by Jim Wehner
“I just don’t think it’s that effective,” he told me. We were discussing the work of Opportunity International Nicaragua (OIN), a friend and partner of FCS for the last decade. The friend I was speaking with didn’t know I had recently returned from a visit to Nicaragua to see OIN in action. I had been impressed by their impact in the community.
Our team had visited with Ivan. Like most men in his village, he leases a small plot of land (approximately four acres) in order to grow yucca. As part of its development work, OIN serves 1,400 of these small farmers by gathering them in consortiums of 20 to 40 farms. Then, each consortium trains farmers on techniques to increase crop yields and connects them to a production plant OIN has built to get their produce to market.
Ivan took us on a tour of his consortium’s “seed farm.” This group of farmers set aside five acres to produce drought resistant seed for each of them to use on their personal farms. They are producing enough seed to meet their needs, and they are able to sell the excess - a side business that pays for itself and helps farmers beyond the 30 in the consortium. This is what local farmers do when they have access to information and training.
I was excited to see the economic opportunities opening up to these farmers. Our experience has taught us that poverty alleviation must have economic drivers to be transformative for both individuals and communities. In Nicaragua, big agribusiness makes up 95% of the market, and these 1,400 farmers are too small to participate in that economy due to lack of resources or ability to scale. Still, they are working and need opportunities to earn a wage for their families. FCS began partnering with OIN precisely because we wanted to see if the community development principles we use in Atlanta, which promote dignity and mutual exchange, could work in a developing country.
So how could my friend label this work as ineffective? I was a bit perplexed. But as we discussed further, I began to understand his frustrations. His background and experience is in church missions, and he is looking at our work through that lens. From his perspective, we are not planting churches, nor are we leading groups of volunteer missionaries to do service projects and share a message of salvation. In effect, he is asking, “Where is the Gospel?”
My ten years of experience in urban ministry and nine years as a pastor have brought me to the place where I believe we have shortened the Gospel to a transaction. I wrestle with a view of the Gospel where my value as a follower of Christ becomes disconnected from loving my neighbor as myself and engaging in the relational works of justice and mercy.
While in Nicaragua we visited a local church in a community where members of the farming consortium live. By U.S. standards, the church building is quite small, essentially one indoor space with some additional covered, outdoor classrooms thanks to the local climate.
We were meeting families and leaders from the local Catholic church and one of the four local “Evangelical” churches. (They use the term Evangelical as a grouping for all protestant churches.) These two congregations were recipients of a “joint” micro loan to assist them with repairs and updates to their respective buildings. OIN had decided, instead of lending to only one of the churches and consequently splitting the community, they agreed to a joint loan that required the churches to work and fundraise together.
We listened as they shared stories of community residents who had started attending the churches after first responding to the fundraising they were doing. The churches were working together, and members of the community noticed and appreciated this simple act of unity. It brought me to tears, hearing how they have been learning to care for each other while honoring the differences in their beliefs. It was the Great Command in action. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 25:35-40)
Once again, I struggle to find the negatives in this form of mission. These churches did not need unskilled American missionaries to come build a fence, paint their buildings, or install tiles. Instead, they leveraged the loan from OIN and utilized their own congregation and paid local laborers when needed. In addition, they did not need to fight over congregants like a community-wide game of Red Rover, but their unity actually encouraged neighbors to visit their churches. The whole community benefits and the church is growing.
So in some ways, my associate is right. We are not focused solely on building up the Church. We cannot count conversions or turn in slips of signed confessions. But I believe we are on mission as a body of believers. We are following the Great Command to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that involves opening doors of opportunity, working together, and partnering for the Kingdom.