I turned the page in the biography I was reading to my children about the life of Amy Carmichael, an Irish missionary to India in the early 1900s, when I came across a scene that typified what angers so many about the history of Christian missions: a procession of Indian servants carrying a group of British ministers and their wives on sedan chairs.
For each missionary (other than Carmichael, who rode horseback), it took eight men to carry each chair. In all, the book, Amy Carmichael, Rescuer of Precious Gems, recounts that it took 36 servants to transport four English people and their “necessary” belongings, including badminton rackets and a set of matching chairs, to their holiday retreat at Kotagiri.
Carmichael was incensed, and so was I. How could they? Had they not read the words of Jesus that, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else”? (Mark 9:35 NLT). Or what about his words in Matthew 20:28 that, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others”?
No wonder some missionaries gave the Gospel such a bad name. But just as I began to raise my finger and point out their sin to my children, I became aware of another finger pointing at me.
“You know,” I told my kids. “It’s easy to see how wrong the missionaries were to treat the local people as their servants or slaves. But it likely takes more than eight servants and slaves to carry each of us.”
My children looked at me blankly, in all likelihood imagining themselves to be our servants and slaves – what with clearing the table and washing dishes. But I meant it.
“Look around.” I gazed across the hall of our five-room house. “The only way we can afford to live in such comfort is because people in Asia and Africa work slave-like jobs with minimum pay and benefits so that we can buy a new outfit or decorate our homes with cheap stuff.”
Sadly, it’s about what we pay workers right here at home too. That’s why we do what we can to buy from ethical companies, I said, or Goodwill or Salvation Army (which use their profits to benefit others). Still, we bear the responsibility for living in a culture that systematically abuses others for its own benefit, because we are part of that culture. My hope is that by talking about it and reading stories such as Carmichael’s, my children will help change our culture and bring justice to others.
After all, those ‘precious gems’ that Carmichael rescued weren’t India’s sapphires or rubies. They were children. Hundreds. Children no one else wanted. But Carmichael did. After bucking the British-dominated model of missions, Carmichael founded an orphanage and a hospital and spent the rest of her life serving the people of India, carrying them on her prayers and her love. That’s the model Jesus calls us to follow, no matter our income or occupation or nationality or what government we live under. It’s the model of love.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available by clicking here.