When Your Saviour Complex is Shattered by Sticky Rice



Had I hiked the trail before, I would have looked ahead. I desperately wanted a landmark to tell me I was close. But the whole country was foreign to me, let alone this dusty path. So I kept my eyes on my tired Asics, trying not to trip while still keeping up my methodical pace. There were a few bodies plodding away in front of me, but more behind, which I was pleased about. I was young and determined to prove my strength, though I was becoming increasingly self-conscious of the sweat collecting on my lower back.

I was far more covered than I would have been had I been hiking at home. Stiff cotton gray capris stretched down to my calves. My white t-shirt, now as weighty as a cable knit sweater, was damp from exertion. A red bandana served to cover my head and lift the thick hair off the back of my neck.

I was 17 years old, climbing a mountain with a dozen of my peers. We had arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti several days before, adventure in our eyes, saviour complexes firmly in place. It hadn’t taken long for our teenage ideologies to be broken to dust, as we bumped past curious eyes and ramshackle huts in the back of an old pick-up truck. We’d run sports camps, painted buildings, assisted with dental work and been welcomed into the most God-breathed church I had ever stepped into. Our hearts had been smashed to pieces by this beautiful, broken place, and then gently handed back to us in shards.

Finally, we reached the top of the mountain and our destination: a small village. There were several huts, a few fire pits, and a large table set up under a covering. A hundred eyes stared at us, men and women and dozens of gorgeous little children. Still breathing heavily from the journey, I felt wildly uncomfortable. What were we doing here? What were we thinking, climbing this blasted mountain and invading their world, thinking we could do something, help somehow? It seemed utterly ridiculous in the moment.

A large pot sat off to the side, full of sticky rice. Our little troop helped ourselves and were led to the great table. We waited for everyone to join us. But we were subtly nudged and told we were meant to eat first. We were being honoured as guests in the village, and our hosts would wait until we had eaten our fill before they took even a spoonful for themselves. Anxiety rose in me as I looked at my plate. I was sweaty and famished, but I worried. Had I taken too much? Would there be enough left? I looked at the children and would have run away right then had I thought I could find my way back.

We ate in silence, feeling very much on display. After the last of us had taken our final bite, the group stood to help themselves to the rest. Our leftovers. My heart constricted. I thought I was coming to help. But then this. I couldn’t speak the language. I couldn’t say thank you a million times over. I could only look deep into the eyes of these good, selfless people and hope I communicated the deepest gratitude and humility. Even if I had known the language, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have had the words.

I thought I would show up in Haiti and swoop in to rescue whomever I deemed as needing rescuing. I wanted to arrive with big bags of food and bigger bags of money and a fast jet to take everyone to a better place (at least, my definition of a better place). I soon realized how out of my depth I was. How different my Jesus looked in this light. My hands had never felt so devastatingly empty.

But that moment on the mountain shifted things. Our hosts were so content to simply have us in their home, appreciating how they do life, looking them in the eyes. Seeing them. The strenuous journey we had made, communicated more love and value than a big bag of money ever could. And, in return, they saw our awkward teenage selves, so unsure of how to behave, so profoundly lacking in understanding of their situation, and they ignored it all. They set us a table, and gave us a seat of honour. They saw our hearts. The rest didn’t matter.

We came to save. But we only needed to see. And—though we didn’t know it going in—be seen in return.

And that remains my hope 16 years later. That the emptiness of my hands won’t keep me from striving to see, however helpless I may feel. That the gravity of the world’s issues won’t stop me from climbing a mountain, if only to sit and share a meal. That I have the humility to release an offering, small as it may be, so it can enter into the hands of the one who will decide the depth and breadth of its reach.

Sometimes it really is just about making a big sweaty gesture. Sometimes it really is just about sticky rice and cola and laughing over something that doesn’t require a shared language. Sometimes it really is just about eye contact and willingness to learn from each other and show up.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s about most of the time.