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%. In Nicaragua, for example, Opportunity International (one of its most effective micro-lenders) claims 98% 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.”
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. 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.