D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: savior complex

War Photographer: Tara Livesay

Tara Livesay is my real-life hero (she will throttle me for saying that, but still--it's true). She is a killer writer, thinker, mom, missionary, midwife, and long-distance runner. I love her because she is so honest, so in the thick of everything beautiful and awful about our world, and she can be absolutely hilarious in the midst of it all. I beg of you to check out her website, where you can learn all about her fabulous family and their life in Haiti. I have been looking forward to this post for a long time, and it dropped the hammer, just like I knew it would. Tara and her family are truly people who ask the question: how do we share these stories well? Because they must be told. 

photo by Troy Livesay

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap." Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? " The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows." And so it is with life... What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.–Author Unknown


When one of the poorest countries in the world happens to be positioned a mere 700 miles from the southern tip of one of the richest countries in the world,  short-term and long-term missions abound. I am citing no source but I’d venture to guess this is the most visited, blogged about, and photographed “mission” destination on the planet earth.


The convenient 90-minute plane ride from Miami means an estimated 200,000 people per year come to Haiti. Many seem to think that their group or purpose or trip is a one-of-a-kind and are incredulous when they hear how frequently large groups of matching T-shirts arrive here with similar plans. Additionally, there are thousands of longer-term workers sprinkled all across the island.


It is common for these expats to arrive thinking of people as projects.


As we are all prone to do, people show up here having already decided things about Haiti. They hear the tag lines and have watched or read the mass media news stories and they build their image of the country and her people and what they need before they ever set foot on Haitian soil. Wherever they hail from, they seem to arrive having heard about vodou, poverty, danger, an earthquake, and orphans.


For whatever reason there is a movement among evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that markets mission trips in such a way that it casts the missionary as a hero and those on the other side are in dire need of their help. This means that in addition to what the prospective visitor has heard and decided about Haiti, they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.


For an extended time, our family has been learning and growing and being uncomfortably twisted and molded by living in this land that so many visit. During these years we’ve learned about our own pride, our own soul poverty, and our preconceived ideas. (Related: We have become cynical and skeptical and things we don’t like too.) We now better recognize the ways in which we have painted this place with a broad brush and forget that individual souls created in the image of God should not be reduced to our small-minded descriptions or looked upon as a project.


As a body of believers called to bring the justice of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven to earth it does little good to arrive with anything decided. Each one of us is wonderfully complex and unique and we would do well to remember that is true of everyone, everywhere. Media reports and the State Department don’t have the ability to summarize hearts of people. Churches and mission organizations should not market with the “go save them” narrative.


In our time here, working with and observing different organizations, we’ve had an opportunity to witness many visitors. Perhaps the marketing of short-term trips feeds the problem. When cast as the hero, you are bound to come in with an air of superiority.  That to say, at times we cringe over things said and done.  The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes.  Other times we gasp at the disdain some ‘heroes” carry with them.


It is not at all unusual to hear visitors botch something up they are working on and say, “Oh well, it is good enough for Haiti.” I confess that it is those people who I want to follow home with a gallon of ugly colored oil paint and an old tattered brush and walk into their kitchen to show them what my “good enough” looks like at their house.


On occasion our second daughter agrees to translate for teams.  One such medical team was performing minor surgeries.  One of the surgeons brought his fourteen-year-old son on the trip.  The son observed the surgeries and occasionally held a tool or handed his father something.  At one point in the week the father asked his son if he would like to do a spinal-block.  The Doctor stood nearby as his son performed the block.


I am certain the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm, but when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says,  “This is good enough for a Haitian”.  As my daughter told me this story I wondered if the physician would appreciate a rookie shoving a needle in his child’s back.


The truth of the matter is this, somewhere along the line we all became convinced that we are a big deal arriving to a place or a people that need us.  Therefore, anything we do is better than nothing, right? (That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.) This superiority leads us to think, and even say, “Well, it is good enough for them.”  Casting ourselves as the fixers and heroes and “them” as the project is troubling on many levels.


If we want to let the river of His justice flow through us, we have to arrive aware of how prone to superiority we are, how prejudiced we are. We must examine our motivation and presuppositions in the light.  What window am I looking through when I look at others?  What window am I seeing myself through? I know my tendency is to think I am needed. It is a difficult but necessary exercise to continually spend time asking Jesus to mercifully guide us as we attempt to walk with people in wisdom and humility.


God is not made manifest in our ability to “fix” or “heal” or “solve” anything.  He has not cast us as the heroes. He is made manifest in our humility and in our own need to receive healing.  When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …


And you know what?

When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.

Tara tries hard to learn life's lessons the first time but usually doesn't.  She is mom to a rambunctious crew of kids and is learning and working in the area of women's health/midwifery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She writes at www.livesayhaiti.com

For more in the War Photographer series, click here.

War Photographer: Abby Norman

Abby Norman got my attention when she broke the internet with this post on not sharing stories. Abby has worked in inner city schools, which tends to get more than a little sensationalized press in our society. I love this perspective on teacher-as-hero-in-inner-city-schools movies, savior complexes, and justifications for passivity. Be sure to check out Abby's blog, and I thank her kindly for bringing her sharp perspective here today.  



What Teacher Movies Don’t Teach

When I was in college, I borrowed my boyfriend's car to take myself to the movies on a Tuesday night. I sat in the middle of an empty theatre in Muncie Indiana and wept and cheered for Akeelah and all her spelling glory. I left that theatre inspired. I would be that teacher. I would grow my students to their fullest potential. I would change the world, one student at a time. I could not wait to get into my classroom.

This was not my first foray into the teacher movie. Not only had I seen Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer, when I was 12 I read My Posse Don't Do Homework, the book the movie was based on. I loved Finding Forrester and Freedom Writer; any movie where the teacher was the hero was a movie I wanted to see.

I suppose I was attracted to these movies because they made me feel special. They made me feel like what I was about to do was important. They promised me that if I wanted it badly enough, if I just dug deep enough, I could be the change I so desperately wanted to see in my future students’ lives. My career would be a teacher movie and I would be the star!

Three months into my first classroom experience, I despised these movies. Every. Single. One. I hated the promises these movies had made me. I hated the details these movies left out. I hated the way people referenced these movies with a wink and a nod when I told them what I did. These people thought they understood my world, they had seen the movies.

These movies may have made the classroom that I taught in more accessible to those who would never enter this world, but it also made the teacher the only person who could make a difference. I once loved these movies because they told me that I would be the one to make the difference, but when I got into the reality, I was crushed under the weight of the pressure I had been so attracted to. During my first year of teaching, the kids called me Freedom Writer like it was my name. ("Who you got for English?" "Freedom Writer.") It was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

Here are the things the teacher movies don’t teach you: most kids’ problems are far greater than what one English teacher can fix in the span of fifty minutes a day for one hundred eighty days. Physical hunger and feeling safe at home have major impacts on the classroom environment, and are out of the teacher’s hands.  Between lesson plans, referrals, attendance, and field trip requests, there is enough paperwork to necessitate a personal assistant. Sometimes a teacher has to choose between grading yet another class set of papers, and her sanity.

The thing the teacher movies don’t teach you, is that almost all of those “give it everything” teachers they make movies about quit within the first three years. The lifestyle is simply not sustainable.  It takes a village to raise a child, and I have come to believe it takes a village to teach one too.

The truth of the matter is this: teaching in movies is like sex in movies. They leave the boring awkward bits out. It doesn't always go smoothly. It isn't always as exciting.

Copying entire chapters out of books that are falling apart and making class sets of them, cutting out the letters to staple onto the class bulletin board, sitting at Starbucks grading 150 research papers (half of which are accidentally plagiarized) these are the things that teachers do with their planning period. There is never enough time.

High needs students are just that, higher in need. Yet high needs schools are least likely to have parents fighting for an opportunity to volunteer in the reading nook. Meanwhile, schools where kids already have every advantage are advantaged again by parents who are willing and able to volunteer.

By casting the teacher as the hero, people give themselves permission to not help. The teacher is special; there is nothing “normal people” can do. Turns out, if you can use a pair of scissors you can be a major force in the elementary school classroom. Every spare minute a teacher has because someone cut out the bulletin board decorations for them, is a minute the teacher can be doing something extra for students that so desperately need it. Imagine the kind of classroom environment four friends and a shared Pinterest board could help create.

Teacher movies don’t tell that story. There isn’t a movie about how a group of volunteers took over a classroom and helped to create a warm and loving environment for the year. When the story of education is framed as a teacher and her students, there is no room in the picture for anyone else. But there is room for everyone else, lots of room, in lots of schools. There is likely an opportunity at your local high needs elementary school (and there is always a local high needs elementary school).

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. I learned that lesson the hard way.

DSC_0529Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart

For more posts in the War Photographer series, please click here.

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