Rick Warren, the most prominent Evangelical pastor of our day, has established a highly successful program arranging teams from his church to help specific villages in Africa. Given the effectiveness of his organizational skills and the extensive direct involvement that his people have with African villagers, I have no doubt that these teams carry out their aid efforts with high levels of accountability. What concerns me, however, is that many tens of thousands of smaller churches are following his example and circumventing established missionary organizations, and directly providing financial support for pastors and churches in Third world countries, and are not able to provide the same kind of oversight.
Leaders of both Compassion International and World Vision, two of the most effective Christian relief organizations, have told me an array of horror stories of how American churches are being “ripped off” by indigenous pastors, and how well-intentioned giving often results in church leaders in poor countries using the money that falls into their hands in ways that are far removed from the intensions of the givers.
If we weren’t going through an economic meltdown, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I would be saying to myself that if wasting money on phony foreign missionary enterprises makes some Americans feel good, what’s the harm? After all, spending money on some “rip-off” orphanage in Haiti might give a lot of gratification to a church group that likes to think that it’s living out those 2000 Biblical imperatives that require Christians to care for the poor. Besides, I could tell myself, youth groups that go on those “short-term” mission trips (better called “religious tourism”) usually have their lives impacted in all kinds of positive ways. Visiting needy children in Third World countries, that their churches are supposedly blessing by sending big checks to indigenous pastors, has a transforming effect on those teenagers. Besides that, getting a glimpse into the lives of Third World children often drives such youthful Americans into re-examining their own lives, and recognizing how many dollars they waste on stuff that they don’t need while boys and girls in these needy places show signs of malnutrition. Their confrontation with impoverished children who, in spite of their privations, radiate an effusive joy that contrasts with the morose dispositions of so many of their high school peers often gets them to ask questions about the source of this joy.
Given these realities, I thought it best to keep my mouth shut about what happens to far too many dollars that are poured into the hands of those who, more often than we are willing to acknowledge, are religious con artists.
But there are a lot of shysters in the Third World. I know because, over the years, I’ve been conned several times; and it took a long time and a lot of safeguards to make sure that the dollars that I get people to give to support missionary projects do the good they are intended to do.
We Americans are a trusting people, and church leaders in the Third World can seem so sincere. Thus, we hate to impose the vigorous controls that we normally require when we dish out money. Then there’s the matter of guilt. Comparatively, we Americans have so much while these needy people have so little. This makes us easy prey. Too quickly we ask, “What can I do to help?” And far too often, the answer leads to money being given without the proper precautions.
The first time I was ripped off was when I yielded to the pleas of a Haitian pastor who wanted me to get together the resources that would enable him to build a school and orphanage. I did! But in my travels as a speaker, I met up with an American pastor in the Seattle area who told me that he too had raised money to finance a school and orphanage in Haiti. Guess what? It was the same orphanage! We later found a third pastor whose church had financed the building of the very same school and orphanage. The project had been triple funded, and the Haitian pastor had pocketed two-thirds of the money we had given.
One of the young missionaries who serves in our ministries in Haiti told me about a building that stood at the edge of the village where he lived. It was unused for days on end, but every once in a while, when a visit was about to be made by a group of Americans who supported what they believed was an orphanage, the Haitian pastor of the town would round up 50 or so children and pay each of them a quarter to pretend to be the orphans who lived in this facility. The children would smile and sing a couple of gospel choruses; the American visitors would cry; and the pastor would be guaranteed more money.
What makes me most sad is that I am convinced that I helped corrupt some good church leaders in Haiti. I know of two men who were doing good things for their people until I got involved and started to provide funding for the care of some orphans who lived in their town. These men were poor and they had poor relatives. The money ended up being used to hire relatives for non-existent (or near-non-existent) jobs. For instance, one cousin was paid a standard Haitian salary to spend a half-hour collecting the mail from the post office each day. I know of another man who was paid a full salary to wash the pastor’s car whenever a washing might be needed. These pastors were poor men from poor families; when I gave them money, they felt that their first obligation was to take care of their blood relatives.
I learned my lessons early on, and over the past couple of decades all the money used for our mission work is handled by our own American field representatives–and we even have double checks on them.
Unless you have an American expatriate handling your money on the field, and have the books that are maintained by your field representative regularly audited, you’re taking a big risk if you send your money directly to an indigenous pastor. Some of them are honest, but some are not, and it’s hard to tell the difference.
If a church wants to help needy people in a country like Haiti, the best thing to do is to sponsor children through some well-established organization such as Compassion International. This particular ministry has field representatives who provide checks and controls on finances and makes sure that the money you give ends up where it should. The address of Compassion International is:
PO Box 65000
Colorado Springs, CO 80962-5000
For $32.00 a month you can provide care and education for a needy Third World child. It’s a good deal! And good deals with missionary money can be hard to find.