Janel’s Story: When Helping Hurts (You)

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namuwongo family

The phone connection sounded a bit like Oliver, one of my closest Ugandan friends, was crushing newspapers on the other end. I held the phone an inch from my ear.

But I didn’t miss what made my hand fly to my chest: “Aisha…she passed. It was just too late. Things were already too bad.”

Aisha. I had snapped the above photo of her from my phone two and a half months prior, outside a mud hut in the slums of Namuwongo, deep in Kampala, Uganda.

She was the young mother of four kids. A twenty-something.

Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to photograph her family. As a rule, I believe photos of the impoverished shouldn’t whiff of the slightest emotional manipulation, of despair. Taking cues from other nonprofits’ policies, I want what I convey about the poor to show that they have hopes; dreams.

But asking for a smile from Aisha—who minutes ago, had been literally wailing in Luganda about the abuse of her children from her husband’s alcoholism, about them starving—would have been equally manipulative.

And I didn’t want to forget.

The help that changes us

As I held the horrifyingly light youngest girl, the heat of her fever soaked into my skin. Her breath felt alarmingly shallow.

I had never been so fearful a child would die in my arms.

I couldn’t stop myself near-chanting over and over: We need to get her to a hospital. Like, now-now.

Through group efforts, the family not only received food, charcoal, and clean water that day—they were all brought to the hospital the following day.

Aisha and the baby tested positive for tuberculosis. The baby was in the hospital for more than a month. The other children were sent to relatives.

Tuberculosis, while treatable and curable, still leaves scar tissue on the lungs. Remember “consumption” from history? Same thing. I recall one novelist describing it as coughing up razor blades.

Aisha’s lungs—in my very limited understanding—were already too lashed by scar tissue, their reserves of nutrition and stamina already overtaxed from months of starvation.

Aisha probably did not expect that on her death, an American woman would be bent over a granite countertop in a well-appointed kitchen a hemisphere away, crying.

The stories we tell ourselves

And this is where I have to choose between two versions of the story.

Version 1:

American woman returns to America. Aisha dies because we did not get there in time, and because the American woman (me) was not there, advocating for her health.

Version 2:

American woman returns to America after working diligently with Ugandans before leaving to ensure Aisha’s family is on the upswing. Baby is gaining weight and health. Other community members are seeking to help rehabilitate father, find solutions for family. God has numbered Aisha’s days. She dies knowing for a little while that people who love Jesus loved her family.

Doesn’t so much change with the stories we tell ourselves?

Aisha’s death sat in my chest like a stone that day. I felt the vise of survivor’s guilt as I enjoyed Greek pitas with my family, no danger of starvation near.

Every now and then I weighed whether it would be appropriate to bring up in conversation the bulky presence that had propped its feet up in the corner of my mind. God, I knew, was mourning this loss so few had seen or grieved.

Why didn’t we get there earlier? It’s a question sinking into that mental basket of mine labeled Painful Mysteries God May Illuminate Someday.

Salvation belongs to…

But this is what I came to know, which is so critical for those of us in helping lifestyles or professions: This work is urgent. The night is dark. Yet I am not savior.

I am responsible to play my role fully in the Body of Christ, with godward trust and tenacity.

Yet it’s tempting to maneuver my way into a role that feels critical. To hold just a little too tightly a grip on a national or a student or a client, perhaps, in a way that is just a little less than empowering; to overestimate my importance.

The need to feel needed and vital—on the mission field included—is more powerful than any of us like to admit.

This work is urgent. The night is dark. Yet I am not savior.

Then when you’re expected to report progress on this nebulous, often intangible work, we’re all hoping the slideshow or newsletter or summary compacts our “results” into something that sounds compelling enough to donate toward, maintain employment, inspire hope. Or perhaps justify why we’re so exhausted.

Maybe that’s why missionaries are tempted to stretch the truth a bit on statistics. (…True story.)

What looks like failure

Poverty relief, development, and discipleship around the world are S-L-O-W. It is a series of small and large griefs, losses, and tragedies, each precious and overwhelming in their own right. They are fraught with what looks like failure. (Don’t miss What happens if overseas = failure?)

Yet God is still moving. Babies like the one I cradled have a different quality of life. Muslims are coming to Christ.

Perhaps it feels less often like God dividing the Red Sea, and rather like a glacier transforming the landscape with its own steady, sometimes imperceptible pace, yet undeniable power.

But development work has hardened in me a “Big God” perspective more than ever, and eroded my own all-important role. My faith has increased not only as I see God move through me—but as I see God move without me.

That week, I grieved with God over the loss of Aisha. Her death reminds me both of the urgency of this work, and how much it is removed from my hands.


Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

A version of this post initially appeared on the author’s blog, and is used with permission.

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