I fully support the humanitarian effort to tackle public health crises in foreign countries. If you’re in Uganda just to feed, clothe, and educate the people there, I have no problem with you. But this is seldom the primary concern for missionaries. While they might indeed provide food and/or healthcare to the people they serve, their primary goal is—and has always been—to win more converts. And there is no easier way to win converts than by going to some country where the people are hungry, uneducated, and desperate. While the missionaries say they aren’t “forcing” Christianity on anyone, they are introducing it to people who are physically and emotionally vulnerable, and who have no way of “fact-checking” anything they are told.
This can have disastrous results, as when Pentecostal churches began exploiting local superstitions about witchcraft in Africa during the 1980s. Extreme poverty and disease are almost always blamed on supernatural forces in such communities, which is already bad enough to start with. But then the charismatic pastors come in with all their hellfire and brimstone, claiming to fight against the “witches” in the name of “God” with their faith healings and their exorcisms—neither of which provides the people who are suffering with any practical solution to their woes. In fact, such practices only escalate the situation because it reinforces the people’s superstitious fears, motivating them to harm and even murder their own children for being accused “witches.” (There is an entire report from Unicef about this particular matter, if you would like to read more.)
I’m not saying Pentecostals are entirely to blame for this, or that there is nothing of value to their faith healings or their exorcisms. There’s a reason people keep coming back to these ritual procedures; as someone who delights in performing execration ceremonies, I can attest that such rites are incredibly potent and can provide some much-needed catharsis in times of extreme anxiety or panic. The problem is when such procedures are claimed to be the one and only treatment people need to recover from their misfortunes. Yes, dancing and chanting to execrate an evil spirit can contribute to your health and emotional well-being, but it’s not going to heal you of AIDS or find you a fresh source of drinking water. It’s not going to eliminate any mental health issues you might be living with. These people deserve to be given a proper scientific education, so they can understand how things like diseases actually work. Telling them that “God will take care of everything” if they just believe and pray is one of the most irresponsible things anyone can say to someone who desperately needs help.
And then you have those missionaries who think they know what they’re doing, but don’t. Exhibit A: Renee Bach, an American missionary who posed as a medical doctor in Uganda without a license. Bach is not a medical professional, yet she has administered blood transfusions, hooked children up to breathing machines, and otherwise participated in people’s medical decisions. Now some of the children she has treated are dead, and an investigation into her activities has been launched. Just from reading the report, I can tell that Bach is someone who cares for children very passionately, and who truly intends to do good work. I do not believe this person intended to harm anyone. But unfortunately, that just isn’t good enough when it comes to practicing medicine. You can love kids and want to heal them all you want, but if you aren’t a licensed physician, the help you provide might actually be deadly. So please think twice before you run off to practice medicine without a license (not just in Uganda, but anywhere).