“You are the first American group to ever visit our community.” Simon’s words sent chills through the missions team that had ventured to his remote Kenyan village. It was a risk to come to such an isolated place, but its undiscovered magnetism was also its allure. Their arrival was a momentous step in a long journey.
Several years earlier, Simon* met these Colorado church leaders at a John Piper conference. They had an immediate kinship. It was hard not to love Simon: He was eminently likeable, oozing charisma with each handshake and smile. Now in Kenya, after months of careful planning, they had finally arrived. As their bus labored up the dusty driveway, the orphanage they knew only by pictures came to life.
The orphanage looked like many like it in Africa: A fenced-in compound with simply-constructed dormitories and classrooms. The zenith of the complex wasn’t its buildings, however. It was the 200 smiling children which greeted the visitors with hoots of delight when their bus arrived. The trip unfolded in typical fashion. The Coloradans spent their days playing with orphans, seizing photo opps, and dreaming with Simon about ways their church could help the orphanage flourish.
The trip rattled stereotypes and collided cultures. Simon orchestrated the trip with clockwork precision, his robust leadership skills firing on all cylinders throughout the week. As the trip came to a close, the bus drove the team away. The children chased their bus, wrenching the emotions of even the group’s most stoic members. Hearts full, the team flew home, now well-equipped to share their stories of helping orphaned children and exploring uncharted places.
Despite the many positive moments throughout the week, there were unnerving whisperings among the group. It was strange the teachers didn’t know many of the orphans’ names. It seemed overly-controlling when Simon prohibited them from visiting the neighboring village unaccompanied. Also odd, the orphanage lacked a garden, which is like an Alaskan lacking a snow shovel: The fertile soil can give anyone a green thumb. These quiet whisperings slowly unfolded into loud gasps, and then into protests, and then into many tears, when the group returned to visit Simon’s orphanage just one year later.
On their return trip—one which almost mirrored their previous trip—a team member, Dan, stayed around after the team departed for the States. On his own, Dan journeyed from the Nairobi airport back to the orphanage on a scout mission to investigate the team’s concerns. As he arrived in the village and walked toward the orphanage, a woman approached him, grabbed his arm, and amplified the whisperings.
“Just so you know,” she shared solemnly, “the orphanage is not real.”
Dan, panged with a haunting feeling of betrayal, trekked from the village to the orphanage, hoping to disprove her. He arrived at the place where he played with smiling children just one day earlier. His eyes confirmed the woman’s words: The place was deserted. The yard where the children used to run and play? Nothing remained apart from the lonely debris which bounced with the wind across the red clay earth. The sleeping quarters? Empty. The cafeteria? Vacant. No workers, no orphans, no supplies, no anything. The orphanage had vanished. It was all a mirage.
In truth, the Colorado church was not the first American group to visit Simon’s community. In fact, many churches from across the US and Canada were privy to Simon’s deceitful wooing over the years. His highly-sophisticated web of lies featured faux staff, rented children (he pitched it to their parents as a day camp), and staged arrests (always resulting in generous bail outs by the visitors). All told, this Madoffesque charity scheme collectively defrauded these churches of tens of thousands of dollars. More disappointing, it tainted many wonderful memories and fertilized the unhealthy seeds of cynicism and close-heartedness.
My first response to Simon’s elaborate scam was eye-rolling distrust.
This type of story can cultivate skepticism, prompting us to pull back. But it doesn’t have to. It does not mandate that we retreat. In the face of even unbearable trials, Jesus prods us to advance, but to do so with eyes wide open:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
–Matthew 10: 16
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples preceded their harrowing journey to bring the good news to the world. He knew their path would be lined with hardship. Still, he sent them out, charging them to be as shrewd as they were innocent. Abounding in compassion, but not the undiscerning kind. Go to Kenya, but send back a scout if you sense something is amiss. Pour out generosity, but do so discriminately, taking Jesus’ instructions as your marching orders. Love abundantly, but always ask hard questions.
Jesus sends us out. No retreat. No close fists. No bitterness. Go boldly, shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
*Names changed to protect confidentiality.
Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.