When I was around the age of 4 or 5, I vividly remember my church in Bulgaria receiving Christmas presents from another church in Germany. I don’t recall every single present I ever got, but every box was an exciting surprise. Sometimes we would get fun colouring pencils and shirts. Other times the contents would be more ‘boring’, for a lack of a better term. For example, I never understood why these churches were so insistent in giving me a toothbrush and toothpaste every. single. time. They weren’t exciting presents, I thought, they were necessities which my parents could very effortlessly buy for me.
When I was 12 years old my family and I moved to Northern Ireland, and when I was around 14 those Christmas memories gained a whole new perspective. This time around, my school’s Christian Union was wrapping boxes to send out. I had to laugh when I saw the pamphlet on which they listed the countries they were sending these packages to, because a bunch of them were in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria. I would essentially be collecting presents for a mini me, living in my home country. That’s not to imply that there are no poor and underprivileged people in Eastern Europe. Far from it! But I never considered myself to be incredibly impoverished and in serious need, and that is the way that many churches and organisations often portray the countries they’re sending packages to.
I often reflect on these memories, because I wonder how this church in Germany conceptualised me when they were packaging my box. Was I one of the children in the typical UNICEF ads, hungry, barefoot, and thirsty, not even possessing a toothbrush for my general oral health? Whatever the case may be, I am very grateful for them, because I can see that their hearts were in the right place. I didn’t need the everyday necessities they sent me, what mattered to me more was what this box represented. There were some teenage kids in a youth group, who had never met me but were still thinking of me. The mere existence of their present made me feel seen.
I don’t share this story as a way of saying that I understand people in marginalised and underprivileged groups who are often made to feel like charity cases. My intent is FAR from trying to speak on behalf of others about an experience I have never had and, as a white woman, cannot have. Rather, I share this story, because this experience often makes me pause and reflect when I hear the term ‘white saviour’. I think oftentimes our desire to correct mistakes of the white saviour complex can have a paralyzing effect. We can become afraid to take action, because of the way our advocacy might be portrayed.
What is a white saviour complex? It is the idea that white people always have the best solution for the struggles that people of colour face. This does not always have to be a conscious thought process, rather it can manifest in instinctive actions to ‘fix’ problems they have little understanding of. This largely has very negative effects on people who are supposedly helped, as their experiences and needs are not properly listened to. Falling into the white saviour complex can be especially discouraging for people who want to be allies to marginalised communities, but make decisions which are not particularly helpful. But despite the dangers of coming across as a white saviour, I sincerely believe we should not let fear come in the way of our mission for justice.
In the 2018 movie “Instant Family”, Pete and Ellie Wagner ask two women working at a foster home whether it would be right for them to foster three Latino children. Pete asks, “a white-bread couple taking in little Latin kids. Are people gonna think we shouldn’t be doing that?” The two women respond, “Pete, I appreciate your cultural sensitivity, but we have every colour of kid in the system. And we have every colour of parent. Just not nearly enough.” If this situation were to happen in real life, would you be able to proudly say, “I battle my white saviour complex in every way; I refuse to adopt children of colour”?
Now, of course, life is much more nuanced than this example, and in many instances it is much more valuable to listen than to swoop in immediately with a solution. This is our biggest mission with Our Church Too is to make it a platform for listening. But if we let fear infiltrate our desire for social justice, we might just end up missing a calling God is giving us.
I don’t think the Christmas boxes that I got from Germany could be counted as an act of white saviour, and that’s not how I see them anyway. I see them as acts of thoughtfulness and love, even if to my 4 year-old self they seemed perhaps misplaced. But love, coupled with action, is probably one of the most Christlike combinations I can think of. This is why I boldly encourage you to take informed action for what you believe is right. You might send some Christmas boxes with the wrong presents, but if you have a heart full of love and desire to do good, it is also a heart capable of learning and improving.
Cynthia's talk from the conference 2021.
Part two of Damian Young's story of starting a new church community.