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Missionaries preying on the poor


A couple of years ago, my parents sent me to Cambodia on a missions trip during my Summer holidays. I think the main reason they paid for me to go was because they knew I would get crazy bored at home and they wanted to keep me out of trouble. Anyway, I was beyond excited and so thankful to them for allowing me to go. It ended up being quite a mixed experience.

I set off, ready to eradicate poverty and change the world. I went with a couple of (middle aged) ladies from my church, which wasn’t ideal for my sixteen year old self. I had to pray and go to church during my time over there. I had to sing songs about Jesus with the kids. I didn’t feel great about that. I wished my parents would have put the money towards a secular volunteering trip with World Vision or something like that, but I was lucky they were giving me this opportunity, I wasn’t going to complain.

So anyway, we went over there and did our thing. We handed out meals to people in the slums despite the fact that the food would barely last a day, tomorrow they would be hungry again. I washed head-lice out of kid’s hair, knowing that the process for getting rid of lice is not as simple as one wash. I even gave slum women manicures, cause that’s totally important when you’re scrounging for food in a garbage dump all day. After watching a preacher tell the Good News to a group of slum dwellers and seeing them rapidly converted, I realised that this trip was not about helping people overcome poverty, but about doing nice things for them so that they would listen to us when we tried to convert them. I really should have suspected something when I saw that our trip slogan was (something like): “We can’t change the world, but we can show His love.” I was really disappointed that I was not helping change people’s lives.


I had been given some money to spend on helping these people. Our team leader asked me to put it towards a trip a water park for the slum kids. I said no. I wanted to actually help people have better lives. A sustainable, healthy, progressive standard of living. The team leader said to me: “These kids would never get a chance to do anything like this! It could be the best day of their lives.” Nope. I will not spend money on this when many of them won’t have any food to come home to, or enough money to pay for high school. I want the best day of lives to be their university graduation or their wedding day. I want them to grow old and reach their full potentials. The notion that a day at the pool could be the best day of their lives is precisely why I could not give my money to that.

I wonder how much money of Christian missionaries is wasted on “showing them Jesus’s love” rather than combatting poverty. So much effort is put into manipulating these people so that they will be receptive to the gospel. It felt like we were farmers, fattening up our pigs so that they would be ready when the time came for the kill. It seems to be nothing more than the manipulation of the poor and uneducated. So I’m not a big fan of this type of Christian mission.



About Ellen Rose

Blogger curious about how travel helps us to lead more meaningful lives.

18 responses »

  1. Very powerful story! It’s awesome that you stood up to frittering away the money you were given so that you could possibly use it to improve their lives in meaningful ways.

    • criticofchristianity

      Thanks! It was pretty difficult, they guilt tripped me out a lot for it. But I think it’s important to stand by your principles. I would have thought Christians, of all people, would understand that, but apparently not.

      • I was a hard-core Bible-banging True Believer ™ for most of my life. I didn’t realize it till fairly recently (and I’ve been out of the Christianity game for about 12 years) that it’s okay to question. It’s okay to challenge…so long as you come to the pre-approved conclusion.

      • criticofchristianity

        Haha yeah, that’s exactly right. It traps your thinking and stops you from learning.

  2. Never had an honest insider account of missionary work before. Very interesting 🙂

    • criticofchristianity

      It was an interesting experience. It helped solidify my atheism. I realised that the only reason Christians care about others is because of Jesus. That seems a bit shallow to me. I really think it’s better to care about people out of honest empathy. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  3. I can emphasise a bit with how it must have been for you in Cambodia, from seeing poor people in other countries but also from reading Christopher Hitchens book on the missionary work of mother Teresa. Maybe you know it. It’s called ‘The missionary position’ and his critique concentrates on the same things you mention. He calls for the work of mother Teresa to be judged by what she actually did, or did not, do. Not many people have done that yet.

    • criticofchristianity

      I’ve seen his documentary about her. It’s very interesting. I think she is pretty overrated, as is most Christian mission. They don’t care about helping eradicate poverty, they only care about getting people to heaven. It’s extremely wasteful and I think it’s really unfair on poor people.

  4. I think all of you are extremely ignorant of the life and teachings of Jesus.

    • criticofchristianity

      Why? I’m really sorry you think that. I have done and am still doing my best to learn about him. I’ve been to church my whole life, I’ve read all of the New Testament, I’ve read many books about him and gone to many Bible studies. I went to a Christian school and was taught about him there. I will (hopefully) be studying theology as an elective next year. I don’t really know what more I can do?

      Perhaps you’re confused about this post. I am not criticising Jesus so much as his followers here. Maybe if Jesus’s followers knew more about his teachings of unconditional love, selflessness and kindness, they would put the wellbeing of others before their attempts to convert them. To me, it seems like they are the ignorant ones. What do you think? Thank you for commenting by the way 🙂

  5. What you can do is stop criticising about others and start working for Christ. No amount of studying is going to help you if you focus on criticising others. Jesus Himself has said “Woe to you hypocrites ! You want to remove the splinter in other’s eyes but cannot see the log in your eye”. You claim to have read the Bible – so you must be knowing better.

    • criticofchristianity

      Hold on, I thought you were criticising me for being ignorant? Now you’re criticising me for not working for Christ, which suggests you are perhaps ignorant of my atheism, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance as long as one is attempting to correct it. So I’m an atheist. I don’t work for Christ, I work for humanity. I do my best not to be hypocritical which for me means welcoming constructive criticism. So thanks for commenting, I appreciate the feedback.

      I believe that part of being a good person is blowing the whistle on things that are wrong and corrupt. I can’t sit silently when I feel as though people are being exploited. Jesus spoke up against evil, and so will I. Surely you believe it is good to try to become more like Jesus? I may not believe in him, but I don’t see how what I am saying conflicts with what he taught.

      Jesus taught unconditional love and kindness for the poor. The missionaries I spent time with were displaying love but it was for the purpose of conversion and therefore it was not unconditional. All I am doing is asking them to be more like Jesus. I just give an atheistic perspective.

  6. I think you make some really good points here. I also find social justice for the purpose of coercion to be a woeful abuse of power. It’s not just limited to overseas, either – people do the same thing here in the states, feeding the hungry simply to tally up another conversion. I don’t have an issue with connecting evangelism with social justice, but I do have an issue when we simply go through the motions and offer very little real aid simply so we can get a foot in the door to talk about Jesus. There is something very disingenuous about that to me.

    I will say two things, however. First, thankfully, this is not the only picture of Christian charity that we see. We tend to see this most on short term missions, especially those that are geared towards teens. The emphasis of these missions isn’t really on the people they are going to help anyhow. Hopefully, they provide a respite in the midst of a very difficult life, but spending a week in a third world country as an outsider is not going to do anything long term. In fact, done incorrectly, it can even be harmful.

    By way of example, I know of several ministries that gather clothing and (especially) shoes to bring to the impoverished people of Haiti. On the surface, it seems great, as most of the people there are perpetually barefoot which results in all sorts of infections and parasites. The problem is that when a group of Haitians are inundated with fancy western footwear, they will nearly always turn around and sell it for a profit to use for more immediate needs. In selling it, they undercut those local vendors who scrape a living by fashioning shoes or mending garments. Now, they have no income, and the people they purchase material from have no income either. The cycle continues, resulting in an economy that remains entirely collapsed and dependent on Western charity. We see examples of this in all different forms, and it nearly always begins with good intentions and ends with an impoverished and dependent nation.

    Thankfully, not all ministries are this way. The overwhelming majority of charities are still predominantly faith-based, caring for needs and working with the local economies out of a call to love all people, not out of a call to manipulate. Even those short term mission trips typically have missionary contacts embedded within the culture who live among impoverished people, in the same conditions, and as one of them. It is there that the real change takes place. The short term missions help to equip the local missionaries, resource them, and accomplish immediate tasks that they need assistance with, but the greater goal is usually the impact it has on the missionaries, not the people. There is something dramatically profound when a group of people experience the harder realities beyond our cushy walls that insulate the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world from the reality of poverty and suffering. When a person come face to face with people in third world conditions, it changes the way they interact with resources and raises consciousness. For a short term mission trip, that raised consciousness could be one of the most powerful tools for transformation that tiny impoverished nation has.

    Just my 2c.

    • criticofchristianity

      That’s really interesting, because I stayed with a couple who had been living there and working there for years. They learnt the language. They did a lot of good work. Their motivations just didn’t seem genuine to me.

      That is great example about shoes in Haiti. We have to be so careful when it comes to poverty alleviation. It’s such a complex issue and so easy to do more damage than good.

      I do agree that not all Christian missionaries are manipulative like this. I probably should have made that clearer in the post. I just felt very disenchanted with them after the trip I went on.

      I also agree that it changes the missionaries just as much (if not more) than the impoverished. After seeing poverty first hand, it made me all the more upset that these missionaries weren’t being as effective as they could be in helping them.

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

  7. I think there are a lot of misuse of donations by Christians and non-christians. I think you are taking one example and applying it to all Christian missions activity. I know of many Christian organizations that are raising money for school desks in the third world, water wells, etc. My university just had a big fundraiser to buy cows and chicken farms for people in the third world. The idea is to train them how to use the milk or eggs to make money then use that money so they can buy more chickens and cows and pass on the help. Take a look at Mercy Ships. 60 minutes just did a special on it.
    I am not saying that Christians are perfect in their giving or missions work, but I don’t think that you can say they all are trying to manipulate people to accept Christ.

    • criticofchristianity

      I know a lot of Christian organisations who do really great work too. I’m definitely not saying they are all trying to manipulate people to accept Christi, just that some are. I probably should have made it clearer in my post but that’s why I stated “I’m not a big fan of this type of Christian mission” – meaning the manipulative, inefficient and wrongly motivated type. I am fully supportive of Christian mission that actually does good work.


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