Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.
After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.
And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.
One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”
Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”
Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”
This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.
“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”
The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”
We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.
She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.
No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.
Over the last month we’ve lost 141 pounds.
Before the challenge began, we all understood how to lose weight. Eat healthy food, watch portion sizes, exercise regularly…we knew the drill. Still, we weren’t doing it. Ten years after graduating from Taylor University, the 12 of us had put on a combined 150 pounds. In those years, we spread out across the country, landed new jobs, wooed wives, welcomed 18 babies into the world (with four more on the way!), and tacked on more than a few pounds.
A month ago, we collectively began a very simple weight loss challenge. We paired off and committed to sending the group weekly weigh-ins each Monday morning (via a cell phone picture of the scale). Our resident actuary mapped our progress on a spreadsheet. All month, near constant notifications from the group popped up on my phone—FitBit stats, words of encouragement, friendly jabs, workout routines, and, most importantly, hacks on how to fend off the magnetic pull of the Christmas party food spread.
11 of the 12 of us, pre-challenge
In one month, we’ve lost 141 pounds and all 12 of us have lost weight. Those weeks of accountability, encouragement, and camaraderie have paid off. We’re feeling healthier and have more energy to fulfill our roles at home and at work.
Considered within the entire course of human history, this feat is, well, inconsequential. But the power we discovered in community, accountability, and shared habits is anything but. In a trusted community, my group of 12 friends were able to do more together than we could do on our own. By instituting simple habits—and holding each other accountable to them—we accomplished what we were unable to do beforehand, despite understanding exactly how to do it.
This concept—that we can achieve more through shared routines in community than we can on our own—is true for weight loss (WeightWatchers is built on community and habits), for beating addictions (Alcoholics Anonymous, the same), and for spiritual growth as well. Jamie Smithasserts “we are embodied creatures of habit—God created us that way—we are profoundly shaped by ritual.”
There is great power at the intersection of community and habits. Take Alphonse as one salient example.
Alphonse grew up in Rwanda. He also grew up blind, in a country where this impairment can be devastating. Alphonse described that he used to avoid going out in public or attending church because of the shame he experienced because of his disability.
But then he met a pastor in his community who had been trained by HOPE to form savings groups—small communities of people who develop common habits of saving and supporting each other. When the Rwandan pastor met Alphonse, he began by telling Alphonse he was created in the image of God. He told Alphonse God had endowed him with gifts and abilities worth offering to his neighbors. And that only through Jesus would Alphonse experience abundant life.
Through the encouragement and training of that pastor, Alphonse and a group of 17 men and women from his community—all blind—came together to start a savings group. In 2012, they began meeting—habitually—each week. This group named their savings group Twisungane which means “Let us lean on one another.”
And they have. For four years, they’ve met weekly to go through a biblically-based curriculum and to save and lend to help meet each other’s financial needs. The group began with each member saving just $.13/week.
Over time, as Twisungane adhered to clear and consistent meeting rituals and routines, the group’s purpose and impact grew. Alphonse borrowed from the group to purchase seeds to plant crops and to buy livestock. He has also launched a small manufacturing business with the members of the group. Together, they make baskets, mats, and soccer balls to sell in their community. He now identifies not by his disabilities, but with the dignity of being “the breadwinner for my family.”
Alphonse and his family
The group today manages $80 in a shared savings account and $180 in outstanding loans to members of the group. When you remember the $.13/week that they started with, one cannot help but praise God for the way God has blessed the group and instilled in each of them the ability to use their talents to support their families, their communities, and each other.
I marvel again and again at the simple power of community and shared habits. From my 12 friends to Alphonse and Twisungane to AA and many more, habits formed within community and reinforced through accountability enable us to accomplish far more than we’re able to do on our own.
### It’s the most generous season of the year. On December 23rd of last year, I celebrated how HOPE had met our budget goals for 2015. This December 23rd, though, we still have work to do. If you haven’t yet, allow me to encourage you to invest in the dreams of families like Alphonse’s this Christmas season! Thanks for reading and learning with me another year.
Are banking and charity incongruent?
I hope not, because I’ve invested my career in an organization that believes they are congruent. The prevailing public opinion, though, is that they are indeed incongruent. We believe, if anything, banking victimizes vulnerable people. From the subprime mortgage crisis to the Indian microfinance bubble to the payday loan industry, can banks really be about the business of doing good?
John Cheverus thought so. Because of this belief, he founded the very first savings bank in America.
He registered the bank in Boston in 1816. Underscoring the heart of his bank, he named it Provident Institution for Savings. Cheverus and his philanthropist friends believed providing access to savings and loans was an essential need for people living in poverty in Boston two hundred years ago.
They launched Provident as a “benevolent institution” with the mission to “simply to provide a place where the poor may deposit their small savings, and be allowed to receive interest, with liberty also to withdraw the whole or any part of their deposit whenever they may desire it.”
Cheverus was an interesting character; a Catholic priest and a community activist. He was a Frenchman by origin, but answered the call to come and serve as a priest in Boston. While in Boston, he undertook “every form of missionary activity.” He lived among the Native Americans and learned their language. He nursed the sick and dying during two Yellow Fever epidemics. He was one of the most well-known religious figures of his era. At a state banquet with President John Adams, Cheverus was seated next to Adams as the guest of honor. And, he was named the first Bishop of Boston.
It was out of his deep concern for his parishioners, for the vulnerable in Boston, Cheverus challenged several prominent Boston philanthropists to create a safe place for the working class to save their money. Together, the founded Provident Institution to accomplish that purpose.
Provident Institution for Savings (source: CelebrateBoston.com)
Bishop John wasn’t doing something entirely new, however, but rather continuing in a long line of missionaries who believed in the importance of banking.
In the 1500s, Franciscan monks provided low-interest loans to poor peasant families throughout Europe. In 1514, even Pope Julius II gave an edict endorsing these institutions, which were the lifeblood of poor European peasants.
Over time, however, the mission of these nonprofit banks—which devolved into what we now call pawn shops—began to change. But at their genesis, these pawn shops served an incredibly valuable purpose to people living on the edge of disaster. They brought financial security, increased their relational trust in their community, and allowed the Church to meaningfully minister to her neighbors.
A few hundred years later, in the late 1700s, Hannah More continued this legacy. More was a contemporary of William Wilberforce and a member of the Clapham Sect, a group of influential Christians in London who famously helped to stop the British slave trade. More was the literary genius of the group and played a huge role in that movement.
But, More also played a significant role among the disadvantaged communities where she served. In her biography of More, Karen Swallow Prior profiled how More served her community by establishing banking cooperatives among women who were excluded from the banks.
These banking clubs allowed women to save small amounts of money each quarter safely with a larger group. Then, if one of the members of the club lost her job or contracted an illness, she received a payment from the group to help her cope.
In India, just a few decades later in the early 1800s, William Carey—who many consider to be the father of the modern-day missions movement—created savings banks to help farmers who were struggling to get by. He actively campaigned against loan sharks and moneylenders who were victimizing these farmers with punitive interest rates by creating a safe and reliable place for them to borrow and save.
Historians believe Carey was the first person in India to register a formal savings bank.
Bishop John Cheverus, Franciscan monks, Hannah More, and William Carey all understood the critical importance of having honest, reliable, and secure access to both borrow and save money. What was true in 1500 and 1700 and 1816 is true now. When bankers work in the spirit of these industry forbearers, they continue this important legacy into communities and countries where it is just as critically needed.
Timothy Kayera spoke with been-there-done-that confidence. He grew stronger with each word, pulling me closer with the fire of his conviction. And then he summarized everything I believe about charity. In four words.
I used to work with one of those organizations that gave stuff away to everyone. We’d give away animals, clothing and clean water. All for free. I remember when we’d give goats to people, I would get phone calls and they’d say, “Timothy, your goat is dead.”
Your goat is dead. I’ve tried to articulate this idea dozens of times over the years, but never this potently. In four words, the caller said:
It was never his goat in the first place,
It was inconsequential it died, and
It was Timothy’s job to replace it.
Kayera is a star in Rwanda’s promising cast of young leaders. He directs HOPE’s efforts in a region of Rwanda and he emphasized the difference of his new job. His work now creates dignity, not dependency. Partnership, not pity. Timothy joins a chorus of Rwandans in this song, from the president of the country to “Rwanda’s Desmond Tutu.”
[The poor] are as capable, as competent, as gifted, and as talented as anyone else…In society, you must create opportunities to help people develop their capacity and talents. – Paul Kagame
We need to move from aid to production, from existing to living. It’s high time we stop telling our people they can’t do it. They can, yes. And we shall do it. – Bishop John Ruchyahana
Timothy, President Kagame and Bishop Ruchyahana share this opinion: Traditional charity erodes the nature of people and the fabric of society. When giveaways permeate, they communicate a clear message: What you lack, I provide. Where you are weak, I am strong. When you can’t, I can.
It’s a bad message, preventing people from hearing the better message from their Creator: I made you to make. I designed you to design. You are blessed to bless others. When charity runs its course—as it has in many places in Rwanda, Haiti and elsewhere—it lures the poor with handouts and traps them on unneeded life support.
But that’s why Timothy got out of that business. He saw its destructive path and cut the cord before it strangled. Today he anchors his work on who people are created to be and what we are designed to do. He doesn’t lure with goodies. Instead, he demands hard work from those he serves. People like Rachel.
I saw the future of Rwanda in her. Rachel showed me the house she built and the 16 pigs she purchased over the past two years. She showed me the litters of piglets she’s bred and the piles of fertilizer she sells. But Rachel isn’t filling her barns for herself. I asked her what her dreams are and she said, “The greatest joy of these pigs is that I am now able to share with my church and with others.”
Rachel didn’t beg for cash or stoop in compliance. She stood tall as a confident merchant, wife and mother. She did not avert her gaze. Her eyes were strong and generous. Rachel wasn’t the product of charity. She simply knew who she was created to be.
I fought off tears for the entire 144 minutes of Cinderella Man. My emotions churned as I watched Jim Braddock fight for his family’s survival. Before the 1929 crash, Braddock was a superstar heavyweight boxer. But, injuries and the Great Depression knocked him to the mat. He stumbled from stardom and lost his place on the professional circuit. At home, his career crash meant he could no longer provide for his wife and kids. Star-turned-beggar, Braddock worked on the grueling docks for mere pennies to keep his home’s heat on.
On the brink of collapse, Braddock intercepted a whisper of hope. With the pantry sparse and the coffers empty, he caught a shot to reclaim his dignity: His agent secured him a fight. It wasn’t the main stage, but a chance to dance was better than no chance at all. His kids’ hungry bellies trumped any indignity he felt about back-stepping to the minor leagues.
“I fight and I put a little more distance between my kids and the street,” Braddock said. He grew tired of hoping-and-praying. He knew the purse in this minor league fight would create a buffer for his family. The relatively meager payday would move them a step back from the cliff. Not a mile from the cliff, but far enough to avoid disaster.
Several weeks ago while traveling in Asia, I walked through the types of neighborhoods I only knew from documentaries. Weaving through tight corridors with corrugated tin homes creeping onto the footpath, I came to terms with my own prosperity. The last shantytown we visited was the saddest place I’ve been. There, I sat with members of this community who explained the plight of their town—poor health, drugs, violence, porous homes, bad schools, lepers—their list went on and on. Because of their disheartened lot, they named their squatter village Helpless. They could have chosen anything, but they selected a name that voiced their pain.
For the group we visited in Helpless, however, cautious optimism broke through the clouds. “Before, I would spend every penny I had,” Anjali shared. “Now, I have two hundred rupees [$4] saved.” It wasn’t much, but this savings account, like Braddock’s modest winnings, put a little distance between her kids and the street. Now, when Anjali’s kids caught the flu or when she found the rice bin barren, a safety net broke the fall.
In these communities, survival teeters in delicate balance. When the storms of life hit, they cause more than minor setbacks. Four dollars in a safe place means the difference between disaster and desperation. A subtle, yet remarkably substantial, difference.
As I watched Cinderella Man after my return from Asia, the scenes of Hoovervilles reminded me of Helpless. It wasn’t hard to reconcile these two images—both places stifled by suffocating despair. In the midst of the chaos in Hoovervilles and Helpless, however, unrelenting hope emerged. Braddock and Anjali refused to admit defeat and fought their way back from the cliff. That first step away from disaster is the most important. For Braddock, this step came with a fist pump in the boxing ring. And for Anjali, that step took the form of two hundred rupees in a savings account with her neighbors.