Why I Work for Free

speech bubble

For many years, while working towards joining the work of Wycliffe, I worked as a recreational therapist at a large homeless person’s accommodation centre in Sydney. It was hard work dealing with homelessness and hopelessness on a daily basis.

It was smelly, I don’t lie. It was stressful. It was heart-breaking. Sometimes it was downright repulsive. And those who benefited from our program almost never came back to give their appreciation – and why should they? They should get as far away as they can and never look back. But I believed that what we did was worthwhile. I believed that someone needed to show love to the unlovable. I believed that if Jesus was on earth today, that is where he would go for lunch. I still do.

When meeting people at dinner parties, I would inevitably have to confess what I did for a living. I was often hesitant because of the awkward reactions I received. There were only two kinds. One was surprise and joy. This person was usually already involved in a cause they believed in and, though unrelated, were happy to find a kindred spirit. But more often was the second kind and I grew to recognise the emotions clearly displayed on their faces, “Oh!” (shock, confusion) “Well!” (often a brief moment of either guilt or disgust) “That must be very rewarding!” (quickly covered in patronisation).

I was too polite to burst their bubble or make the moment even more uncomfortable for them so I’d always reply with the subtlest of passive corrections, “Well, I believe that it is worthwhile.” Then they’d change the subject.

The thing is… it wasn’t rewarding. I think they were just searching for some kind of selfish reason that anyone would do a job like that. Spending time with people suffering from complex mental health issues and addiction problems is not what you might call “rewarding”. If you weren’t getting directly abused by the clients, you were getting abused by your feeble paycheck, designed to show you just how much society valued your efforts. I remember pools of blood on the floor and razors in wrists, the ambulance, the police and the mental health crisis team on speed dial. Buckets of faeces, yellow tobacco-stained fingers, death-threats, straight-jackets and the overwhelming smell of urine as you approach the front door in the morning. Sometimes I wonder if I have post-traumatic stress disorder. Often I’d cry into my pillow at night for all the pain that I couldn’t take away. You don’t work a job like that for the occasional warm fuzzy feeling. But… I believe it was worthwhile.

Now I find myself again working an unusual job with a feeble paycheck, and I go through the same procedure when talking about my work with friends, and strangers.

Lots of people wonder why I work as a Photojournalist for the Wycliffe Global Alliance. I bet you do too. After all, I don’t get paid, so this is an even more extreme scenario. Why would someone work without getting paid at all?!

And it is the same answer. I don’t do it for fun, or for fuzzy feelings. I believe in this work. I believe that I’m an important part of what it takes to bring the Bible to minority language communities in a meaningful, understandable way. I believe with absolute certainty that the work of Wycliffe and its partners is the best possible contribution any NGO could make to a community. It is the best way to share the gospel. It is the best way to do community development. It is better than digging wells, paying for text books or handing out medications. It is a holistic, long-term, culturally-appropriate way of influencing a community for the better. The ministry of Bible translation also allows a cultural group to make their own decisions on how to worship and know the one true God. It gives them the raw text to interpret, not our interpretation of it. It is the only form of cross-cultural evangelism that doesn’t apply a model of ‘western’ Christianity with all its failings on an ‘eastern’ culture. The ministry of Bible translation prevents the development of dangerous religious sects, abuse to women, revenge killings, civil war, strangely enough even malnutrition and other seemingly unrelated problems. I can give you detailed examples of all the things I casually list here. Perhaps that is a rant for another day.

So, when I occasionally share my need for financial support with friends and family there are three possible reactions: righteously proclaim that I should be paid a salary; quickly point out the perks such as frequent travel; or offer their pity. Many people say that I should get a real job. Maybe I should. I often wonder. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t wonder if I’m being irresponsible, if the burden of providing for both of us is too much for Brad. While Wycliffe urged me to speak at churches to raise $30,000 a year to cover my expenses I never spent time going around asking for financial support because I didn’t want money, I just wanted to get started.

And I’m not alone in this struggle. Just this week I talked to my colleague in Guam – a veteran translation consultant faithfully checking Bible translations sent to him from various minority groups in the Pacific. He paid hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money (he sold his house) for a visa to stay in Guam and live one cargo ship ride away from where the translators can send their hand-written drafts. This week I also talked with a Tongan colleague who is growing tomatoes to help fund the costs of running workshops at schools and churches in Tonga. I waited on replies from my editor who is currently doing ‘fundraising’ for her own family in the US and so my stories are waiting in her inbox. Recently our CEO also had to take time out to also do some fundraising at his home church (no, he doesn’t get paid either) and important decisions had to wait. This week I received an email from the sweetest man I’ve ever met, who at 74 has given his life to this ministry (and his liver to various tropical virus’s contracted while working in the Amazon) and is experiencing a dwindling of funds as his ageing supporters are ‘going to the Lord’ each in turn. My counterpart in Cameroon shares with tears of the long dark days he spent, for two full years, travelling to different churches and asking people to support him and his family to live and work in Africa.

What has happened to the church? Do we not believe in the great commission anymore? Indeed the harvest is plenty, but the workers are few – and they have to beg to be sent. Is this the way it should be? I hear of families in India, who, out of their poverty, put aside a cup of rice each time they cook a meal to support missions. They have found, over the years, a little goes a long way. I hear of a church community in the Philippines who have set aside land to grow crops which they sell to support missions. In Romanian villages people are too poor to afford the fees of a bank account so they send coins in envelopes and several churches together manage to support a family working in Ethiopia. All throughout Africa people are supporting African missionaries. They don’t see themselves as being too small or too poor to obey the great commission. What is our excuse?

If you think I’m heaping too large a portion of white-man’s-guilt on your head, then, I make no apologies. To whom much is given, much is expected. And we all will have to give our own account of our lives. Don’t shy away from taking part in something bigger than yourself. Don’t make excuses like ‘foreign aid just makes more problems’, or ‘I have to think first of my children’. A little is better than nothing. And a little goes a long way.

So, this is what I believe in. And I’m doing what I can although it hurts. The frequent travelling, far from being glamorous, takes its toll on my health and my marriage. Earning money would be certainly more “rewarding” in almost every sense. But I believe that providing God’s message of love, hope and grace to those who have yet to hear it is absolutely necessary, and I won’t turn down the opportunity to be involved. I’m eternally grateful for those who do support me financially and especially for those who pray for me.

But please don’t think that I do this because it is fun, or exciting, or somehow benefits me. Please don’t patronise me. We are all called to participate in the great commission. Jesus makes that clear. While everyone has something different to contribute, please don’t patronise those who do give their time and skills and belittle their contribution.

If you find this manifesto self-righteous, maybe even manipulative, I don’t care. I just want you to know why I work for free and your conscience is your problem.

I challenge you to think a bit bigger, reach a bit further and consider becoming somehow involved in the command that Jesus gave to all of us, not just to some of us – “Go and make disciples of all nations.” I don’t expect people to support me to live in here in Australia. I know I’m not the most worthy of causes. I can work part time and have access to free health care. But there are many, many missionaries struggling to get the support they need to continue to their work. And if you don’t know anyone personally I’m happy to connect you with someone I believe in.


If you are still asking, “No, really.” Here is a good summary of Wycliffe’s perspective from Wycliffe UK


  1. Lisa

    Thank you for your ministry and your candor.

  2. Rosemary

    Hi Elyse

    Thanks for sharing your raw emotion. We are grateful you care the way you do – we love your posts and the connection you bring to our lives. The challenge of support is indeed a challenge and one I failed in my last Christian fundraising post…. I wish there were easy answers. Be assured of our prayer and continued support. Love Rx

    • Thank you Rosemary. I’m always grateful for you.

  3. Jane

    Hi Elyse.

    I’m hearing your frustration and that of so many before you and now working alongside you. There are so many good causes and we are confronted with the needs of the world almost every time we watch the news or pick up a christian magazine. I think our hearts soften more to the cry of a hungry child or needless disease in a poverty stricken community than to bible translation. I’m sure God’s heart is for both.

    I think that about 75% of child sponsorship goes to the child/project, and the rest to admin costs with World Vision. They cover their photo journalists and other admin workers from the money raised for projects. I think it is almost impossible to raise money to support those who work behind the scenes, in the western world. The average person feels like a new well in an african village is a better way to invest their hard earned money!

    Thanks to Bill Gates, Angelina Jollie, George Clooney and many other high profile and wealthy people, the poor of the world are at last getting some attention. As Jesus said, the poor we will always have. There is no end to it, but that does not mean we ignore it. Far from it. My point is that perhaps, as Christians, we can divert our eyes from the obvious physical needs of the poor (now that those with wealth and influence are doing a good work there) and consider those very significant points you made about how the gospel changes lives and communities – that translating the bible into a person’s native tongue has such an impact on their whole community. I think it is very hard to grasp the effect unless you have seen it first hand. I had a little taste of it when I listened to those interviews when doing that transcribing work for you. The excitement and enthusiasm in the voices of those interviewed was something I won’t forget!

    Those people who hear the word of God, and can read it over and over again in their native language, are ecstatic about it. It’s like Christmas for a child! It’s like when you realise for the first time something new as you read the bible. That’s how it feels for them… just by being able to read in their own language. It makes sharing the gospel easier… and yes, whole communities are transformed.

    I think what you do is wonderful, and God will bless you for it. I also think that the mum who stays home to care for her children instead of earning good money is also wonderful. And the admin person who works for World Vision for basic wage when they could earn more elsewhere is also wonderful. And the father who says no to a promotion so he can spend more time with his family is also wonderful. We all make choices to accomodate our priorities, and we all have money we can share with others and ministries.

    Let’s pray together that Christians everywhere will demonstrate God’s love in whatever circumstance they find themselves, and will always find a way to support God’s work on this earth, in whatever form touches their heart.

    And may bible translation become more significant in their thinking!!!

    love you heaps, Jane

    • Jane,
      Thank you for your beautiful comment! Wow, I’m so blessed by you. I’m so glad to hear that you ‘get it’. Brad and I have found that it is amazing what is possible if you give up all striving to have more and be happy with what you have. I believe that anything is possible if we just think a bit bigger.
      Much love!

  4. Rob Harding

    Amazing post, Elyse. Inspiring to read about your heart to help people at great cost and sacrifice. Keep up the amazing work. Rob.

    • Thanks Rob! I really appreciate it. Thanks for tolerating my ranting. :)

Leave a Reply