I’d like to touch on two more important aspects of microfinance (MF):
1) How it can be a vehicle for the spiritual message of Christ; and
2) How a US-based church can make a real difference
For those focused on holistic missions, simply meeting temporary, “physical” needs of people in poverty is insufficient. We also seek to meet eternal, “spiritual” needs. That being said, we would be dissatisfied to engage spiritual poverty while ignoring physical needs. Holistic ministry demands care and concern for the whole person, body and spirit.
We realize that it requires a community to carry out such a holistic approach. As the Apostle Paul aptly noted in 1 Corinthians 12, God has designed us as part of a body in which no one is skilled to do the job alone. In faith-based MF, the same is true. Some are gifted to be loan officers; others are managers, and others are accountants.
Meaningful partnerships with local churches are essential to ensure that our whole message of salvation for this life and the next is brought out. One such partnership has developed between Willowdale Chapel, a non-denominational church in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and HOPE International’s program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The DRC is a challenging place for any type of work. Unemployment figures fall in an almost unfathomably high range of 90-97%. People subsist by generating income outside the formal economic sector, e.g., as street vendors. Though there are many strong churches in Congo and a majority of people call themselves Christians, animism, African traditional religions, and superstitions remain rampant. If there was ever a place that needed full engagement of physical and spiritual interventions, the DRC is it.
Willowdale wanted to make a real difference, and several business leaders in the congregation were excited about an innovative, business approach to missions. Willowdale began their community involvement project in the DRC in 2005. HOPE began providing bulletin inserts with client profiles to help the church get to know the work. HOPE Congo’s Director, Nate Hulley, and other local HOPE staff were called upon to share in services and provide updates. The Willowdale staff has regular phone calls with the HOPE staff via Skype (an internet calling program), and videos are shown in worship services to connect congregants to the work.
Some time into the partnership, Willowdale made a trip to the DRC to explore how to strengthen the relationship. Greg Lafferty, lead pastor at Willowdale Chapel said:
Through regular updates, periodic visits from field staff, and firsthand exposure through HOPE Trips, we have seen that God is using HOPE and Willowdale to release thousands of people from the grip of physical and spiritual poverty.
On the surface, it appears difficult for short-term volunteers to truly help a microfinance institution (MFI). For a non-faith-based MFI, it might be more trouble than it’s worth. However, these partnerships are vital in consideration of the spiritual dimensions of HOPE’s work. In reflection on the Willowdale partnership, Nate Hulley commented:
I feel that the relationship has been mutually beneficial. First, more important than any funding relationship, is a prayer relationship. Members of Willowdale, and Willowdale as a corporate body, pray regularly for our ministry. This coverage of the ministry in prayer is essential. Second, I would say that we are both gaining from the exchange of ideas. Third, at Willowdale I find brothers and sisters in Christ who are interested in all aspects of our ministry, from reaching out with the Word of God to the more technical aspects of the micro-enterprise development work. Their interest in our work is motivating, and their questions and ideas push us to improve what we do.
In the last year an estimated 1.5 million Americans went overseas on short-term mission trips. Hopefully, more and more of these trips will be taken with long-range solutions to deeply embedded physical and spiritual problems in mind.
On the other hand, we hope that for Willowdale, our work provides a direct connection for them to the work of Jesus, bringing about justice and being peacemakers through economic empowerment and testimony. It’s a challenge to reach across cultures and try to communicate … [but ultimately it] causes us to remember why we do this work and to re-dedicate ourselves to serving the Lord in Congo.
Actively sharing forces us to consider our approach to ministry. It’s interesting, sometimes when you need to explain your approach to a problem or even a victory, it gives you a gut-check to say, “Are we being Christ-like in how we’re doing this?” … I believe that with HOPE and Willowdale, there is a sense of iron sharpening iron.
Guest post by Mark Russell, former Director of Spiritual Integration