God allowed — maybe even invited me into — these things because He loves me. It has not always felt very loving, but I tell you, I am much richer for it. I understand grace in a new way now. I used to be perfect, or at least think I was, and now — well, that’s just hilarious. I hope that I am more empathetic, more forgiving of those who mess up, whether by intent or by foolishness. I’ve seen tremendous spiritual and emotional growth in myself through the experience. And the friends I’ve gained along the way, I wouldn’t trade them for the world; my life has been shaped immeasurably by their love and influence.
I have learned a thousand lessons, I have seen God show up a thousand times, I have tasted a thousand joys in this adventure in the Land of a Thousand Hills — and I think there’s more to come.
And I didn’t deserve a blessed one of those.
But I follow a God who turns ugly into beauty, sorrow into joy, shame into freedom — it is pretty great. The process, not so much. Getting redeemed is unfun. But being redeemed? I’d trade that for perfect any day.
By Michelle Schmidt