Cure for the White Savior Complex

White Savior
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” St. Augustine of Hippo

We have all seen movies like Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, or Blindside, right? You know the ones, where the white outsider comes into the urban environment and saves the poor people of color from an otherwise hopeless existence. It has been described by some as “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Hollywood loves these storylines. And so does the church.

But these kinds of stories give the false impression that people of color are just waiting for a white savior to come and rescue them from their situation. These movies might inspire on some level – it’s great that white people are concerned and eager to help – but they give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition to improve their communities day in and day out. They are leaders and mentors that we have a lot to learn from. They are the real stars that we rarely hear about.

Pat is one of those people.

I met Pat at my church and I could tell she was someone with a special heart for God and people. I wanted to spend more time learning from her so I ended up quitting my job so I could do an internship with her and be more involved in my neighborhood. I asked my wife if she thought we could live off her salary so I could volunteer doing things in the neighborhood that were important but that I would never get paid for. My wife said we would make it work. I believe it’s more important who we become than what we do, so I decided to do things that would help me become the person I wanted to be rather than simply seeking out a job that paid well. I saw something in Pat that I wanted in my life. So I volunteered with her doing pastoral care at a local Christian health clinic.

Related: The Pollution of Racism: What White People Can Do About Racism – by Chris Lahr

While working with Pat, we visited the hospital a lot. We would go to pray with people who had been in car accidents or who had babies that were sick or even young people who had been shot. Pat would tell me stories about her visits that taught me what it meant to be a pastoral presence in a person’s life. She would rub patients’ feet who had poor circulation, make repeated trips to let people know she truly cared for them, and she would always pray with them before leaving.

I did a lot of data entry for her on the computer because the clinic was moving to an electronic system where they had to track visits. Pat could not justify spending time entering her visits in the computer when she could be spending that time with actual people. She had just the right amount of rebel in her that I’m pretty sure is essential for anyone who wants to make any real change in the world. So I entered names in the computer so she could have more face time with people that needed her care and support.

She would host a support group for people with stress, anxiety, grief, and depression. Every Wednesday we would gather with a group of people who had experienced incredible loss or who were going through unimaginable situations. Pat, who has endured her share of grief, would run the meeting like a pastor and counselor. She would speak to their hearts and to their spirits. I was there to make coffee, pick up donuts, pass around the sign-in sheet, make people feel comfortable, and just listen. Because of Pat’s experience having lost a husband and daughter, she spoke from a different place and people trusted what she said.

Many elderly women and single moms came and would share the anxiety they had trying to get by. Or they shared about horrible tragedies and losing loved ones to shootings or drugs. I started to see that poverty had an emotional as well as physical toll. As much as people needed <i.things, they also needed comfort. They needed to be heard, cared for, and consoled. The support group was a sacrament of grace for those going through the hardest times in their life, and Pat was their priest.

Related: Kony 2012 and the Golden Rule: How Do ‘We’ Tell ‘Their’ Story – by Kent Annan

Brave New Films

After class, participants would tell Pat about a need they had and Pat would not stop until it was addressed. Whether it was finding furniture for a family whose house had just burned down or helping a single mom to find a job, she was relentless. Pat is an advocate for people who have no one in their corner. We spent a lot of our time in the clinic, but my favorite times were when we went out to get a resource for someone. One time we went to deliver a wheelchair to an elderly woman who couldn’t get around. Another time we picked up boxes of donated school uniforms and took them to a family of 7 that had just moved to the neighborhood and had no money to purchase uniforms. We delivered turkey baskets on holidays to elderly folks and collected funds for families that couldn’t pay bills. Pat was not just meeting needs, she was bringing the good news of the Kingdom. She embodied God’s care, justice, and peace in ways others could tangibly feel.

Pat is connected. We would drive down the street and she would tell me the names of every single person that lived on the block. She told me when she first got the job she went around and learned about every organization and church in the community. She learned the community block by block.

Once while we were riding in the car from the hospital I asked her how she deals with all the death, tragedy, and heavy emotional issues she faces on a daily basis. She told me about her personal practices for caring for herself, like taking hot baths after really long days. She recommended a daily devotional that she starts out her day with, which I immediately picked up and started using. She taught me about being responsible to people but not being responsible for people (there’s a difference!). These were lessons that have proven to be invaluable to me in my ministry.

Also by Shawn: Is Hell for the Rich?

Pat is one of those remarkable people that gives a community hope. She tirelessly gives and gives with little regard for herself or need for recognition. She is a true inspiration.

I see so many white people coming into the city and starting new churches and ministries right off the bat. A lot of them are very cool things, too. But sometimes I think we miss out on a lot of wisdom when we do not first become learners and humble ourselves under the leadership of those who are already here. It just might be the cure for the White Savior Complex.

Being mentored by Pat and seeing the way she lives her life for others has deeply impacted me. Her life is an art of loving people and I am trying to follow her lead.

Shawn Casselberry is National Program Director and Chicago City Director for Mission Year, a yearlong opportunity for 18-29 year olds focused on intentional community, radical discipleship, and social justice in the urban context. Shawn is speaker, writer, community drumline instructor, and youth advocate. Shawn and his wife Jen relocated 9 years ago to North Lawndale, an under-resourced neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, where they are learning to be good neighbors. You can follow him on Twitter (@scasselberry).

Photo Credits: Paramount Pictures, Alcon Entertainment

Print Friendly

About the Author

Shawn Casselberry

Shawn CasselberryShawn Casselberry is the Interim Executive Director for Mission Year, a yearlong mission organization that calls young adults to intentional community, radical discipleship, and living justly in the urban context. Shawn is passionate about mentoring young people and mobilizing the church to do justly. You can follow him on Twitter (@scasselberry).View all posts by Shawn Casselberry →

  • 22044

    Although I love a good story being put on film (although I haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned)…I appreciate your post telling us of the service you and Pat are involved in & trust it reflects better what really goes on.
    Props & thanks.

  • jonathan starkey

    What white social justice Christians like, “Making fun of the “White Savior Industrial Complex” in the name of superior wisdom and knowledge.”
    I’m beginning to think you cool christians do more harm than good.


    • Can you explain a little more? I’m not sure how this post is “making fun” of anyone, it just mentions an issue within justice-minded white communities. How is working to learn from people who know more than you doing more harm than good? Thanks!

      • jonathan starkey

        It’s sexy in Social Justice Circles if you are able to highlight the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

        Then in turn to intellectualize, the “right” approach to the “inner city.”

        Pat yourself on the back for not being those ignorant white people, who think they are the savior to black people.

        The Sermon on the Mount Police

        • jonathan starkey

          Wanna know why I’m white in the inner city. 1 word Jesus.

          He is the ultimate HOPE story, and I’ve been transformed. No I’m participating in the ultimate Hope story.

        • mmm ok. I don’t read this article that way at all. It’s important to both celebrate and be critical of justice work and I think Shawn does that – just mentioning a type of “industrial complex” doesn’t make something edgy or “sexy’ to use your word and I don’t see how spending time with your neighbors is intellectualizing religion. Although, I do know the type you’re referring to. In fact, I think Evangelical culture could use a nice dose of intellectualizing – or, what I would call, a consideration of other theologies – to sit with for a little bit before we act.

          • jonathan starkey

            Why even mention the white savior complex then, if you’re going to write an article celebrating the good?

          • Because, like I said, it’s important to both celebrate and be critical. Good work exists in a world that is broken and has unequal power dynamics, such as said Complex, so it should be a part of the conversation. If we’re trying to “do good” well, then we have to find the best way to do that good. I don’t think that’s being intellectual or sexy, I think that’s being a responsible and accountable person who exists in a world where other people exist – not just us and Jesus.

          • jonathan starkey

            Yes, and that is your rhetoric and bias, and I’m saying it may be distorted.

          • jonathan starkey

            I think recovering evangelicals and red letters, are wounded youth who think their parents don’t know how to love good enough.

            There were others who renounced works of healing>

            The Pharisees said Jesus healed by demons, because he wasn’t doing it according to their standards.

          • My apologizes for the hurt you seem to have experienced within your own religious experience that this has brought up. But, I don’t know that calling me a distorted, wounded youth, is helpful to this conversation so, best to you.

          • jonathan starkey

            It’s interesting that white people are writing and defending this argument. What is the demographic of people who come up with this wisdom?

          • Jonathan, if you’re interested in reading about religion, power, and race from the perspective of people of color, it is extremely easy to find information. In fact, I’m sure it’s all over this website. But, just in case, here are some people who I have learned a lot from reading: Traci West, Emilie Townes, James Cone, Delores Williams, bell hooks, Leroy Barber, Martin Luther King Jr, John Perkins, and Howard Thurman. In fact, I’d encourage you to pick up a book on Womanist Christian Theology to see that there is a very long history that goes with this conversation. I’m not as familiar with work by people who are Hispanic or of Asian descent when it comes, specifically, to work on Christianity and the inner-city, but I’m sure someone is and they’d love to give you recommendations.

          • Here I am. My comment is above. And why would you assume that everyone who has commented thus far, is white?

          • Jonathan. I dont even know what to say to you. i don’t know if you are black and think only black people can relate to you. I don’t know if you have something against Christians in general or if you identify yourself as some sort of Christian that no one else can relate to. Can you come up with something constructive/objective to help us bridge the gap? But if you are one of the people that only wants to criticize,,, well feel free to take that divisive mentality somewhere else.

          • Hey Ashleigh! I just wanted to say I appreciated your comments on this article. You were saying a lot of things I was thinking about. I just started following your blog, and I’m excited to hear more of your thoughts! It seems like you think about and talk about a lot of the same things I’m thinking about. I blog, too, and would love your thoughts on any of my posts if you are ever interested.

          • Distorted by what? Information from people other than myself and my own interpretation of the Bible? Hopefully!

          • I got the impression that Pat was Black… I believe Shawn was telling the story of an indigenous leader to combat the white savior complex and to celebrate the good that people are doing in their own communities.

          • jonathan starkey

            Who is reading into what here is a direct criticism from the article. “But these kinds of stories give the
            false impression that people of color are just waiting for a white
            savior to come and rescue them from their situation.”

            You’re insulting a whole group of people.

          • I don’t think the intent of this article is to insult – he is careful to critique the STORIES that give an impression.

          • jonathan starkey

            Through his lens. I go to church in the inner city, and sometimes these criticisms only reinforce a resistance to get better. If you accept help from a white person you’re not hood enough and you sold out.
            Oh, great white hype coming down here to save the day.

          • “false impression” There is no insult there.

    • Please support your use of the term “Making fun of”? I don’t see anything there which ridicules, makes fun of or pokes fun as you say.

      • jonathan starkey

        OK, patronizing. With a head pat.

  • Pat

    One thing that’s wrong with it, is that when someone views people of color has someone in need of help, when they encounter one of us that is not needy, you find them almost at a lost to know how to relate to us. I have encountered this firsthand and it’s very frustrating. I just want to tell them, “treat me like you would anyone else. Ask me about the weather, the ball game or any other inane topic you talk to your friends about. I’m a normal human being!”

    • jonathan starkey

      So your hurt and wounded, and you’re blaming them for not knowing how to treat you. So they must be out of touch>
      I’m white tattooed. And have been more than blessed in an all white midwestern Bible belt Church. Buy these silly savior white christians.

      • jonathan starkey

        White tattooed tore up from the floor up. The worst influence I’ve had more than the so called religious, are the cool social justice christaians. With their intellect.

        • Doesn’t the Bible tell us to seek wisdom? Please advise.

          • jonathan starkey

            The Bible says they feared man and not god, and the liked the wisdom of man more than the liked the wisdom of God. Lovers of logic.

          • Oh, I was thinking about the parts that insist we seek wisdom, no matter the cost (prov. 4:7) and love God with our minds (Luke 10:27).

          • Frank

            True wisdom is not wordly and our minds can be deceived.

    • That sounds so frustrating! You brought up a point I hadn’t thought about before: how the “savior complex” can become more widespread and even affect those outside of the immediate “savior”/”savee” context. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Trying to understand and confront the ways in which we are privileged is an important part of seeking humility, an accurate understanding of myself (and my smallness) in relation to God and the rest of the universe. Although phrases like “white savior complex” may sound new, it’s really part of the same foundational and ancient spiritual practice of seeking humility.

    I want to understand the ways that I have advantages that I didn’t earn, that I didn’t obtain through superior skills, but simply because I was born a certain ethnicity, gender, or economic class. This informs the way that I try to love others. I shouldn’t try to encourage someone to follow my example as a path to success if my success in the relevant area is due to factors outside of my control.

    Also, it’s important to recognize privilege because it is the only way that systematic injustices can begin to be addressed. If we think that everyone can succeed by just doing A, B, or C, when in reality there are systematic barriers to their success, we run the risk of doing more harm than good.

  • Being responsible to people rather than for people. That is wisdom indeed!

  • Michael

    White Saviour Complex is bad says would-be White Saviour.

    • jonathan starkey

      Everyone here loves the Ghandi savior and Mother Theresa though.

      • Ghandi was an Indian helping Indians. That has nothing to do with this story. And Mother Teresa lived with the people that she was helping. She became a citizen of India.

    • What does this comment even mean?

  • @ Jonathan Starkey, I am black and grew up poor, so I’m pretty close to the demographic. I thought the article hit it right on the head. When “white saviors” come into the community, they come to talk, not to listen. Who wants to feel like someone’s charity project? It’s like the civil rights movement, many white people were involved, but they didn’t come in to trying to lead. I’m not really sure why you are so hostile to this viewpoint, but since you wanted to hear from a real live poor minority, here I am.

    • I strongly suspect that jonathan starkey is a different person from Jonathan Starkey – Jonathan Starkey (capitalized) was originally just Jonathan, but changed his name when someone stole it. Since jonathan starkey is writing in a similar style but saying wildly different things from Jonathan Starkey, I suspect it has happened again. That, or Jonathan’s entire character has changed.

      It is rather telling of the real Jonathan’s character, though, that the only way this troll can find to discredit him is by creating a false image.

  • Gerrylu

    I work in the field of international humanitarian aid. I was
    traveling to Uganda several years ago and panicked when I saw them: THE CHURCH
    GROUP!…all in the same funky green T-Shirts, overwhelming in their exuberance
    for the trip…Oh, I thought, this is going to be a long flight. I worked for a faith based organization and
    sharing the Gospel was/is part of my work. But what shook me about this group and others
    I have watched is the great arrogance they demonstrate while talking amongst
    themselves about what they were going to do…build a house, dig a well, etc. All
    good stuff but they were definitely the great
    white hope. I kept my head down and
    mouth shut (not easy for me if you know me) until my breaking point came. The
    leader, or one of their leaders, got up and yelled out “We are bringing Jesus
    to Africa!” Well, I couldn’t let that go…I looked up and, rather loudly exclaimed
    HE IS ALREADY THERE! Well that took some air out of their puffing. He is
    there, I said, less loudly the second time and maybe, if you listen, you will actually find him.

    We boarded and needless to say we avoided each other for
    duration of the flight. I know the value
    of these church groups, especially youth groups. But it’s to change their
    lives, not the lives of those in the emerging nation to which they travel…maybe
    we should tell them that in advance of their trips.

  • Keith

    Please read all of this post or none of it so I don’t get pre-judged as a bad guy.

    I’m trying to understand what is wrong with white people helping black people or red people helping white people or yellow people helping brown people or black people helping white people or… (just in case I left someone out).

    Why are we still so bent out of shape by race? It seems to me that most of the rhetoric I hear in my sphere of influence is much more swayed toward “people of color” bashing “white” people and judging their motives. It seems to me that white is as much a “color” as black. So lets just love each other as Jesus has called us to do. And If I as a white man want to reach out a helping hand to my black brother, please please please don’t attempt to judge my motives. Jesus has called me to a path of being kingdom. “Your kingdom come on earth…” As I do that, I don’t look at the color of a man’s skin and pretend to be his savior! Jesus is the only savior to us all.

    Maybe I’m just an old man out of touch. I’m not ranting here, but trying to understand.

  • Actually, the Blindside is based on a true story….it actually happened. It also isn’t about white saviors. It’s about stereotypes and overcoming them, among other themes like adoption and family. Please don’t ruin such a great film with a rebellious attitude.

    • Keith

      I agree. It was not about inequality, but about compassion and love for mankind.

  • Will

    Liberals will find anything to complain about. They even say that the last samurai is racist. Ridiculous.

  • Being mentored by Pat and seeing the
    way she lives her life for others has deeply impacted me. Her life is an
    art of loving people and I am trying to follow her lead. thanks for the post.

Read previous post:
Hell and the Love of God Part 2
Hell and the Love of God (Pt. 2 of 2)

BY: CHRISTIAN PIATT -- Does hell exist? Perhaps. But the God of my understanding – the God revealed to me...