Engaging in Missions: First Do No Harm

Written by Page Johnson


Imagine this:  Your mission team brings trunks full of shoes to fit onto kids’ feet within a community.  The team worked for months to collect them and sort them.  You see smiles, laughter, share Jesus and go home feeling great and post lots of pictures of barefooted kids who now have shoes! Share this all with the church and give the glory to God.  It feels great to do good things!  Right?  But wait…If you had taken time to survey the entire scene, you may have seen a man in the market with a blanket spread with various shoes for sale.  Do you realize that he would not likely sell shoes for many months, now that the community has new shoes?  How can the shoe salesman provide food for his family now?  This whole issue is much more complicated and we struggle to see the whole picture because of our rush to do what seems right in our own eyes.  I mean, it feels good, right?  But did it feel good to the shoe salesman?  Good intentioned actions may feel good, but they don’t always yield good long-term results.  Does it mean that you can never give anything?  No, of course not, but there is a better way.

How did we come to realize that we should look for these things?  On my first trip to Kenya, we went to an area where missionaries don’t normally go and found a great hunger for God’s Word.  After a week of spiritual ministry, our team traveled to an area where many mission trips had taken place.  Upon arrival, many people approached the team for money for various reasons.  No longer did they approach the team for spiritual guidance or eagerness to work together in evangelism efforts. I went to my room and cried.  God was showing me something.  We didn’t quite understand how to assist people without creating dependence or distraction from discipleship, but our eyes were opening to the damage that can occur. 

A few years later, God led Bobby and I to start Interlocking Ministries in Mfangano Island, Kenya.  We know that Jesus taught the scriptures, but he also healed and fed people as he went along.  How can we keep the spiritual focus and kindly meet some needs without causing harm to their lives or their focus?  We began to study scriptures on the poor as well as the “poor in spirit.”  We were led to a seminar and a book “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  We gained a deeper understanding of poverty and the real needs of the people rather than just the needs that we suppose upon them.  We realized that their deep need is not physical, but spiritual, mental, and emotional.  They need self worth, personal growth and long-term sustainability.   If we consistently meet physical needs without addressing long-term goals, we may have shown the community that we are superior to them.  They may feel more devalued and dependent, and thereby seek out more donations, solicit people through facebook, or find others through their ministry websites.  Have you been solicited by any of these types of people?  How can you help them in a deeper way?

Can we adjust our mindset?  This is a challenge! The difference is in developing relationships, helping them solve their poverty in ways that can have lasting effects, all the while meeting their poverty of spirit first through Christ.  One example of how we help physically is business training for women and provide micro-finance loans for them.  They meet in these same groups for Bible study and worship.  Building relationships and walking alongside will help them to grow out of their situation and bring long-term results.  This runs alongside the spiritual ministry, with the spiritual ministry always coming first.  We have even shared the book “When Helping Hurts” with our Kenyan leadership and they agree that it is a good plan for them too!

The first time my new mindset was put to trial, I met a widow on Mfangano Island named Christine.  She was a member of the local church and had a home built by a ministry that came through the area.  She still lacked a way to provide well for her family.  When we were there for ministry, she would do our cleaning and laundry to gain income.  She showed me these beautiful banana bark fiber baskets she made and I bought some from her.  I told her that she can make more each time I come for missions and I will buy them to then sell back in the USA.  I encouraged her to sell to her community too.  When I visited again the following year, she asked me for some money for school fees for her sons.  I asked her to bring any baskets she had made, but she had not made any!  This was the moment I was tested.  I had to tell her that I was sorry that I could not give her money, but I walked to her home and prayed for her and for her family.  I also asked her to make baskets for the next time so I could give money for them.  For eleven years since then, she has not failed to bring baskets for me to buy.  This gave her a sense of value, pride in her work, confidence, and money to provide for her family.   She continues to be an active, contributing member of the church. 

Now we enter 2020 with a global pandemic of Covid-19 and we can no longer visit Kenya.  Kenya is shut down and they can’t do business, there is a shortage of food in the country. Prices are high and many cannot work.  This need is not due to long-term poverty but to a crisis.  Under this circumstance, Interlocking Ministries consulted with the local leaders and began assisting in crisis food relief through the group of pastors with whom we have built relationships.  They have successfully reached hundreds of elderly and needy families in the community and brought the Gospel message.  Many who have resisted Jesus before have now begun to open their hearts.  One lady gave a long confession of her sinful heart of the past and her humble submission to God. 

Whether you are working with people in poverty in America or in another country, it’s good to remember that God’s heart is for us to have compassion (1 John 3:17-18) and find a good way to show mercy that will truly help and not hurt them.  Know the difference between crisis care and poverty ministry.  Always seek relationship building for long-term value.  If you go on a mission trip and there is likely to be poverty, or if you deal with poverty in your own community, it will be wise to read the book mentioned above.  Turn to the Bible when you need to understand poverty, what our most basic need is, and pray for wisdom.  You will never hurt them by sharing the most valuable treasure, Jesus.  


Page Johnson and her husband Bobby founded Interlocking Ministries after 20 years at CBM’s New Life Camp.  During the last 10 years of their time at New Life Camp, they participated in mission trips to Kenya with their church. Interlocking Ministries is based in USA and partners with a group of Kenyan pastors that make up Bethesda Faith Ministries.  They focus on evangelism within the public schools and open air meetings, together with discipleship in youth camps, and assisting with church (pastor training) and community development.  Physical needs are great in the rural areas of Kenya and this should be met with compassion and respect of their culture. To learn more about Interlocking Ministries please visit http://www.interlockingministries.org/

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