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Contextual Generosity: An MTW Missionary Team Navigates Giving in Peru

Navigating generosity on the South American mission field is tough. It’s a context full of cultural complexities and relational challenges that often require years of experience—and mistakes—for missionaries to develop an approach that is biblical, mature, and appropriate.

Several years ago, our church in Cusco was helping out a student named Andres who attended the church. Though Andres’ family owned valuable property in Cusco, they refused to sell it and lived a lifestyle of poverty. Hoping to equip Andres as a young Christian leader, we gave him a university scholarship and bought weekly groceries for his family. When we had to stop this diaconal help, Andres was angry. He had been convinced that the church was going to save his family from poverty, and he felt betrayed by our missionary community. Our giving was interpreted as a fulfillment of socialism, not diaconal, grace-gospel filled love. He eventually left the church, and it broke my heart.

Over the years, similar scenarios played out again and again. We would try to help and equip impoverished students in the church, but when the money ran dry, the students disappeared. Eventually, we realized our mistake and stopped giving scholarships completely.

The problem was the patronistic structure built into Latino culture. Here in Peru, the poor serve the wealthy. This unfortunate reality is rooted in history, embedded deep in the culture, and perpetuated by an abusive upper class. There’s no avoiding it. So, what happens when a missionary treats a student to lunch four or five weeks in a row simply as a way to spend time discipling them? That student develops a real and deep need to honor their relationship to that missionary. They will show up to Bible study and might even memorize a verse or two. This all looks like real fruit for the kingdom of God, but what happens when the “sugar daddy” stops buying lunch or leaves the field?

I’m sure you have read and heard similar stories before. These students’ commitment isn’t to Christ, but to the one who provides financially. Ask any missionary and they will tell you that this is absolutely the last thing they want, but it inevitably happens. And the missionary, once generous, slowly becomes jaded. Generosity dies on the altar of relational manipulation.

Seeking to Empower

So what is the solution? How can missionaries be generous and yet wise? There’s a whole book to be written on that, but as for our team, we have found that giving should come from structures that are truly reproducible.

First, if there is a diaconal need in our community, we invite nationals to serve nationals through the structures and ministries of the local church.

Second, we have found that business as mission projects provide opportunities for nationals to earn a reasonable wage in a learning environment. The medical clinic (La Fuente) and the orphanage (Josephine House) have provided job opportunities for local people for years now and we’ve seen the opportunities that these types of projects give beyond a one-time gift. Similarly, we’ve moved away (far away) from giving scholarships to students to attend university, and instead we invite them to participate in paid internships.

We have done these internships for three years in a row now. Our two-month program offers students experience working in the La Fuente medical clinic, the Josephine House, and the local church. They get experience in three distinct areas, but all focused on building the kingdom through vocation. Each week, the students also spend a day with the Bible seminary staff learning about evangelism, servant leadership, and even Reformed theology. We are Presbyterian after all!

Often, these students are non-believers who come to the church through the program. Some of these interns have become believers, graduated, returned to work at the clinic full-time, and are now part of the leaders of the same internship program that helped bring them to faith.

One great example is a young lady who graduated with a degree in psychology and recently came to faith through our church. She began as an intern, working closely with one of our missionaries, Claudia, a woman from Colombia, both at the clinic and at the Josephine House orphanage. This woman now works full-time between the two ministries. Though she may not have heard the gospel before a year or two ago, she is now a crucial link between our three main ministries: church, clinic, and orphan care; a living stone in the spiritual house of God.  

Looking to the Future

The student internship has become such a success that we have begun thinking about other projects that can provide even more people in our community with opportunities. These jobs will teach them a biblical work ethic, a kingdom-minded view of vocation, and provide them with income that is earned. The latter eliminates the patronistic tags on the relationships—making generosity contextual.

People in poverty often feel like they’re worthless to society. By giving people opportunities to work, we honor and empower them. We give them an opportunity to feel like they’re part of something bigger. And what is that bigger thing? It’s the Church. We’re not creating jobs just to create jobs. We’re creating opportunities where people are learning the gospel and immediately given opportunities to respond with action. They are receiving diaconal help, and are given jobs where they themselves do diaconal help: serving the poor and the sick, caring for orphans.

This doesn't cheapen the diaconal help, but actually gives it a deeper meaning.

The gospel teaches us this. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that God saves us just to save us. He saves us with a purpose to be part of His Church, the community of faith, and that our whole identity is new. His salvation comes with a change of values. Grace demands response. Grace demands change.

Our vision now includes the development of a small coffee house and library at the church. Thanks to gifts from generous donors, we remodeled the church building, including installing a kitchen in the front of the facility for that very purpose. Our hope is that in the next year we will inaugurate a full-time business as mission project providing job and training opportunities to our Cusqueñan brothers and sisters.

Scott Dillon serves with MTW in Cusco, Peru. 

Scott Dillon, Cusco Peru Jul 16, 2019
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