To Give or To Lend

Micro-lending, it is called. It offers small loans to peasants in
underdeveloped countries to assist them in growing their grass-roots
businesses. Like $50 to a woman in Nicaragua who makes hand-stitched
baby clothes so she can buy a treadle sewing machine. Or $100 to a
woman to enlarge her produce stand and expand her selection at the
local village market. Micro-loans at modest interest rates counteract
the exploitation of loan sharks and enable the poorest of the culture
to take small, steady steps toward economic health.


And the
repayment rate is amazingly high. Many micro-finance organizations say
their default rate is less than 5 percent. In Nicaragua, for example,
Opportunity International (one of its most effective micro-lenders)
claims 98 percent repayment among its 34,000 borrowers scattered
throughout the cities and rural villages of that country. Through the
establishment of “trust banks”—small clusters of 20 to 30 neighbors all
of whom run tiny businesses—borrowers agree to provide accountability
and support for each other. Trust bank members, mostly women, select
from among themselves who should receive the first loan and
collectively guarantee its repayment. Over time, all the members of the
trust bank receive loans and, with positive credit histories building,
the frequency and size of their loans increase.
Opportunity
International weaves biblically based principles into their training
and requires each borrower to establish a savings account. Peasants in
Nicaragua have now accumulated more than $1 million in private
savings—a safety net for emergencies, equity for home improvements, or
funds for their children’s education.

“Where does the Church fit
into this?” I asked Juan Ulloa, Opportunity International’s Nicaragua
director, on a recent visit to that country.

He was a small,
soft-spoken man whose vision had propelled this poorest of Central
American countries into an international model of micro-enterprise
excellence. He was a banker-turned-minister who had successfully
combined marketplace skills and theological training into a ministry
that had ignited hope among many thousands of desperately poor
Nicaraguans. For Juan, this work was more than economic relief—it was
the embodiment of Good News for the poor. I had to agree. I had seen
first hand the proud faces of peasants, reading Scripture together in
clearings under the canopy of squat shade trees, collecting their
weekly payments and savings deposits from each other, praying together
for strength, for success in their little businesses, for wisdom to
deal with village problems.

“Where does the Church fit into this?” I asked again. “The local church, their church partners?”

Juan
tried to be diplomatic. He meandered through a handful of compliments
about church involvements, faint praise that revealed more truth than
any direct criticism would have. There was a problem, he
finally admitted when my probing showed no sign of letting up. Many of
the growing churches were quite active in their evangelism efforts, and
that was good, Juan affirmed. But they did little to assist their
converts with the struggles of their daily lives. They seemed more
concerned about saving souls than saving people. But the biggest
problem, however, was with those churches who have church partners from
the United States. And here Juan’s expression became very intense.

“They destroy the initiative of the people.”

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He
described whole sectors of the countryside where micro-lending was
virtually non-existent, areas abundant with church partnerships.
“People there do not want loans they have to repay—they want gifts,” he
said. “They want others to do for them, to take care of them.” Juan
went on to describe how entrepreneurship declines as dollars and free
resources flood in, how people become conditioned to wait for the next
mission group to arrive instead of doing the hard work of building
their businesses. He told how dignity is eroded as people come to view
themselves as charity cases for wealthy visitors, how they pose with
smiling faces for pictures to be taken back for the marketing of the
next group. “They build a church, but they do not build a people.”

This
was not at all what I was looking for. I wanted to hear how local
churches were inspiring their members to be all that God created them
to be—in every aspect of their lives. I wanted to hear how pastors were
providing Godly leadership to their villages, modeling values that
would lead toward health and well-being for everyone in the community.
Instead I was hearing how indigenous churches were becoming the
distribution depots for dependency-producing welfare. I was hearing
that pastors were becoming tour guides for wealthy Christian visitors,
project organizers for construction projects that serve to enhance
their visibility and prestige.

Nicaragua has disturbed me. It
calls into question the way the Western church does mission. Surely we
know better than to spoil a culture with our kindness! We know that
doing for others what they can do for themselves is fundamentally
hurtful—to both giver and recipient. We must find a better way.

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