I have often been impressed with the way the Chalmers Center works through indigenous churches to help locals come to understand their own abilities, resources, and dignity while helping them emerge from impoverished circumstances. Their recent newsletter showcased one example of a Peruvian group experiencing the satisfying results of beginning to save for the coming needs of a school year. Here is an excerpt from their article titled “Savings Not Shame:”
I knew that I wanted to start a church-centered savings and credit group while in Peru, but I had no idea the amazing challenges and joys I would experience nor how I would see God’s hand at work in the Arévalo community through a savings group. After speaking extensively with the women in the Arévalo community to better understand their situations, we decided, along with the leadership of the church, that a straight savings group, i.e. one that did not make any loans, would be the best option to start with. As we began meeting to plan the group, the women decided that it would be most helpful to save for the beginning of the new school year that was about five months away. The costs associated with a new school year include uniforms, books, school supplies, and registration fees, and are substantial for a poor family with children. In fact, families often go into debt, sometimes to local loan sharks that charge extreme amounts of interest (300% is not unusual), or else their children go without the basics for weeks until the family can afford them. I can’t imagine sending a child to school for weeks without a pencil or notebook, but this is the reality that many poor people face.
We began the first group with twelve women. There was hesitance as to how the group would work. Who would keep the money? How much should they save? What if someone didn’t attend meetings? Thankfully, the Chalmers class Promoting Church-Centered Savings and Credit Associations covered these things, and the Chalmers Center’s manual walked us step-by-step through the stages and possible pitfalls of starting a group. The training also offered guidance in making sure the poor people played an integral part in designing and administering the group. Although this seemed difficult and inefficient at first, I realized it was key to the group becoming self-sustaining and to ministering the Gospel to them.
You might ask how a savings group could be an instrument of the Gospel to these people, and I admit that I wondered how it would work. After getting to know the people, I realized they felt helpless, hopeless, full of shame, and even worthless. They had seen and experienced that they could not do much to change their own situation as prior work had reinforced the idea that they were dependent on others, or even worse, that God had not gifted them sufficiently to be productive people that could support themselves through their own work. In the World Bank publication, Voices of the Poor, a poor person from Moldova is quoted as saying:
For a poor person everything is terrible—illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.
Sadly, I saw this very thing expressed in the Arévalo community. Having the poor people actively participate in the savings group process from start to finish, then handing the group off to them showed them a different reality: that God had gifted them to work and produce on their own; that the resources to slowly change their situations were in their communities; that they weren’t worthless and helpless, but were worthy of dignity and respect as children of God.
Read the whole article here.
-Tim C. Williams