In 2009, 19-year-old Renee Bach left the United States for rural Uganda, called by Jesus to serve. Between 2010 and 2015, she took in nearly 1,000 malnourished children at the ministry she founded, Serving His Children. She had a popular blog and became a well-known missionary, admired by many in the United States as someone young women could emulate. She became close with Katie Davis, made famous by her New York Times–bestselling book, Kisses from Katie (2011), telling her story of adopting 13 Ugandan children while a single 20-something. That’s an entirely different story, as many say she adopted children with parents and was manipulated by Ugandans without knowing it.
Then in 2019, Renee was sued in Ugandan civil court. The claim: she was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 children. Was Renee a saint who had risked it all for the sake of Jesus, only to become the target of people who hated her mission? Or was she an angel of death, playing doctor in a foreign country?
I’ve heard other stories like those of Renee and Katie. When I visited Uganda in 2010, the missionary community had some fairly strong opinions about Katie Davis. However, the missionaries told me that to criticize her was to invite attack from an army of faithful followers in the United States. Now, though, Renee’s story and an entire missions industry is being brought to light for a wider audience in the form of a podcast called The Missionary, an eight-part series written by three journalists who spent a year investigating the story and interviewing more than 100 people.
Renee is presented as a new but popular kind of young missionary—raising money through social media and her blog. Here she was, 20 years old and able to raise money to access supplies that hospitals in the area couldn’t secure. The podcast raises all kinds of issues around missions as it relates to ethnicity, wealth, gender, culture, and humanitarian work in general. It’s an uncomfortable dive into the evangelical missions world that is often hidden from supporting churches in the West. At times, listeners will wonder if missions can ever be done in a way that doesn’t hurt those people whom missionaries—and those who send them—are trying to serve. But for those willing to listen, the podcast can provide some helpful correctives to the Western evangelical mission enterprise.
Are Ethics Geographically Relative in Missions?
Just ponder the heading for a moment. Is the answer clear to you?
As the investigators note, the accusations against Bach piled up—murder, government conspiracy, bribery, blackmail, even cannibalism. In their interviews with various sources, it became apparent that truth was elusive. Were Ugandans being bribed (which is common)? Was it that, as former missionary and No White Saviors founder Kelsey Nielson claims, “Renee was playing God, masquerading as a doctor”?
Then there is Jackie Kramlich, an American nurse who claims she saw Bach diagnose and treat children with serious illnesses; she saw her take blood, perform blood transfusions, and mistreat many children. In court documents, Kramlich says Bach relied on the book Where There Is No Doctor to treat people. She was so distressed by her experiences serving in Uganda with Bach that she started the satirical Instagram page “Barbie Savior” in part to satirize Bach and the mission industry that supported her. It has 167,000 followers.
But there were also Ugandans who found no wrongdoing, at least none after 2012. There were other doctors who thought Serving His Children was better equipped than Ugandan hospitals, and other nurses who thought they’d done a great job. One investigation found staff who were licensed and legally practicing medicine and performing care. By 2013, Serving His Children had doctors and nurses on staff; despite their best efforts, though, children still died.
Can someone with good intentions and no formal training try to save children in a country with limited financial resources to care for its own citizens? Or in reverse, could a Ugandan come to the United States and do the same thing in inner cities where health care is harder to access? This issue isn’t confined to medical missions. Consider the fact that people are often sent overseas to be pastors who have never been pastors in their home country.
Exaggerating Your Work Will Get You in Trouble
Margaret Chambackuaba, head of the Jinga NGO Forum, lamented the lack of accountability toward NGOs in general: “When you go to Facebook pages and you go to the ground and look for them, you don’t see them. . . . And then they will change their name. . . . We see them receiving funds and receiving money . . . and people send the money before they realize it is a fraud. . . . People believe in foreign people very much.”
Bach claims she never impersonated a medical professional, never practiced medicine, and only helped in crisis situations. The basic legal argument against Bach was that she acted like a doctor. While there were accusations from people there that she did blood transfusions, IVs, spinal taps, and more, the best evidence against her came from her own blog.
And as the story unwinds, she has a confession to make: she used the first person on her blog in order to appeal to donors. She admits exaggerating for fundraising purposes. The posts told stories of her medical work, but she now claims she always had Ugandan medical teams at her side.
Take a post Bach wrote about a baby named Patricia: “I hooked the baby up to oxygen and got to work. . . . Took her temperature, started an IV, checked her blood sugar, tested for malaria, and looked at her HB count. I was attempting to diagnose the many problems that could potentially be at hand. Got it: Malaria: positive. H.B. 3.2. . . . a big problem . . . most likely fatal. . . . She needed a blood transfusion. And fast.”
But Bach says she was just writing in the first person to make the stories smooth and easy to read. Of course she had medical professionals around her. If she is telling the truth, it’s a helpful reminder to missionaries to avoid exaggerated descriptions of what they’re doing; they’re bearing false witness to the work they claim God is doing through them.
If she is telling the truth, it’s a helpful reminder to missionaries to avoid exaggerated descriptions of what they’re doing; they’re bearing false witness to the work they claim God is doing through them.
Over the last 20 years, videos, blogs, and good marketing have become essential for all Christian ministries in fundraising, my organization included. Whoever has the best story, best video, and best photos gets the money. People’s attention spans are too short to discern the best strategy and methods to evangelize and disciple. Maybe we can learn to not fall into supporting the best media machine but rather to bring discernment back into our charitable giving?
White Savior Complex in Missions
Throughout the podcast the term “White Savior Complex” is thrown around. It’s a pejorative term that basically refers to a white person who helps a person of color for self-serving reasons. In missions it’s the attitude and assumption that white Americans can transform impoverished areas due to the privilege of class and citizenship, regardless of any skill they may possess.
Maybe we can learn to not fall into supporting the best media machine but rather to bring discernment back into our charitable giving?
This complex is created by an underlying attitude (difficult to self-diagnose) that missionaries and volunteers have the right to do what they want because their intentions and efforts are good. In the developing world, it’s essentially a view that people living there are completely helpless, which missionaries and volunteers must do something to fix. It’s hard as a visitor to see a physical need and not try to solve it.
I’ve walked in slums around the world and been completely overwhelmed emotionally. I’ve had a desire to spring up and do something. It’s a good emotion, but it must be attached to an understanding of what’s going on at a much deeper level before action can be taken. Read Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts for further discussion.
Bach sees herself as a victim: “I was a young American woman boarding a plane to Africa. . . . My desire to go to Uganda was to help people and to serve.” Later, she says, “People forget I am a human. A person with emotions and someone who has children who are going to grow up one day and google their mom’s name and say, ‘Is Mom a serial killer’?”
Bach considers herself a victim, in particular, of slander. She was just trying to serve Jesus and help people in ways she knew how; she was thrust into a position of leadership through no fault of her own. Who would allow a 20-year-old to run a medical clinic and serve as its development director? Clearly a segment of evangelical mission culture had no problem with it, as for many she is a hero and an example to emulate.
The podcast leaves listeners unresolved and unsettled. But this past summer the court case was resolved, with Serving His Children and Bach agreeing to pay the two mothers who brought the suit $9,500 each, with no admission of guilt. The court case is over, though No White Saviors says they’re collecting more cases. It won’t be surprising if more cases are filed.
Which laws should a Christian break in the name of Jesus? My guess is that you’ll feel a range of emotions listening this podcast, and who you gravitate in sympathy toward reveals the role you think American missionaries should play in the majority world.
Renee Bach’s story is our story, the story of American individualistic missions, where we become the heroes of our stories.
Ask yourself: Was it reasonable for a church to send a 20-year-old single woman with no training or oversight to the mission field to run a medical clinic?
Self-sent and unprepared missionaries are a plague on the global missions world. Their desire is admirable and should be cultivated. But we should send them out in a manner worthy of God (3 John 6), which means connecting the laborers with pastors and mentors to help them move, if needed, from being saviors in their own heart and on social media to servants.
Renee Bach’s story is our story, the story of American individualistic missions, where we become the heroes. It’s not her fault. It’s ours.