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Lent, Kiva, Chrysostom, and me: Microcredit and the Great Fast

A few months ago, Thomas Kincaid wrote a Covenant post: “John Chrysostom and the virtue of giving.” The central thrust of the post was that our money, our wealth, however much or little that happens to be, is an important matter for our development as Christian disciples. Parish giving provides opportunities to talk about money and how we use it as part of our formation in Christian discipleship. If heaven really is important, we should be laying up some treasure there, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

John Chrysostom’s preaching and writing are a rich mine for calls to give and for effective memes on Facebook, though supporting the Church is less obvious in his exhortations than caring for the poor. Care for the poor is a constant focus of his preaching because for him it was an undeniably central dimension of Christian discipleship. Over and again he insists bluntly: if you do not see Christ in the beggar by the church door, do not expect to find him in the chalice.

His relentless insistence is finally anchored in Matthew 25. After all, who is it, he challenges us, that stretches out his hand to you in need? “It’s me!” Christ tells us without equivocation. The outstretched hands of the poor reach out in offering, and what they offer is nothing less than the kingdom. Chrysostom makes his point no more starkly than Jesus did. If you are not concretely doing things to help the poor, you are avoiding an unavoidable part of the Christian life. The Lord himself tells us how this story will end. The blessed and the damned ask Christ the same question, “Lord, when did we see you?” And Jesus gives them the same answer. Which one would you rather hear?

I admit that I would rather hear something gentler or more accommodating, but that isn’t what Jesus says. Fasting and almsgiving go together:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? (Isa. 58:6)

In my church we read from Matthew 25’s account of the Last Judgment two Sundays before Lent itself begins, part of a series of Gospel readings that anticipate the fast and call us to repentance. Like fasting itself, almsgiving and reflection on it mostly make me aware of how far from perfection I am. Singing of injustice but also of the Fall, Bob Marley said: “You see, men has lost their faith … eating up all the flesh from off the earth.” I am lying to myself if I don’t immediately recognize myself in that line. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. But in the past year, I have begun doing something small that has helped me do better. Microlending through Kiva has helped me integrate care for the poor into my everyday Christian life.

In 2006, Muhammad Yunus, an economist from Bangladesh, received the Nobel Peace Prize with Grameen Bank, the bank he helped found, for pioneering work in microfinance and microcredit. I remember hearing about it on NPR at the time. Perhaps the central insight of the Grameen Bank is that the world’s poor are entrepreneurs, and what they most keenly lack is access to credit. Small investments in the economic and entrepreneurial activity of poor people bear a greater social impact than delivering free services. With small investments, people can improve their situation and also their livelihoods, making their own investments in the future: educating their children, for example. As it turns out, microlending is also a relatively safe bet. Repayment rates are impressive, and money repaid can be relent. Microcredit may turn out to be one of the greatest and most innovative contributions to “development” in a few centuries. The idea has spread dramatically since Mr. Yunus received his prize. Microlending institutions have proliferated around the world, and even some large investment banks have gotten into it.

You too can get into it. For all its ills, the digital age has made possible social connectivity that was impossible before. Kiva is a website that allows individual people to make small loans to borrowers all over the world. Loans are made in increments of $25, and funding a loan is no harder than placing an order on Amazon. Kiva also conducts due diligence and ongoing monitoring of the local microlending institutions that list their loans on the site.

Making small loans is sustainable because I keep getting money back. When I am repaid, I reinvest those repayments in new loans, and I keep adding small amounts as I can. I’ve now lent twice the amount that I have actually parted with. My kiva portfolio is growing. I hope my treasure in heaven grows with it. Perhaps at least I am beginning to put my heart in the right place.

I am putting away much more for my own future than I am lending toward the future of others. Prudence requires that I put aside something for my old age and something for my own children too. I am doing that. But can there be any doubt at all that (in accord with the teaching of Scripture) widows and orphans represent a better investment? Sharing my own modest abundance isn’t a luxury or an eccentric nobility but just a little stab in the right direction, of fidelity to the Lord’s command.

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” (Prov. 19:17.) So far, the poor have repaid me too.


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