Webinar: The Ethics of Missionary Work in Latin America

By Natalie Walter

AMOS Communications Coordinator

¡Leer esta historia en español!

The AMOS Health & Hope team was happy to present a very special event in May: Our very first webinar. We discussed The Ethics of Missionary Work in Latin America, a topic introduced in the following blog post.

Watch the recording below to listen to the discussion!

As a public health organization operating in a Latin American country, and founded by American Baptist missionaries Drs. David and Laura Parajón, AMOS intentionally takes time to reflect on the ethics associated with the work that we do every day. These are themes that we believe are important to the future of the Church as a whole, to people of faith on a personal level, and to the fields of public health and international development.

So let’s dive in!

A History of Missionaries in Latin America

Because AMOS and so many other Christian organizations all over Latin America strive to serve our communities with humility and love, it may be difficult for us to face the reality that there is violence and oppression to be found in the history of missionary work in Latin America.

During the conquest and colonization by Europeans of what we today call Latin America, the Bible was often used as a justification for the oppression of entire peoples. Elsa Tamez discusses this in her article on the development of indigenous Latin Americans’ interpretations of the Bible, “The Bible and Five Hundred Years of Conquest.” These Europeans claimed that God was on their side, and Tamez writes that in the colonizer’s interpretation, “ The Spaniards [were] the ones who liberate[d] the Indigenous peoples from idols and from burning in hell.”1

Because the conquistadores killed many indigenous people at the same time they attempted to convert them by force, Christianity was often seen by Latin Americans as one of many tools used by the Europeans to control the people they encountered in the “New World.” This of course caused many indigenous Latin Americans to reject Christianity.2

We believe that missionary work does not have to be violent or coercive. Even during the colonial period in Latin America, there were missionaries who believed that it was God’s will for them to exist peacefully with those they encountered in the New World. Bartolomé de las Casas, for example, was a Spanish Catholic missionary during the conquest of Latin America who spoke out against the abuse and violence he was witnessing, taking the perspective of the poor, oppressed, and exploited in his interpretation of the Bible.3

Today, too, we must ensure that missionary work does good and not harm. While we may not be witnessing the conquest of a continent, missionaries must still be concerned with forces like prejudice or poverty – these, too, arguable constitute forms of violence, as they cause people harm.4 Missionaries must be aware of the ways in which interpretations of scripture can strip communities, especially indigenous ones, of their own cultures and practices.5 Ethical missionary work can, and should, provide another way.

AMOS’ Approach: Accompaniment

The motivation for AMOS’ work is a Christian conviction that every person deserves health, and furthermore, that we must walk alongside one another, working with people, and never doing things for or to them.

This theology, in fact, can draw on ideas born in Latin America, in contrast to missionary practices which sought to force a way of thinking on people. For example, AMOS’ pedagogical models are based on those of the great Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire. We also follow a practice called accompaniment. This concept can be found in Latin American liberation theology, a theology summarized in the belief that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”6

Dr. Paul Farmer is a prominent medical anthropologist who was deeply influenced by liberation theology. He describes accompaniment as such:

“The power of this simple idea… came to me in contemplating patients facing both poverty and chronic disease. They missed appointments, didn’t fill prescriptions, didn’t “comply” with our counsel. And this was true in every country in which I’ve worked. But when we began working with community-health workers to take care [of] patients, the outcomes we all sought were much more likely to happen. Instead of asking “why don’t patients comply with our treatments?” we began to ask, “How can we accompany our patients on the road to cure or wellness or a life with less suffering due to disease?””7

Christian faith is a vital part of the communities we work with, and deeply a part of their lives. The work we do together is based in our common values and beliefs that every person is loved by God and that every person deserves basic health and dignity.

We build capacity among community health workers so that they can empower their communities, in the midst of conditions of extreme poverty, to change their own health outcomes for the better. Our theology in our mission and ministry is not to impose but rather to support. We work with communities only when invited to do so, and we affirm and support the leadership that the community itself calls.

And while our work is faith-based, it is also, at its core, always evidence-based. Our work is built on data that AMOS and the communities we work alongside collect and analyze regularly to know what the communities’ needs are, and how well we are responding to them. AMOS works alongside the community members themselves to collect and review data. We never simply extract information from a community. This avoids traditional models where data and research are taken from communities who then never hear the results – a model that bares resemblance to the possibility of missionaries participating in paternalistic decision making for a community without their invitation.

Long-Term Missionaries

Our Christian faith also informs our belief that we are all called to work together regardless of where we come from. We are all blessed in different ways and must all share these blessings with one another. This is why it is useful to have missionaries – we believe that we must learn from one another, and serve each other in love.

Our Co-Directors Dr. Laura and David Parajón are both American Baptist Missionaries, and we are proud of that. This missionary work looks different than it did in the past: it is rooted in community-based work that Nicaraguans have been carrying out for fifty years, starting with the legacy of Dr. Gustavo, Dr. David’s father. Our missionaries are not here to liberate people from their sin in the belief that they know better, but rather to support them as they liberate themselves from their own oppression, poverty, and suffering due to poor health.

Drs. Laura and David are medical doctors; they are skilled practitioners who have the training and the tools to effectively serve people. But, their call doesn’t stop there. Everyone at AMOS has heard them often quote Dr. Gustavo: doctors in Nicaragua also have the responsibility of being teachers. The more people a doctor educates, the more people we can reach through those educated.

The practical medicine and public health skills of doctors make them capable of serving. And their desire to use their skills to walk alongside others, comes from their faith. We believe in faith-based work and evidence-based work because these things are not mutually exclusive. Scientific, evidence-based, public health methodologies are the tools that AMOS missionaries use. And their Christian faith is what motivates them to use them.

Short-Term Mission and Service Trips

So how do these convictions tie in with the work of the dozens of teams who come work with AMOS on short-term mission trips every year?

Short-term volunteers are integral to AMOS’ model because their work supports our ongoing programs rather than working on one-time efforts. For example, people from outside Nicaragua who come to work with AMOS on service trips may assist us in data collection in the communities we work in, water filter construction or maintenance, or providing first aid training for community members. These are all projects that have a lasting effect beyond the day on which they are completed. This is because our volunteers’ efforts are part of programs that AMOS is working on long before and after the team is here.

We believe that it is possible to ethically volunteer as a part of a medical mission, but there is a huge need for any medical mission to connect with local organizations and medical professionals who can provide follow-up to patients after a short-term team is gone. Volunteers should also be properly trained and not performing any work (such as handing out medications) that they would not be qualified or allowed to do in their own country.

A common protest to short-term missions is the amount of money that the team spends on coming here to Nicaragua and on their room and board while they are here could be invested elsewhere. Why should someone spend money on plane tickets in addition to supporting an organization’s work abroad, instead of donating all of those funds to the programs they support?

This goes back to our conviction that we must accompany one another. The volunteers who come work with AMOS on our short-term service trips come to Nicaragua in a spirit of service, accompaniment, and love – many with the same Christian conviction which sparks these values in AMOS. The connections that are built when an AMOS delegation works alongside a community in Nicaragua for a week could not be easily formed in any other way. Coming to visit someone in their community, supporting them in the hard work they are doing, and living as they do while you are there is a clear sign of love for that person and her community. Our short-term teams provide our communities with funds to carry out the work they are doing – and they provide much more in their love, support, encouragement, and connection-building. Volunteers traveling to these remote communities to work with them is a clear statement that we care about each other’s well being.

Be sure to watch the webinar recording above for more discussion on these topics!

1. Tamez, Elsa. “The Bible and the Five Hundred Years of Conquest.” Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, 3rd ed. Maryknoll: 2006.

2. Tamez, “The Bible and the Five Hundred Years of Conquest.” 17.

3. Tamez, “The Bible and the Five Hundred Years of Conquest.” 19.

4. Bourgois, Phillipe. “The Continuum of Violence in War and Peace: Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador.” Violence in War and Peace: an anthology. Oxford: Blackwell (2004): 425-434.

5. Tamez, “The Bible and the Five Hundred Years of Conquest.”

6. Farmer, Paul. “Sacred Medicine.” Sojourners. January 2014. https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2014/sacred-medicine 

7. Farmer, “Sacred Medicine.”