Chris, tell me a little bit about the story of Hope International and what particular role you serve in the organization.
HOPE began in the ashes of a failed charity project. In the early 1990s, Jeff Rutt, an entrepreneur from Lancaster, PA, led groups from his church to Ukraine to deliver food, medical supplies, and clothing to poor families throughout the country. On his last missions trip there, a Ukrainian pastor politely asked Jeff to not return to Ukraine, citing the many unintended consequences their charity was having on his community. He articulated how free giveaways bankrupted local entrepreneurs, created in-fighting between his church members over distribution, and fueled unhealthy American-dependency throughout his church and city.
Shell-shocked, Jeff returned back to the States and discovered the concept of microfinance. Rather than giving stuff away, microfinance enabled Jeff to empower Ukrainians to develop their own solutions rather than solving it for them. His first foray was with 12 entrepreneurs in that same community. He gave them small business loans, biblically-based business training and access to a savings account. All the clients paid back their loans and Jeff repeated it all over again, this time with more entrepreneurs. Today, just 15 years later, HOPE serves over 400,000 entrepreneurs in 16 countries.
I started with HOPE in 2006 as a grunt laborer (not my official title). Captivated by HOPE’s mission, I took an entry-level job mopping floors and stuffing envelopes in our home office in Lancaster, PA. Today I lead a national team of 10 staff members who are responsible to recruit the financial and human resources needed to fuel HOPE’s mission across the world. I work from my home office in Denver, Colorado.
What are the elements of the organization and your particular role that get you excited to get out of bed in the morning?
The traditional model of charity is broken. Like a bike with flat tires and no pedals, charity just doesn’t work. It’s broken because it puts the giver in a place of power and provision, forcing the receiver into a passive posture. But as Christians, we believe God has created all people in his image. What this means for charity is this: We need to dismantle what we assume about poverty: Rather than meek recipients, we need to engage those in poverty as active participants. Instead of starting with the question, What do you lack?,we need to start by asking, What do you have? We’re called to partnership, not pity.
Because this is HOPE’s foundation, it’s incredibly energizing to work even in tremendously difficult places like Afghanistan and Congo. Yes, the poverty is at times overwhelming, but we see opportunity and dignity where charity sees problems. I’m privileged to spend my days telling the stories of the entrepreneurs we serve in these places, celebrating their hard work, ingenuity and dignity.
Why is Christ-centered microfinance so important?
When David Livingstone (pioneer of the modern missions movement) first traveled to Africa, he returned and proclaimed Africa needed two things: Christianity and Commerce. He identified Christianity and Commerce as pillars for any successful society. People need Jesus and they need a job. We aim to help them find both.
Tell us a story of a particular individual who has benefitted from the work of Hope directly.
Probably not what you’re looking for (you can go here for that answer), but I’d have to say me. When I started this job, I did a major disservice to those in poverty: I failed in my expectations for them. I assumed (wrongly, I know now) they were incapable, unwilling and unprepared to succeed. I assumed that like a bus stuck in a ditch, I (we) could enter their communities and yank them out of poverty and put them on the road to prosperity.
What I’ve learned through HOPE is that God has given all people everything they need to succeed. The poor don’t need me to provide all they need. God’s already done that. They just need us to give them an opportunity to use the gifts He’s given them.
How does Christ-centered microfinance fit into the idea of biblical justice?
Microfinance is akin to modern-day gleaning. God commanded Israel to care for the vulnerable in the way they farmed: “When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deut 24: 20-12 ESV) And he commands us to do the same today.
Rather than encouraging his people to fully harvest their fields, process the grain, bake it into bread and then tithe …he encouraged them to leave a percentage of their fields, olive trees and vineyardsunharvested. Doing this provided the widows, immigrants and orphans with meaningful work, sustenance and life skills training. He didn’t command them to give stuff away. He commanded them to give generously by providing opportunities for others to work. And that sounds a lot like what HOPE does today.
When we think of God’s call to justice, we often think of the “least of these”–the famous biblical mandate to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned and clothe the naked. What we forget is there’s also an uncomfortable biblical mandate that those “who do not work, shall not eat.” That can read harshly, but let’s not forget that God knows what’s best for his people. And core to “what’s best” is work. Even before sin entered the world, God commanded Adam and Eve to tend the garden. Work is core to our design.
We’ve all heard about the importance of not just “giving people fish, but teaching them how to fish.” But Ron Sider talks about the importance of a third category: fighting for access of ponds for people to have the opportunity to fish. It seems that HOPE is in this third category. Is that correct?
In our ideals, certainly. HOPE isn’t a perfect organization, but we take this idiom seriously. It’s actually somewhat paternalistic to suggest that our job is to teach people to fish. Most of the time, it’s not for a lack of street smarts or market knowledge that people live in poverty. It’s a lack of opportunity to use the skills they have. We aim to unleash their creativity, giving them a good chance at success.
I know recently you got back from a trip to Rwanda. What were you doing there – and what did you learn in that experience?
In addition to meeting the real king of the jungle (the great Rwandan silverback gorillas), I saw HOPE’s work in action with a group of HOPE supporters. One of my favorite stories from our trip encapsulates what I learned there. Timothy Kayera, my Rwandan colleague, shared a profound story. He said, “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, that caller said:
1. It was never his goat in the first place,
2. It was inconsequential it died, and
3. 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.
I know you are working on a book project with Peter Greer, the President of HOPE International. What is the book about and why do you believe it’s important to be published?
We just signed a contract with Baker Publishing Group (Bethany House label) for a book called Mission Drift. In essence, we hope to help Christians address the unspoken crisis facing our organizations: We’ve lost our way. While there are many exemplars (which we’ll profile and celebrate), many faith-based organizations have lost their very heart and soul as they’ve grown, aged and professionalized. Our hope is this book will help them find their way back to the proverbial “straight and narrow.”
That sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to reading it. If you had the attention of every follower of Christ for 3 minutes, what would you want to communicate to them about biblical justice, Christ-centered microfinance and/or HOPE International?
How about three sentences?