Holistic Microfinance Amidst Hostility

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“The biggest challenge in supporting the churches in India is helping them catch a holistic vision for their work.”

Over the past year, a microcredit controversy has been brewing in Andhra Pradesh, India, calling into question an intervention originally designed to alleviate poverty among the rural poor. In the minds of some, what was once a development intervention meant to empower the poor has become a predatory tool that exploits the poor for financial gain. This was sadly evident with the spat of suicides by microcredit clients last fall, which not only embarrassed the government of India, but more importantly called into question the practices of some microcredit lenders. The government has since intervened and set up strict regulatory practices over microlenders.

Considering the industry's recent turmoil, microfinance may be losing its halo in Andhra Pradesh, India and across South Asia. But the church in India presses on with a real opportunity to show how the Chalmers Center's Microfinance With Education (MWE) model can be a beacon amidst the current turmoil. In contrast to the microlending institutions that have become so controversial, the Chalmers Center's approach to microfinance empowers poor people to form savings and credit associations owned and operated by the poor people themselves. In addition, the MWE model adds training in Business, Home, and Health from a biblical worldview perspective, thereby augmenting microfinance with additional training that is typically absent in microlending organizations.

Last year, the Chalmers Center piloted our Business, Home, and Health curricula in Andhra Pradesh with an organization that trains pastors and village leaders. Developing curricula for this region presents nuanced challenges. Printing materials that are written explicitly from a biblical worldview perspective can cause trouble. If materials reference Jesus and get into the hands of the wrong people, then legally, nothing should happen. But, field staff report, "…if the mob attacks, the police may support them. Religious extremists can claim the law that says one 'should not allure anyone'."

The expertise of local Christian men and women is paramount in this context. These brothers and sisters have mastered the art of using biblical stories and messages that communicate God's desire to reconcile all things in culturally relevant ways. Partnering with them to review, contextualize, and test the curriculum, they report difficult and yet encouraging news:

"Four persons in the group were from non-Christian backgrounds. They did not object to teaching lessons drawn from the Bible. This training has helped them to see how the Bible is practical and can give solutions and suggestions for our daily life. They have shown interest in knowing more about the Bible and Christ."

"The whole group were Hindus. They did not have any objection to the course content. They said that in every religion there are prayers and everyone is seeking God. This was their first exposure to Biblical stories..."

"We now understand the importance of making use of healthcare services. We were afraid of the government health care workers but now we understand that it is our right. We have also understood that God cares about our bodies and so we have to be keen on maintaining good health..."

This training model, integrating biblical messages with training on health, business, and finances, opens eyes to the reality that God is connected to all parts of our lives. The savings and credit associations were surprised that the Bible is concerned about the body and about money, and is not simply "religious teachings."

Developing and using integrated curricula in a non-Christian context requires strategy, savvy, and prayer. Building personal relationships and relying on the grace of God are foundational. But when does one begin telling His story directly? Certainly, explicit teaching about salvation and the kingdom of Jesus is central to holistic ministry, but how, in the midst of ubiquitous hostility?

Through persistent, quiet, and faithful work, the Holy Spirit is stirring hearts in Andhra Pradesh, India. Training in holistic MWE plants the seeds for reconciled relationships with God, oneself, others, and the rest of His creation. Practically speaking, we at the Chalmers Center, like our partners around the world, are motivated by this transformation in the lives of savings and credit group members. However, we are also reminded, that heavy is the burden of integrity when walking holistically with the poor.

This post was written by John Mark Bowers.

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