The Guy in the Orange Shirt

by Laura on February 17, 2011

The following post is my final writing for the IdeaCamp Conference on Orphan Care which is happening next weekend in Arkansas.  If you will be attending, I pray the following encourages your discussions while there.  If you’re not planning to go, I hope the following inspires you to embrace whatever shape service and love happen to be taking in your world right now.  And, as a disclaimer, please understand that the concepts of foreign missions and its role on the current global stage is a broad topic, to which I have only discussed a small, personally-experienced facet here.

I’ve always wanted to be the guy in the orange shirt.

Or the blue shirt, depending on the organization.

I’ve always wanted to be the person on the ground, handing out water bottles to tsunami victims, shoveling rice  to starving people and holding the hand of the orphan.  I’ve always wanted to really “be” the hands and feet of Jesus to a hurting world, like,

literally, not just figuratively.

In the trenches. Hands dirty.

Swinging my own sword to fight injustice.  Hugging with my own hands the forgotten children.

But, we’ve lived in SE Asia now for nearly a year, and my husband and I both are coming to the humbling understanding that because we were born into the world as wealthy, educated Westerners,

we may never get to truly be the guy in the orange shirt.

Because, honestly, the nationals are more equipped to be the hands and feet of Jesus within their own cultures than I am, as a first-year-American-missionary. They speak the native language, live similar lifestyles, and possess the intrinsic knowledge which my Western mind will never fully grasp.  The national local church is just naturally a better fit for the orange shirt.

And this is a hard pill for me to swallow.

Because suddenly my role is more behind-the-scenes and not-as-much frontlines.  And this births a struggle because building websites in front of a computer screen doesn’t feel as inspired.  Raising money by writing emails doesn’t seem as dramatic, and administering the finances sure doesn’t equate rescuing children in my mind.  And yet these skills, unglamorous and sterile as they may seem, are some of the ones my husband and I can bring to the table.

And I read this last week about a battle the Israelites had on their way to the Promised Land {Exodus 17}.  And it was Joshua who was in the trenches swinging the sword, but it was Moses who was on the hilltop with his arms raised, claiming victory for the battle below.  And then there were two other men, little remembered I’m sure, Aaron and Hur, who literally helped Moses keep his arms above his head–both arms raised, for an entire day.

And this struck me, personally, because I think Matt and I came here assuming we were going to be Joshua, the guy in the orange shirt, the soldiers on the frontlines.

But the reality is that in many ways we are more needed as an Aaron or a Hur– doing the undramatic, quieter service of holding up the tired arm of a national.

And I think the reason this idea has bothered me over the past few months is because I came to SE Asia with a bit of a Savior-complex. I flew over oceans because I was caught up in the assumption that I had the answers and abilities and funds those people needed.

But I was wrong.

And I wonder how much of my service has been motivated by selfish-ambition, wonder how much of my “loving the poor” has been wrapped up in a thirst for the dramatic.

And this is hard to admit– hard to admit that perhaps I have been serving with a bit of an agenda.

But, humbling as it may be to confess, I still think it’s true–

Because authentic love for the orphan doesn’t care about jobs or recognition or drama.

And genuine care for the least of these has no regard for pats-on-the-back

or the color of shirt it wears.


Interested in reading more about Orphan Care? Visit IdeaCamp’s blog.

Thoughts on the role of the West in foreign missions/humanitarian aid?  Do you suffer from “orange-shirt desire,” too?  How important is it to mobilize nationals to help orphans within their own countries?

Final picture above is my husband Matt with the assistant-director of the Girls’ Home, Breanna’s House of Joy.

  • Maureen

    Great Post! I think most of us who live on the field have those kind of expectations at first, then we learn (sometimes the hard way) what role God has for us to play. :)

    • Laura

      Maureen, yes, I definitely struggle with placing unfair, unrealistic expectations on things, and this move overseas is no exception. I guess the real grit comes in letting go of what I expected and embracing the bigger plan God had in mind, all along.

  • @ngie

    How very wise of you to recognize this inner battle for validation based on works. How very bold of you to speak out about it to an ambition driven readership.

    • Laura

      @ngie, so thankful you chimed in. Would love to know your thoughts on the role missionaries play in your part of the world. I know you have been living overseas longer than I have.

      And, yes, I have totally struggled with an “inner battle for validation based on works.”


      • @ngie

        Just watched your video about this post. Wish I could sit at that coffee shop with you and hash out the idea of the ‘role’ of the missionary on the field. Too much to say for a tiny little comment box. :)

        Yep, just over nine years in Bolivia now and I feel like we reinvent or redefine ourselves all the time. I am so grateful for His grace.

        • Laura

          @ngie, wanna come on over? I’m sure a plane ticket from Bolivia to Thailand is not THAT pricey.

          I’ll pay for the coffee. :)

  • jan

    You nailed it!

  • Amy

    You’re still a hero to me no matter what color shirt you wear! Love you and am proud of you! Especially for your honesty here.

    • Laura

      Back at you, Sis.

  • Kindra

    love the imagery of aaron and hur…. right on… i agree with jan, nailed it

  • Amber

    Thanks for the encouragement. That’s exactly my role right now – the one behind the scenes with Compassion International. It’s so good to be reminded of what’s true. Thanks so much.

    • Laura

      “Behind-the-Scenes.”– Yes, why do we fight that so much? Being “behind the scenes?”

      I love the way you are serving Compassion, Amber.

  • Annie

    Oh Laura, I think you just gave ME a hard pill to swallow. I have such a desire inside me to be in the orange shirt, that I can hardly stand the wait. I feel so strongly that in a few years we can travel and be “on site” as a family.

    Ok, I know you are correct. The Nationals are the very best choice to minister to their own people. That is how God planned it. And maybe the day of the traditional missionary, in that respect, is falling behind. Which is a GOOD thing as the people learn to take over the “hands on” role.

    Yes, I can see that, I know that. But now my heart hurts for the life I may never get to live. Face to face with the hurting. Holding the children and feeding them. Sharing the love of Christ with the abandoned and lonely directly. But you’re right, it’s not about ME and my dreams, it is about His work.

    Do you feel there is any place for a missionary of that sort anymore? Do you feel we can still wear the orange shirt and also mobilize the Nationals? Is there any hope for those of us who dream of being on site with the needy to still have that opportunity?

    • Laura


      Oh please don’t think I was saying a Westerner can never go help practically! I didn’t mean that, because we have gotten the chance to practically serve and love the people here. I was just saying that so often our roles have shifted and we are needed more often in the undramatic roles. That is just my experience here in Thailand, and yes we can absolutely still “wear the orange shirt and mobilize the Nationals.” Absolutely. Especially, ESPECIALLY, if God has given you such a burning heart to be overseas doing that. I think when we make the jump to move overseas, we just have to be ready to be open-handed with the HOW of our service, ya know (which is something I have struggled with)? But, yes, there are missionaries/humanitarian aid workers all over the world who ARE in the trenches, wearing that orange shirt, and who are doing tremendous good. I hope I didn’t diminish that reality too much in my post. My experience in Thailand might be completely different from what I would have experienced had we moved to Africa or Brazil, etc. . . .

      Love your heart, Annie. LOVE it.

      Please don’t be discouraged! If God is calling you, He WILL use you, friend.

  • richelle

    Amen and amen!

    I agree 100%… I share in the same struggle…

    I say I want to serve but want to dictate to the Lord the terms of my service.

    I’m so thankful for the example of my husband who’s service minded heart never seeks the pats on the back or the recognition but just the quiet well done spoken by His Savior deep within His heart. His whole ministry is about making others look and sound good as they proclaim the good news via audio-visuals.

    We’ve also been challeneged by the thought that we should not be filling any position that someone in the local church could rightly fill – even if they might not do it as well as we might…

    I’m interested to hear your response to that idea.

    • Laura


      I love that you have a genuine respect for your husband and the way he serves and helps others “look good.” What a neat example to inspire the rest of us!

      I am NOT a missions expert of any kind. In fact, i need to do some study probably of the changing face of modern missions, but until THAT happens, regarding your question of nationals in the local church . . .

      It seems like the generalization would be that a National would be better within their own culture. Obviously, foreigners who are committed to a place and language and culture can add huge things to the local church– and should be. And the local church can benefit from themselves getting stretched and challenged from someone from another culture. I think the danger is when we as Westerners come into 3rd world countries, especially, and “take over” instead of first listening, learning, serving, and supporting, ya know? Like so many things, I guess there is never an “all the time/ right and wrong” answer. It’s following Jesus-lead, in even that.

      Great question. I’ll keep chewing on that one today.

  • @ngie

    Ha! Haven’t they finished perfecting that teleporter technology yet? Isn’t there an app for that? :)

  • Molly

    God definitely put this post in my path today. I’m just back from Africa, and all I can think is how and when can I get back? I’ve also been working on a bible study that has challenged my ideas of motivation. We can choose the right things for the wrong reasons, and even in mission work, that can blunt our place in His plan. I encourage you in both your work and the willingness to be open to God’s fresh revelation everyday. That is the path to wisdom!

    • Laura

      “We can choose the right things for the wrong reasons.” Molly, this is a good thing to ask ourselves, for sure. The issue of motivation is a hugely important one– especially to God who is after our heart most, anyway.

      Thanks for stopping in . . .

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  • Amy

    Ned Donaldson once told us that at a low point fairly early in his missionary life, an old-timer missionary asked him if he thought God had sent him to Thailand for the benefit of the Thai people. The gentleman disagreed with Ned’s, “Of course!” He told Ned that God had brought him to Thailand for Ned’s sake: in Ned’s case, that was the best place for God to accomplish His work in Ned’s life at that time. The blessings to the Thai people around him were above-and-beyond extras.
    Remeber that chorus with ‘inright, outright, upright, downright’? Somebody ought to write a grown-up’s second verse with ‘inside, outside, upside, downside’!

    • Laura

      Mrs. Amy,

      Oh, My . . . what a timely encouraging story you shared about Ned Donaldson!

      This is perfect on so many levels for my heart, and I am sure for many others reading through the comments. Thanks for taking the time to share and to remind me that God is after my own godly-character and my own heart to be His FIRST. Sometimes, I guess I miss the point of what He is doing completely.

      Thanks for sharing that story. Truly.

      Enjoy the beautiful flowers in North Carolina– I know they are about to start blooming, right? Or, at least, soon?

  • Lisa L.

    Laura, your blog’s quickly become one of my favorites, because of how much WORD is in your posts. And I don’t mean just the Bible! 😉

    I have a feeling that, if I were in your shoes, our paths would look very similar.

    I so love the encouragement and (I sense) heart lift you got as you read about Aaron and Hur’s roles. I’d never seen it like that before.

    Oh – and the comment above, about it being about “Ned” out in the field and the work God could only do in him in that situation…

    • Laura


      Thanks so much, and I’m glad you are visiting over here. :)

      Yeah, that comment about Ned and how it maybe is more about my own crap getting dealt with than any “good” I could do anyway– pretty humbling, and hopeful in a strange way, too.

  • Teri Miller

    This is so great and true and real. For all of us, in so many ‘callings.’ Most every service I do is really more about my own self-inflated ego.
    truth hurts.

    Back to James.
    “…we are drawn away by our desires and enticed…”

    I can hear it and see it and even memorize it. Just don’t know how to live it.

    • Laura

      Teri- this is a beautiful sentence–

      “Most every service I do is really more about my own self-inflated ego.”

      Oh, man, yes.

  • evan stookey

    this definitely resonates with me. i struggle with this too, and ive had people step in.

    i just want to step in on this side and say that although im probably one of the few guys who reads your blog, and it may not seem so “orange shirt-like” but it helps me IMMENSELY.

    it is really impacting to me, and im sure there are many others who get a lot out of it too.

    • Laura

      Evan- thanks, dude. Love your honesty and thanks for hanging with me — even through the “mommy” posts! :)

  • Carol

    Laura, I justed finished reading a book called, When Helping Hurts. I read it because a seasoned missionary told me that it was the best missions book he had ever read. It was a thought provoking book. Although the author never used the term “savior complex” I think that is what he was trying to address.
    So much to think about! As a “sender” it makes me think that I need to be careful about what I expect to hear from missionaries. Can I be satisfied (as a should be) with stories of brave assistance. Or, do I expect to hear “orange shirt” stories.

    • Laura

      Carol– YES, I totally have heard of that book and will buy it next to read. Matt wanted to read it, too. Excellent that a seasoned missionary said it was the best missions book. I love your question as a “sender”–

      “Can I be satisfied (as a should be) with stories of brave assistance. Or, do I expect to hear “orange shirt” stories.”

      I love that term of “brave assistance.” Like, maybe our expectations should shift towards that more . . .

    • Laura

      Carol– YES, I totally have heard of that book and will buy it next to read. Matt wanted to read it, too. Excellent that a seasoned missionary said it was the best missions book. I love your question as a “sender”–

      “Can I be satisfied (as I should be) with stories of brave assistance. Or, do I expect to hear “orange shirt” stories.”

      I love that term of “brave assistance.” Like, maybe our expectations should shift towards that more . . .

    • Michelle

      Carol – I so appreciate your comment about what you expect to hear from missionaries. We serve in South Africa working in an AIDS devastated community, and it sometimes fells overwhelming trying to “keep donors happy.” We so rely on the generosity of 1st world donors, but when we are trying to do “good” development, things take longer and you sometimes don’t see the BIG numbers as you would if you were handing out clothes or food freely. “When Helping Hurts” has radically helped us in our approach to ministry. A must read for all donors and the front liners! :-)

  • Amy Sullivan

    And this is why you are so easy to relate to. . .your honesty. Even if it makes us squirm to admit it, which of us doesn’t have an agenda?

    There have been so many times that I’ve been fingers crossed and praying for that orange shirt when really the shirt doesn’t fit me, and it wasn’t made to.

    Thanks for making me think.

  • Michelle

    Laura… How do you find time to blog such great, deep, and meaningful words!? I feel lucky to get a blog in a week and often don’t get that.

    Bless you girl and your work. My heart aches for young girls exploited by the sex trade. I read this weekend in a museum a quote by Martin Luther King, “No one is free until everyone is free.” We cannot live without feeling the burdens of those oppressed in the world. Thanks for sharing so freely with us. You, your husband, and your family are in my prayers.

    And yes, you for sure should read “When Helping Hurts!” We ‘require’ (loosely) all our short term mission teams to read it or at least be familiar with its basis. Good stuff.

    • Laura

      Michelle, thanks for your comments. Living in S. Africa, I know you must have wrestled with the same concepts of what the role of the Westerner is . . . and I love that your ideas of community development play a big role in your ministry there.

      Okay, so now, I really have to start reading that book asap. Thanks, again, for the encouragement to jump in to that one next. :)

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