Monday, January 17, 2011

Microlending Through Kiva is one of the best ideas I have come across in a long time.

A monumental problem facing would-be entrepreneurs in impoverished nations is the lack of access to funds and others resources. Whether you want to be a goat herder in Kazakhstan or open a family restaurant in America, one universal fact is true: Businesses need investment and capital. However, folks from villages in Mongolia, Uganda, El Salvador and the Philippines have difficulty securing loans.

A downside of capitalism is that the best way to get a traditional loan is to have the ability to pay it back! Banks try to avoid risk by lending to people with a good credit history and other factors. This becomes a barrier for folks who are trying to enter into the system. The poor stay poor while the rich have the opportunity to get richer. It can be frustrating and disappointing to appeal to larger banks and nations to reverse trends and make funds available to these people.

Something needs to be done to level the playing field. Microlending is one of the leading ways to do this. "Microlending" is a general term for any lending done to folks who generally would not have access to traditional loans due to credit history, location or other circumstances. Many are simply living in a "pre-banking" society. Microlenders often use infrastructures and modes of traditional cultures to build networks of accountability, communication and support.

The genius of is that it makes use of the magic of the internet to take the case directly to the world's citizens. For example, you, as a citizen of the USA, can make a loan directly to a citizen of Azerbaijan. There are few intermediaries and gatekeepers in the way.

What are these loans for?

  • A farmer in Mongolia to purchase 2 animals to start a cattle breeding business.
  • A courier in Uganda to buy a motorcycle.
  • A hairstylist in Bolivia for the purchase of equipment to expand her business
In other words, these are the sensible needs of any entrepreneur trying to make a living for themselves and take their business to the next level.

Field partners of Kiva identify people who are good candidates for microlending. You can view their profiles and loan requests on the Kiva website. You, as a lender, can pick which person you want to lend to. As the person pays the loan back, you are paid back as well. You would then have the option to withdraw your money, apply it to another loan, or donate it to Kiva to cover operating expenses.

Just for fun, you can link your contribution to any number of groups for some healthy competition. Groups are organized around national identify, religion or other interests, such "Australians," "Kiva Christians" or "GLBT," just to name a few. It should be pointed out that the group "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious" lead the way by far. Their combined achievement is nearly double the next largest group, "Kiva Christians."

A one-time investment in Kiva can end up helping dozens and dozens of people make a better life for themselves. For each loan paid back, you can simply keep your money in the system and apply it to the next person. It is a gift that just keeps on giving. You can loan as an individual or gather your friends together to form a group. You can contribute as little as $25.

As with anything, be sure to do your homework. Microlending has been abused in some cases, where it can resemble loansharking if not handled appropriately. The poor are vulnerable and are often exploited the easiest by the wolf who comes in sheep's clothing. Also, microlending is not the only way to alleviate poverty, but it is a good first step. Nations with entrenched, systemic poverty and political injustice may not be brought out of that by the success of a few entrepreneurs. However, to those few entrepreneurs, it may make all the difference in the world.

Check the links above for more information on microlending and Kiva in particular.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Christian Anarchy

Out of all the concepts and charisms of the Catholic Worker movement, perhaps there is none more misunderstood than that of "Christian anarchy."

Saying the word "anarchy" in a conversation usually sets off a variety of triggers in the listeners. Whether people yay or nay it, one thing I have noticed is that there usually isn't a lot of follow-up conversation on the topic. People already have a set idea of what they think it means.

Many people coming to the Catholic Worker expect the value of anarchy to mean that there would be no structure, rules or authority at all. This simply isn't true. Christian anarchy is not what we commonly think of as political or social anarchy, which would be some kind of lawless, random condition where nobody has any rules or agreements with each other.

Christian anarchy is the furthest thing from simple rebelliousness or disdain for authority. Christian anarchy is the response from a person who has gotten to a point in their faith and social justice awareness where they are willing to make a deep commitment--the commitment is to Christ--and to take responsibility for the consequences of that commitment. The commitment is to put the commandments of Christ over the law of the Land. When those two sets of obligations are in conflict, a Christian anarchist may make the decision to break a law in order to give witness to their true allegiance to God. They also most likely do so knowing they may pay some hefty consequences, such as jail time, violence or even perhaps martyrdom. We should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's--but we should always be aware that much of what Caesar thinks is his is really none of his business, and some of it might really be the Lord's.

Those who ran the underground railroad a 150 years ago were true Christian anarchists. Through their faith and by examining their conscience, they decided that they could not support the laws of the land which bound people into slavery. They helped and supported runaway slaves in direct violation of the law. They took risks, and I would imagine that some paid some serious consequences. Many folks today see a parallel with supporting undocumented citizens against an unjust and unfair immigration system in America.

Keep in mind that a general frustration with authority can certainly be the seed of a true Christian anarchy. It is encouraging to see people who don't just accept authority without questioning it. And sometimes you need to thumb your nose at authority! However, that can get tiring, too. It is also wonderful to see people who are willing to put on a yoke--if it is the right yoke. A true rebel must have a cause, and a cause requires commitment.

People can be surprised to find that houses of hospitality often have many pages of rules and expectations for members. The goal of those rules is to find a way to avoid stepping on each others' toes. If we share the same space, we are bound to cause hurt feelings or worse if we are all approaching our life and our work with different assumptions or sets of criteria--so let's agree on what the criteria will be. Rules may be as reasonable as saying that if you use the hammer, put it back. That is not an attempt to oppress people who use hammers, it is more of a courtesy to the next person who wants to use it so they don't have to spend wasted hours looking for it, or so we don't have hammers laying around in random locations. Yet, it may crimp the style of people who don't like to put things back, but in the end is is better than crimping the style of folks who never can find a hammer when they need it.

To give a simple example, one person's desire to be messy may conflict with someone else's desire to be tidy, and left to a purely random anarchy the messy person would always win. Sometimes it is important to make decisions collectively because if all decisions were random acts of individuals we would not be left with a very fair system, we would simply aways tend toward the lowest common denominator. One person's right to smoke comes into direct conflict with someone else's right to breathe clean air. If one smoker lived in a home with ten non-smokers, anarchy would hold that the smoker could smoke and the rest would simply have to deal with it. Having no limits on individual behavior can end up limiting others. There's no way around that, because our lives are always inter-connected. With that in mind, the best we can do is find the fairest rules possible for everyone.

Good rules should function like traffic laws. They should make life easier, not harder. When I drive around a blind curve, I am reassured to know that if there are any cars coming in the opposite direction, they are most likely going to keep to their side of the road. It would be unfathomable if there were no traffic laws. Just imagine if every trip to the grocery store involved life or death consequences! Accidents do happen and mistakes can be made, but overall people do follow traffic laws and we are the better for it.

Sometimes that means there are silly instances such as stopping at a red light at 3 am on a dark country road when it is clear there is no one going to cross the intersection. Still, we stop, and it is better to do so than to start on a slippery slope of picking and choosing which law to follow and when--even though that's exactly what Christian anarchy is! How can this be? Christian anarchy should involve a time of prayerful discernment AND most importantly the opportunity to discuss a decision with the larger community before deciding to break a law. An individual may decide to act even if the larger community advises against it, if their conscience compels them to do so, but the important thing is that they go through a process of soliciting feedback before simply making a private decision in isolation. It can lead to unwise or even dangerous behavior if people simply act as if "they know best" without checking that assumption with others. Therefore, the paradox is that Christian anarchy must be lived out in community!

To live in a society that is purely random where people simply do as they do and expect that somehow it's all going to come together beautifully with no intentional coordination is unrealistic. The Holy Spirit sometimes enables a sort of "holy chaos" like that, but let me tell you from experience that that doesn't always happen. The larger Catholic intellectual tradition supports an organized society with rules and structure. In America, we are often saturated with a worldview that comes from the Founders through the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformations. They would have it that "the government that governs least is that which governs best" and "government is evil, but a necessary evil." They have the very valid point that there must be checks and balances on power and bureaucracy. However, the Catholic tradition has a more favorable view of government. Government is simply necessary. When it functions well, we are better off than without. Humans cannot live together without some open and acknowledged conversation about how we are to live and work together. As Aristotle says, "to be human is to be in community." There's no opting out of the difficult conversation of coordinating our lives with those around us. Instead of calling it an evil-but-necessary process, let's just call it a necessary process.

What makes Catholic Worker house rules different than many other organizations and businesses is this:

1. The rules are determined by the people who are most directly affected--the people who live there or work there. They are not imposed by a management team 3,000 miles away.
2. The rules are changeable. If circumstances change or if individuals have special needs or exceptions, we can always re-gather together to amend things.

If folks don't like the word "rules," there are other ways of looking at it. It is an agreement by people who live and work together to honor each others' needs and requests while also giving breadth to be who they need to be. Good rules should not be about control. They are actually about freedom--putting some structure in place so that people can be more. It is hard to move forward if we are always stepping on each others' toes or un-doing what each other has done. It would be impossible to drive to the grocery store if the roads were a total lawless state.

Many CW houses try to function by a near-total consensus model. Now, I think everyone should have an experience of true consensus in their lives. It can be a wonderful exercise to learn how to talk, how to listen and how to be sensitive to each other's needs while advocating for your own, how to hang in there until true resolution is reached. However, it also can be very tedious. It can be hard to function if house meetings start at 7 pm and continue until 3 am until consensus is reached. As Pat used to say, let's just delegate so we can get some sleep.

We must also remember too that delegation is also a form of respect and responsibility and can be perfectly appropriate for Christian anarchists. It is about honoring the fact that someone can simply take on a particular job and we can respect their ability to manage that sphere of influence. Catholic Worker houses should be careful not to overstep the Catholic value of subsidiarity--which means that no outside authority should come in to manage something that local people can do for themselves. Some decisions in CW houses do not need to be group decisions but can instead be delegated to individuals. We don't need consensus on whether the trash is taken out at night or in the morning. As long as the appointed people do it when it is necessary, let them figure out the nuts & bolts so the rest of us can do other things with our time. We should respect their ability to take care of it without babysitting--unless their action affects others, in which case those needs need to be heard.

At the Columbus Catholic Worker, we have reserved consensus for "important decisions." What determines an important decision? We don't have set criteria. If a decision seems important enough, if it affects others, then we chime in. If not, we don't need to.

Many use the concept of "anarchy" to thumb their nose at rules and responsibilities in general. In truth, Christian anarchy is the pinnacle of commitment and responsibility.

Can a commitment to Christian anarchy lead some to advocate for a more general political anarchy the way the word is most commonly understood? It can and does for some individuals and communities, but it does not have to. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin both advocated for a "strong Abbott" model of leadership in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality.

I have never really liked rules much. I have always been the first one to break them, especially if I sense that people are enforcing them just for the sake of control. But the older I get, the more I realize that part of being a healthy, holistic human being is setting the parameters for how we live and work with others. There is a time to break boundaries, but there is also a time to set them, too. That can and should be an exercise is respect--both for myself and for others. Let's always hope that our experience of community and structure is one about respect and compassion and not about oppression. By keeping the conversation always open, as we do in Catholic Worker communities, there is always hope for making a better and better community, and for correcting ourselves if we do get off track.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Moving On

We have been in the process of moving recently.

A couple months ago, St. James the Less Church told us they plan to reacquire the building to use for parish functions. We discerned that we didn't have the time, resources or direction to make a seamless transfer of our ministries from one location to another in the allotted time. We were given four months to move--longer than what our lease required but not quite long enough under the circumstances. We decided that Christmas would be a natural time to wind down and take a short--or long--hiatus.

Our Free Store has been distributed to other Free Stores in the city and state. We are currently looking at plans to relocate ESL and Pax Christi elsewhere. The Community Garden will hopefully remain on site under the direction of the gardeners from the parish and neighborhood. We'll still make Fair Trade Haitian Coffee available. Other ministries may or may not remain, that will be under the discretion of the parish. It would be wonderful if what began with us could still continue after our departure.

The St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry will still occupy the basement and they will not be directly affected by our move.

It's hard to count the blessings of our time at the "old convent"--just a little over 2 years exactly. I think it's fair to say that you just had to have been there to experience it. If you were, you know what it was like.

We had a final potluck and prayer time just the day before moving out. We recounted our ministries and memories. It was clear that ultimately it was about people and it was about community. Folks shared experiences of warmth and hospitality. Friendships were formed, connections were made, ministries began and spun off, and hopefully, to paraphrase Entertaining Angels, maybe life was made just a little bit easier for a few folks who really needed it. We'll never know the extent of our reach, but we sowed in faith and in that faith we have hope.

Yet, even as we try to wind things down, the ministry life of our community just seems to sprout up in all sorts of ways. Requests and opportunities to distribute fair trade coffee have been growing. There is quite a bit of excitement to start up that house of hospitality for refugees and immigrants--something we wanted to do years ago, and it is an idea that just seems to stay with us. Donations and inquiries into our community are increasing. Still, it is time to rest, gather strength and discern our next steps.