When I was in Haiti a couple years ago, I got to know a physician from the United States who ran a community development project that I was visiting. Within the few hours it took for us to make the drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince to our destination, I began to notice an obvious pattern in his style of relating to others: he spoke to the driver, another passenger, and myself in really self-aggrandizing ways, bolstering his own importance.
After spending a few days at the project site, it became all too apparent that a major impetus for this doctor to be here was his ego. His false self—wanting so badly to be seen, to be valued, to be known—was the part of him running the show. He did not have the ability to really listen to another or the capacity to set aside his own personal agenda to be fully present to the people living in the community. Though somewhere deep inside he had the desire to be a healer—to journey with the marginalized, the sick, the outcast—he clearly had not engaged in the inner work necessary to live from a place of authenticity. It had been covered up, buried somewhere deep inside of him because he had not undergone the requisite transformational process of coming to know himself and his motivations, his pain, his beliefs about who he was and who he was trying to serve.
There were two twenty-something, short-term missionaries working there alongside the physician. He held the all the power and acted like a guru to them. There was clearly a disordered relational dynamic going on between the three of them.
And besides that, there were the guns.
There had been a few attacks on expats and missionaries in the area over the previous few years and it led the doctor to decide it would be a good idea have some handguns in the house for protection from intruders. The young women didn’t know how to shoot a gun, so he took them out to a nearby field in the afternoons for target practice.
Yes, target practice. He even had an acquaintance of his, a cop back in the states, take a trip there to train them how to shoot to kill.
The doctor’s need for dominance and power were linked to this violence so incongruent with the gospel and of making oneself vulnerable to the needs of the economically marginalized.
Though an extreme example, these are the kind of things that happen when the ego hijacks mission work. Instead of life being born in spaces of conflict and poverty, death grins even wider.
Though this doctor had a bona fide desire to serve the marginalized, the narrative that guided him in his mission work shaped these actions. His American task-oriented view of mission combined with a debilitating sense of shame and inadequacy were tied to the self-aggrandizing manner in which he spoke and acted, as well as the need to meet violence with violence—thus the handguns. The narrative he was unconsciously living by was disempowering himself, the young missionaries helping out, as well as the local people.
Sadly, this American physician effectively disqualified his potentially beneficial project from being missionally valid. His false self, which he was most likely unaware of, propelled the forward movement not of a gospel-oriented engagement with a devastatingly poor community, but his own narcissistic need for constant validation and to assert power over another.
Eventually, the project he had dedicated himself to so resolutely had to close its doors, collapsing under the weight of his ego. He ended up leaving Haiti, yet another forlorn example of a heart so desirous of serving the oppressed, yet divorced from the self-understanding that is critical in cross-cultural service work.
This is a tragedy that continues to unfold across the globe, and there is only one way out of the spiral that brings harm to self and other: delving deeply into the transformative process that the gospel invites us into, becoming deeply aware with our motivations and how we impact, for better and for worse, the communities that we serve. The center of the gospel has so much to do with freeing ourselves from the snares of ego, and if we are willing to do some hard inner work, to pay the price of coming to know ourselves more intimately, we will become catalysts for transformation