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Fusion teaches back-breaking, heart-lifting missions in Peruvian Andes

Elvis Manchengo is going to hell. At least that's what the 20-year-old mechanic fears is inevitable. On a bright Sunday morning in the Peruvian Andes, Manchengo is one of only two people on the front steps of the Catholic church in the small town of Tambo. The other is Chris Burgess, a 19-year-old Comanche native from Lawton, Okla., who has come to Peru as a Southern Baptist student missionary. The steps are a central location where the two meet to study English.

"To go to heaven I would have to ask God to forgive my sins, and I can't do that because there is no priest for confession," Manchengo explains. "The church is always closed."

A hefty lock securing the aging building's oversized wooden doors proves his point. So does the thick layer of dust inside the church - visible through cracks in the windows - that blankets parishioners' benches and porcelain figures of Jesus, Mary and the saints. An inscription above the altar reveals the church was renovated in 1930, and it looks like no one has set foot inside since.

It's this kind of spiritual apathy that brought Burgess to Tambo through a program called Fusion, which gives students the opportunity to do missions work as part of earning college credit.

Burgess got involved with Fusion last summer at Falls Creek, a Baptist youth camp in southern Oklahoma with a reputation for turning out scores of future missionaries. But it's where he was just two years earlier that makes his missions calling remarkable.

'I hated God'
At 16, Burgess was living life as far from Jesus as he could. He blamed God for his mother's death and an abusive relationship with his alcoholic father. His anger drove him into the arms of the "wrong crowd" at school, where he began getting into fights and doing drugs.

"I didn't see the point of life," Burgess says. "I hated God ... and ran away from church."

It wasn't long before his destructive behavior landed him in the backseat of a police car. Under arrest, Burgess was now facing possible jail time. The night before his court date, he took a lonely walk through the Oklahoma countryside. It was a walk that would change his life.

"I was looking into the sky, crying out to my mom," he remembers. "I was saying, 'Mom, help me. I'm sorry for the way that I am, sorry for everything I've done. I don't know what to do anymore - I'm ready to give up.'"

That's when Burgess fell to his knees, sobbing, and begged God's forgiveness.

"I had to change the way I was living," he says. "I made the decision that I was ready to sacrifice my life in order to serve the Lord."

Little did Burgess know that his decision would eventually lead him to apply for a passport and leave the United States for the first time in his life, traveling nearly 4,000 miles from home to share the Gospel with a people he hadn't heard of before.

"I felt this fire in my heart," he says. "I wanted people to be born again. I wanted people to see God and know who He is. ... And I was like, 'You know what? Bring it on. I'm ready to go.'"

Hidden darkness
Those people turned out to be the Quechua, a group indigenous to Peru.

Most of the 200-plus Quechua living in Tambo identify themselves as Catholics. But spiritual darkness in Peru often hides behind images of Mary and the cross.

"A lot of people don't understand the Bible," says Rob Martin, a 23-year-old Missouri native who leads the Fusion team in Tambo. "They worship images of God instead of the person those images represent. They say, 'Yes, we're Christians - we believe,' but they don't follow what the Bible teaches. ... I feel like a lot of people aren't really secure for eternity."

Spousal abuse, adultery and alcoholism are big problems in Tambo. Martin sardonically refers to Sunday as "drunk day" because so many townspeople prefer to spend it with a bottle of booze instead of the Bible. Most people don't own a Bible anyway, he adds, and many couldn't read it if they did.

That's why the team shares the Gospel through a method known as "storying." It's an approach that takes advantage of the strong oral traditions present in less-literate cultures, using key Bible stories from creation to Christ that can be passed on verbally.

But if the Fusion team wants anyone to listen, they've got to earn the right to speak. And in the Peruvian Andes, that means getting your hands dirty.

No Wal-Marts
On a mountainside overlooking Tambo, Burgess is on his hands and knees digging in the dirt. After a few moments of rooting through a mound of dark, brown earth, he finds what he's looking for - potatoes.

"I have a Wal-Mart [where I buy] things like this," he laughs, and tosses a golf ball-sized tuber into a heap beside him. Today, Burgess and the Fusion team are helping a Quechua family they've befriended harvest their potato crop, a staple in the Andes.

Working side by side with the townspeople is part of the team's daily routine. Jobs range from digging potatoes and milking cows to washing clothes or digging trenches - even slaughtering livestock. It's not a glamorous side of missions, but it's making an impact.

"These people are all about relationships," Martin says. "And they won't necessarily listen or take full value of what you're teaching them unless you have a solid relationship with them. By going out and showing them that 'I can work and I will help you' ... we build relationships. ... Some of the guys that we've worked with have shown up to our Bible studies just because they've seen me work."

But there's no hot shower or soft bed waiting for the Fusion team after a day of back-breaking manual labor.

Tambo has no running water, so the team relies on a mountain stream to bathe and wash clothes. It's freezing cold and doesn't offer much privacy. Neither does the team's "squatty potty" toilet, a concrete hole in the ground surrounded by a three-walled stall with no roof.

At night, the team sleeps in an unheated, mud-brick house where they rent a room from a local family. Mealtimes can be monotonous - potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Electricity is Tambo's only modern convenience, which the team uses to watch episodes of the TV series Lost on Martin's laptop computer to unwind after a tough day.

Worth it
Despite the hardship, Burgess says it's worth it.

"We're going to have to get out of our comfort zones in order to get the Gospel into places where people usually won't go," he says. "God picked me - He placed this desire on my heart. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes [because I] know that God's reward is going to be so much greater."

With the help of a translator, Burgess was able to share his testimony with Elvis Manchengo and explain to him that he doesn't need to see a priest for repentance. God can forgive his sins directly - all he needs to do is ask.

"I honestly think it touched him, because I don't know if he has ever heard this before," Burgess says. "All I can do now is ask that God will continue working to get to him."

Burgess adds that his experience in Peru has inspired him to make sharing his faith a priority back home where there won't be any language barrier to slow him down.

"Back in the States, I never really spread the Gospel. I never really wanted to," he says.

"But being here opened my eyes. ... I'm just thankful that God has allowed me to be a part of Fusion. I now have a heart for the lost, because we were all once lost."

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