Cover image courtesy of Lightstock.
–by Brianna Francis–
This article seeks to analyze and critically look at the Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization that operates in several countries around the world. Given the scope of its reach, the continent in focus will be Africa and the women’s programs that operate in the country of Uganda. Samaritan’s Purse offers several programs including vocational training, literacy, and maternal/child health. The programs in focus will be under the exploitation and gender-based violence categories, in which individuals from the organization help women who are victims of sex trafficking and prostitution. Organizations like My Sister’s Keeper and Sanyuka Women at Risk to name a few. While the programs address some of the immediate needs of the women, their main approach values the evangelical commitment to ministry over the cultural and social realities that continue to disadvantage these women. The programs also seem to suffer under the weight of their own religious stigma. Ironically, their way of overcoming this stigma is by seeing women as spiritual instruments of God’s work. Lastly, their lack of program details and financial transparency in helping these women are a contradictory reflection of their desire to be a ‘good Samaritan.’
Fundamentals and Background of the Samaritan’s Purse
Established in 1970, the Samaritan’s Purse founder Bob Pierce built his mission statement upon the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. Coined by the phrase “go and do likewise,” Luke chapter 10 offered a blueprint of what the Samaritan Purse aimed to be; to follow the example of Christ by offering hope (in God) and help (by God) wherever they may find it. In the History section of their website, it states, “Samaritan’s Purse travels the world’s highways looking for victims along the way. We are quick to bandage the wounds we see, but like the Samaritan, we don’t stop there. To suffering people in a broken world, we share the news of the only One who can bring true peace––Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.” This is part of the expectation of the mission; to always prioritize the ministry of evangelism to obey God’s command. This alludes to the belief that the true recipient of these charitable acts are not the individuals themselves, but God. In an attempt to express gratitude for the unrepayable gift of salvation, a ‘gift-debt’ is accruing. In evangelical faith especially, ministry is the path to otherworldly benefits with many citing that their works on earth will be rewarded in heaven. This leaves God to also be the reciprocator of blessings and good fortune, particularly where ministry and mission work are considered. Given this, each one of their programs contains biblical messages of grace, redemption, and truth. It also means that problems are addressed within the realm of sin and salvation rather than social or legal justice.
Franklin Graham, the current CEO who took over after the passing of Pierce, is quoted saying that he got into the ministry because he “saw the poverty of pagan religions and the utter despair of people they enslave.” Intentional or not, this statement seems to produce the assumption that the vulnerable individuals that the Samaritan’s Purse claims to help, are the results of a ‘godless’ life as defined by evangelical Christianity. Perhaps if these individuals were believers, they would not have fallen into the entrapment of sin and the consequences of it like poverty or prostitution. This also assumes that these people are victims of their own making by being too primitive or unintelligent to recognize their situations for what they really are. This is reinforced by the constant images and videos of white individuals taking both a physical and verbal stance of knowledge and resources over their poor, black, forlorn recipients. Graham and the entirety of the Samaritan’s Purse portray a sense of religious superiority in all of their work. Lead by a white evangelical male and containing the majority of their donations by white evangelical families, the Samaritan’s Purse programs are unaware of the particular power dynamics that are being utilized to justify the ‘need’ for God’s guidance. Critically looking at the fundamental beliefs of the Samaritan’s Purse is necessary in order to understand their mindset in facilitating their women’s programs in what they teach and who they help.
Women in Uganda
The country of Uganda is the 31st largest country in the world, situated in East Africa and bordering five countries. It is considered one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region and is quickly developing its economy through growing cities like Kampala, where many of these programs operate. Though roughly 84% of its population still live in rural areas, many individuals have migrated closer to the city in search of better work and educational opportunities. The Ugandan population is quite young, with a large majority of its inhabitants being of working-class age groups. This is in part due to the societal and cultural push that promotes child marriage and early childbearing. They mark important transitions from childhood to adulthood and are the key institutions of societal status and expectation. Following a patriarchal family model, Ugandan women are valued by their fertility and how they can best serve the household. Unequal divisions of labor follow this mindset, and many women find themselves unable to utilize their time for school or productive labor––especially when they have young children. They are raised to be dependent on their fathers and then their husbands who ultimately provide economic support. Unfortunately, it is usually these individuals who abandon them for infidelity reasons (on the man’s part) or the woman’s inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term; Putting these women in precarious situations that usually lead to the path of prostitution. Presently, the socioeconomic and cultural atmospheres about women in Uganda are changing due to globalization and broader definitions of gender-roles. The topic itself is fragile and contradictory, with pressures from the local community to both emphasize a woman’s progress outside of the home yet also place value on it. It is in these vulnerable situations that the Samaritan’s Purse organization claims to ‘help’ these women. Unfortunately, this means that the characteristics of help flow from religious doctrine even at the expense of the reality of vulnerable situations.
My Sister’s Keeper is an organization that was established in 2013 and works in the town, (referred to as the slum) of Katanga. It has become a red-light district of sorts and an excellent breeding ground for illicit activity, prostitution included. It is here that My Sister’s Keeper operates within seven local Ugandan churches to respond 1), to the needs of those leaving sexual exploitive situations and 2), preventing vulnerable women and girls from being trafficked/falling into prostitution. The Samaritan’s Purse has decided that the best way to do this is through the equipping of local churches to handle the situation. This is two-fold, with trainings, workshops, and community screenings of sex-trafficking films to bring awareness of this problem, but also demonstrate the right or ‘Christian’ way to respond. Convicted by the reality that these women could be ‘our’ own mother, daughter or friend, these programs utilized the relational aspect of ‘help’ rather than the humanitarian part. In order to see these women as people, ownership and belonging to someone must first be visible; In other words, image bearers to them and to God.
Emphasis is also put on how the church body has ultimately benefited from these programs and how they have learned, through the suffering of others, to become more Christlike themselves. While not inherently wrong, this is a slippery slope to creating programs which focus on the ‘helper’ rather than the ‘helped.’ Unfortunately, little else is given about this program, who runs it, and if there are quality checks to ensure this does not happen. General terminology is the most popular form of information, with sentiments like ‘equipping,’ ‘empowering,’ and ‘healing’ being used the most to describe the women. Yet, the actual specifics of what qualifies the organization to use these words are unknown. When asked why women participate in sex work, many Ugandan pastors responded with the answers of money, demand, and pressure from lack of options. This comes across as sex work being the easiest option because of its ability to provide quick income. While true to some extent, the pastors seemed to side-step the reality that sex work is not easy work since buying and selling it are illegal in Uganda. This generalized response lacks not only cultural and social implications of sex work, but also the political dynamics of it.
The other program, Sanyuka Women at Risk (SWAR) operates from one of the Samaritan’s Purse ministry’s partner Ellilta Women at Risk (EWAR). Established in 2007 in the town of Mbiko, Uganda, the founder of SWAR, Mary Zema, operates from a home only large enough to take in 10 women (and their children if they have any) at a time. A former prostitute and evangelical Christian herself, Mary understands the difficulties that many of the women face and the redeemed hope and forgiveness that can come through knowing Christ. Unlike My Sister’s Keeper, this program provides a bit more information of how they ‘help.’ SWAR’s main objectives are to integrate women living in prostitution into the community, equip them with practical skills for development to alleviate poverty, and restore them to their families.
Women are found on the street at night from employees and are brought to her home. These women then stay for a full year, usually working through any addictions they may face and gain confidence through Christian counseling and vocational skill training. These include cooking, tailoring, weaving, and hairdressing to name a few. While helpful, many of these women had previously done these types of work before and were utilizing prostitution as one of several ways to gain income.
As mentioned previously, women enrolled in both of these programs generally have little to no education. Given that reality, many women would benefit from schooling opportunities to perhaps finish what they could not when they got pregnant or had children. Emphasizing female specific jobs in these programs only continues the stigma that educating women is a waste of time. Consequently, given this assumed role in society, simply because they are trained in these vocational skills does not mean they would be given the freedom (nor the time) to use them to gain income. Regardless, SWAR’s original initiative and most challenging work still, is gaining the intentional care of local communities for these women. Like the other program, it also desires to facilitate churches in the correct approaches to respond to prostitution and help women achieve their fuller ministries in life.
Zema admits that her work is minimal however, and that she struggles under a lack of resources despite many women who are interested in the program. Besides being able to speak at local schools about the dangers of trafficking and the hope of the gospel, Zema is heavily restricted on what she can do. This gives the impression that although this program has been in operation for over thirteen years, its growth has been stagnant. SWAR states it watches younger children on site and older children attend school, yet many women enrolled mention the continued struggle to provide for their families. Once again, donations appear to be too little to effect change in this area or it is fundamentally not part of the program. Regardless, the emotional strain and anxiety that these women feel for their children is not helpful in their recovery nor their prolonged efforts to stay out of sex work. If the Samaritan’s Purse desires to help, alleviating the financial stress for these women and their children would be a better place to start instead of focusing primarily on the state of these women’s souls.
While a positive step into learning how to accept and love others, these programs emphasized the evangelical mindset of ‘seeing’ God in others in order to ‘help’ them. Until these congregations recognized the ‘usefulness’ of these women in the overall ministry of Jesus did they ‘come to their senses.’ These churches freely admit that prior to these programs, many of them used to turn away these women who came to them for help in fear of them contaminating their congregations with their sinful life. They viewed them as the worst of sinners that couldn’t possibly be accepted by God, some even admitted to praying for their death rather than their redemption. The training courteously reminded them of their mission of seeking and saving the lost. For one pastor, this training helped him realize that these prostitutes could be used as “mighty weapons and tools to do His (God’s) work.” It was not disclosed whether or not these churches were establishments from the Samaritan’s Purse church building projects.
Ironically, these women seem to find freedom from being used sexually to instead being used spiritually. Coming from a life where they internalized being dependent on others, they were now being taught through programs that emphasized their dependence and usefulness on yet another male, a deity whom they only recently came to see as a positive figure. SWAR intentionally leads them to this understanding through enlisting men to fulfill some helping roles within the program. They want women to see ‘good’ men. However well-intentioned this may be, it does little to address the hurt and confusion these women have about the men in their own life. Many of the men were ‘good’ at some point as several women reminisced in interviews about their temporarily happy marriages or loving family members. Simply showing them a positive male figure, whether in a spiritual or human form, does not insinuate a healed relationship with all men.
Secondly, nowhere on their site or in their programs is there mention of women being able to freely choose not to become believers or that salvation is a requirement to participate. Each woman who faithfully commits to these organizations is assumed to find the love of God, regardless if they were originally angry or confused at Him. Admittance of this displays their misconception and previous unbelief that could only come from the sinful influences of their lifestyles. Situations where women choose to leave prostitution without God are unmentioned and unreported. The Samaritan’s Purse may claim to be unbiased on the religious background of who they help, but they ultimately desire to witness a spiritual transformation within these women which is why these programs are designed to push an evangelical agenda. How entrenched this agenda is within each step of the program is unknown.
These women are also not required to utilize their ‘new’ skills for the ministry, but many do. They are encouraged, or rather persuaded through endless envelopment, to bring ‘awareness’ of their new life to their family and friends. After all, sharing the ministry is what helped the community approach them. This excludes the reality that their changed life does little to change the social or cultural expectations of their gender. Instances where family members turned these women away for prostitution occur, but more likely are the instances where women attempted to pursue anything outside their reproductive and wifely duties. These programs seem to gloss over that fact. Desiring to help these women to reconnect with their families is a wonderful goal, but only if they address the actual causes of excommunication.
Lastly, each entry on the website ends with a sentimental request to pray for the women ensnared in this line of work and that they will find freedom and forgiveness. Not one prayer is asked for the ‘freedom and forgiveness’ of the judgmental congregations that continue to turn them away, nor the individuals that prey on vulnerable women or leave them helpless. Forgiveness implies that one has purposely, with malicious and deceit in their heart, done something wrong. Yet, many of these women feel the exact opposite about their choices, citing the ability to provide for their children when death, abandonment, or financial disaster rid them of better options.
Through their own resilience, they have attempted to destigmatize the shame associated with this line of work. These programs seem to only reinforce it and continue to label women in need of repentance and saving. Despite their motives to remove that ‘bondage of shame’ through the local church’s acceptance, they are further highlighting it through this kind of biblical rhetoric. These programs that are saturated in ‘help,’ are feeding into the discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes toward Ugandan women. They focus on the accountability of women to learn and uphold biblical virtues yet fail to address the lack of accountability, responsibility, and biblical virtues of the men who often left them.
In a country that is going through its own perspective shifts on women, the women’s programs provide little clarity and further confusion. These programs also give no mention to helping women navigate their own reproductive health or finding freedom in their own sexuality. Given the evangelical beliefs of this program, it is to be assumed that these are not appropriate topics unless in the context of marriage. This is a discouraging observation since many women lacked any formal healthcare to begin with, let alone contraceptive access or prenatal care; all things that could have prevented their discontinuation of school or work. There is also a lack of financial transparency and information regarding these programs. While Samaritan Purse states that they pursue integrity and openness in their finances, there is little information on what specifically the donation money goes to. Donations can be made under Human Trafficking relief, but there is no opportunity to give to specific programs. There is no official website for My Sister’s Keeper, only excerpts in blog posts on the Samaritan’s Purse website. SWAR has a bit more information, as it has its own website and contact information. However, it is often mysteriously ‘under-construction’ and access to it is regularly denied. For transparency’s sake, this is unsettling.
Prostitution is not a new phenomenon, and what the programs respond to are consequences of its reach. However, they are also responses to their own stigma of the subject, brought about by their evangelical beliefs on sex, relationships, and gender-roles. Attempting to equip women with certain skills and information will not have much success in a society that still struggles to accept them. Nor is it beneficial to prioritize the ministry aspect of these programs when the cultural and social aspects are the ones continuing to oppress women. To be sure, the Samaritan’s Purse women programs in Uganda are addressing a need that is growing at an alarming rate. There are positive aspects to the organizations––mainly that the women are loved, cared for, and are beginning to be accepted into the homes and churches of the community. However, the intentions behind this newfound love and extended grace have the potential to create further harm in how the women view themselves; these women are moving from being instruments for men to instruments for God. In the case of the Samaritan’s Purse, ministry is found in the hope of prostitutes.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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