Tag Archives: microloans

Christian Shoddy is still Shoddy

A tense cloud hovered above the desk that separated us. Meeting in an aging office building in a small Romanian town,  Dorian articulated a troubling reality about his organization: Nobody liked it.

I was in Romania to find a good microfinance organization. Friends of HOPE funded an exploratory trip to determine whether Romania would be a good place for us us to expand. With a presence nearby in Ukraine, Russia and Moldova; Romania was a natural next step for our expansion. Traveling the country by train for three months, I met with dozens of leaders to learn more about the needs of entrepreneurs  and about the current resources that were available to them in their country. It was largely encouraging, but my meeting with Dorian gave me pause.

Dorian aired many grievances about his clients. His organization planned business training sessions and no clients show up. They offered business loans, but very few paid them back. They offered consulting services, but nobody was buying. Their clients didn’t like or value their products. That reality would normally prompt sympathy from me, not frustration. But I felt much more of the latter because of his closing remarks:

We’re sad that nobody is showing up for our training sessions or paying back their loans, but you know, we’re telling them about Jesus. And that’s all that truly matters.

Dorian’s comments contained a semblance of truth. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to share Jesus with those we serve. And in that light, Dorian’s enthusiasm about the gospel is admirable. But that’s where my agreement with him stops.

Slapping an ichthus on a jug of spoiled milk does not honor God. Searing a cross on a hamburger doesn’t make it taste like filet mignon. I don’t care how “Christian” your school is; if all your students fail, I’m not sending my kid there. We serve a God who created an earth that holds its axis and planets that hold their orbit. God articulated a breathtaking and precise blueprint for his tabernacle. And our God instructs us to do likewise, commanding we do our work with excellence.

Dorian spoke as if creating a substandard product was honoring to God simply because of the words he spoke. But Christian shoddy is still shoddy. Our creator demonstrated superb taste and strong attention to detail in his craftsmanship. When we ignore the needs of our customers, treat them with disdain and “ichthus-wash” it with spirituality, we do not reflect the full nature of our creator.

Snapshots of Suffering

Lush vegetation creeps onto the roads wherever it’s permitted to do so. Tired political posters adorn the street signs, interrupting the brightly-painted buildings which line the crowded streetscape. Our bus darts through the tight thoroughfares in San Pedro, avoiding overtaxed motorcycles with nearly impossible precision. The streets teem with Dominican culture: Venders peddling just-picked-from-the-field sugarcane, scads of Chihuahuas scampering behind their owners and uniformed school kids winding through the bustle toward their classrooms.

I like it here. There is richness in the culture and authenticity in the people. My work has been the impetus for my recent travels here. Traveling with groups of HOPE donors, we visit the courageous Dominican entrepreneurs we serve throughout the country.  Each trip looks different. The donors, entrepreneurs, and communities we visit are unique. I see new places and experience fresh stories. There is one theme, however, which connects all these trips. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve committed one regrettable act on every trip I’ve taken here, an act I’ve only recently even identified.

While navigating through the DR, we always stumble upon a sad neighborhood. These communities, normally labeled shanty towns, usually border sugarcane plantations and they reflect a much cloudier image of the spirited Caribbean culture. Like a dandelion-rich lawn on a well-manicured suburban street, these poor communities stick out. The evident material poverty is jarring. And it’s in these places—on every trip—where it happens: I slip out my camera and capture the misery. I find an especially forlorn-looking mom or a cobbled-together home (preferably both) and snap away.

These snapshots, illuminating the most desperate scenes I can find, become like trip trophies. They’re the type of pictures which make me feel guilty about complaining. About anything. They remind me of how nice my house is and how full my closets are and of just how very much I have. The pictures hold just a glimmer of redemptive value in this convicting power. But, when I snap these candids, I define those communities by what they lack. With each flicker of my camera lens, I make one more strike against those places, stamping them by their deficiencies.

Our charity is often the same. When given the option between defining people by what they have or by what they lack, we normally choose the latter. It’s easier to meet needs than it is to unlock potential. It’s quicker to heal wounds than to train doctors. It’s simpler to raise money to give stuff than for training to make stuff. But, I know I’d sure rather be known for what I do well than by what I lack.

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

(Zephaniah 3:17 ESV)

I’m thrilled to serve a God who truly knows me. A God who does not define me by my weaknesses. A Creator who made me in his image. A Father who “exults” over me, his child. These truths convince me that If God and I sojourned across the Dominican together, his pictures would look strikingly different than mine.

snapshot of dignity

Why Charging Interest Makes Sense—Logically and Biblically

A few weeks ago I met with a church group in Boulder, Colorado. One of the group members asked pointedly, “Why do you charge interest to the poor? Why not just offer interest-free loans or grants?” I started sharing a lengthy, detailed response when I was interrupted by another member of the group— “It’s not that complex,” she said, “It actually makes a lot of sense why they charge interest.”

She shared that when her practice first opened, decades ago, she provided free counsel to underprivileged women—single mothers, former inmates, etc. “They rarely showed up for our scheduled sessions. If they did show up, they kind of blew it off.” She went on to discuss why she now charges these at-risk clients. While she discounts her service significantly, she still charges a fee. The change, as she described it, has been remarkable. “Now these women value my services. They come on time, they are invested, and they soak up every minute of their sessions. It’s been a dramatic shift since I’ve started charging a fee.

I smiled sheepishly and said, “Yes, thanks for your comment. That’s why we charge interest.”  Her simple story from her counseling practice, and the clear personal conviction with which share shared, powerfully communicated what no amount of complex development theories, supportive statistics or quotes from field practitioners could. It just made sense.

Ok, so it works logically. But, as Christians, we are not always called to act logically. At times, we’re called to act contrary to what “makes sense” to everyone else. The Bible actually has a lot to say about this subject. Some of it, at first glance, actually has made me squirm. Exodus 22:25 says “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender, charge him no interest” (NIV).  That feels fairly straightforward. It seems clear that we aren’t to charge interest to the poor. Upon first seeing that passage, I began wondering if working at HOPE was even biblically permissible!

The Hebrew word for moneylender, neh’-skek, as used in this passage, is also used in Nehemiah 5:7, when Nehemiah rebuked the wealthy in his community for taking advantage of the poor. “I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!” Here, it is translated as “extracting usury.” The word used in both of these verses, in Hebrew, literally means “to bite” or “to strike with the sting of a scorpion.”

I am by no means a biblical scholar. However, after doing some research, there seems to be fairly clear consensus that these, and other similar OT passages, are an indictment of usury and exploitative interest. The Bible is clear in its condemnation of profiting off the backs of the poor. And, make no mistake about it; God has a strong distaste towards charging exorbitant interest rates to those on the margins.

What HOPE is doing across the world, however, is trying to put moneylenders out of business. Whenever we start working in a new community, we undercut the loan sharks. While it is common for these loan sharks to charge 200 or 300% APR or more, HOPE is offering reasonable and transparent rates. HOPE’s rates are a breath of fresh air for the poor who have been trapped in poverty as a result of these moneylenders.

Through charging interest, HOPE has sustainable programs, which treat our clients as clients, not as needy recipients. They value the services we provide—because they experience the dignity of legitimate exchange and because the rates are clear and reasonable! We are bringing justice in the communities where we are working, as we seek to strip loan sharks of their clients. I believe, just as the psychologist from Boulder said, that charging interest to the poor “just makes sense”—logically and biblically.

*Thanks to my former colleague, Dave Larson, upon whose research I drew upon for this.