Foundations of Transformation: Christmas

In an attempt to reinforce the idea that Christmas provides a  foundation for transformation,  I bring together two pieces, an essay by Michael Gerson and a poem by Daniel Berrigan.

Michael Gerson is a twice weekly editorial columnist for the Washington Post. In his Christmas column from December 2009 entitled The Grandest Myth, The Greatest Hope, Gerson points to the message of Christmas as nothing less than the most important “truth” of all time. Gerson, is a professing Christian,and I appreciate that he allows for honest doubt. His understanding of the Christmas story as myth, (Gerson seems to be using  “myth”  in the broadest most neutral sense) recognizes that millions of people of faith stake their lives upon the hope that Christ gives “cosmic importance (to) common lives”. His argument is similar to Pascal’s Wager: That if the Christian message holds true, the “payoff” is so great that it is better to believe than not to believe. As Gerson concludes  “if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself”.

In Advent Credo, Daniel Berrigan, the American Catholic priest, notorious peace activist, and poet, powerfully reinforces that same central Christmas message of transformation in “Jesus Christ— the life of the world.”

Jesus’ humble beginnings illustrate how God has shared in poverty, and that the starting point for transformation lies in identifying with the poor and the disadvantaged. Indeed, God identifying with the poor and disadvantaged as a central message of Christmas, provides millions with the foundation of how they want to live their lives and how I want to live mine.

The Grandest Myth, the Greatest Hope

For me, Christmas brings images of boxes, not wrapped but valued. At the end of a rural road in Kericho, Kenya, there is a compound overrun by playing children. Sister Placida — a nun whose frenetic temperament belies her name — raises AIDS orphans. It is a cheerful place but careful about preserving difficult memories. Sister Placida shows an album of pictures and detailed descriptions of people she has cared for who died from AIDS. The children keep memory boxes containing photos and mementos of their deceased parents. These acts of preservation seem a kind of desperate protest — that lives should matter to someone, even when they are short and tragic.

Any thinking visitor is confronted with a terrible prospect. Perhaps the protests are pointless. Some might consider these surplus lives. The dead are remembered sadly, then faintly, then not at all. Generations of the poor briefly walk the Earth, then become it — living and dying under cold, indifferent stars.

But Christmas carries a different message. A child of questionable parentage, born into humble circumstances, in a provincial backwater, begins a short life that ends in an execution. Yet it is somehow the hinge of history. Christmas tilts the universe toward the humble. It asserts that every child, in every stable, deserves angel choirs and the tribute of kings. It means that no life is too minor to matter; that the stars are warm and sheltering; that desperate prayers are heard and heeded; that every quiet, unnoticed death disturbs the cosmos; that memory boxes filled by children hold relics of eternity.

It may, of course, not be true. I’ll own up to occasional doubt. We have learned to be suspicious of our deepest longings. It is a human tendency to project our hopes into the universe, to create myths that fill a need for meaning. Christmas is the grandest of myths. But it may be pie in the sky.

It was C.S. Lewis, however, who responded: “We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky.’ … But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.” I also admit to doubt about my doubts. Precluding a hope, just because we hope for it, is not rationality, it is a prejudice. It is also a human tendency to hug our despair.

Perhaps our deepest desires exist for a reason — because they are meant to be fulfilled. Perhaps we are not tortured by our hopes, but led by them. Perhaps, as Lewis insisted, this story is a “true myth” — the myth to which all other myths point.

Reassurance about the cosmic importance of common lives — including our own — comes in many forms and in many faiths. In various noble traditions, God visits prophets and sages with wisdom and comfort. But in the faith of Christmas, God just visits. A father is appalled. A mother hides a miracle in shame. A son eventually experiences disappointment, betrayal and mortality. Yet something extraordinary takes place.

“By normal human standards,” says theologian J.B. Phillips, “this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.”

Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true.

Advent Credo by Daniel Berrigan

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

A Leader of Transformation

We continue our look at transformation through the vehicle of Opportunity International’s concept of “deep involvement” microfinance with the story of a remarkable woman entrepreneur in Bogota, Colombia, Carmen Oquendo. She and her husband started a small company 30 years ago that manufactures aluminum pots. We visited with her in January of 2013 as part of our 10 person insight trip to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia where we saw how microfinance and loving relationships can transform the lives of the working poor.  

Carmen Cecilia Oquendo and her husband Jael Betancourt own and operate Alucol, a small aluminum pots manufacturing operation located in a very dangerous part of Bogota, on a street that the police call “the street of death.” Carmen goes out of her way to hire and train people who otherwise might not qualify for a job. She and her husband are long time individual loan clients of Opportunity with a current loan of $15,000.

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Carmen and her husband Jael

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The rather depressing plant exterior in a dangerous residential neighborhood belies the hub of activity inside

Carmen and Jael started their business 30 years ago and grew to employ 30 workers from the community. 15 years ago their daughter contracted cancer and she fought valiantly for 9 years before succumbing to the disease. Her treatments cost the family dearly, both psychologically and financially, to the point that they had to drastically scale back their operations. At that point Carmen and Jael were facing the specter of $55,000 of debt. When they were ready to expand again they went to Opportunity International for a small trust bank loan of $65 which for them was, in Carmen’s words, the “fresh air” they needed to make a new start. They went through 3 loan cycles, increasing their loan each time to their current individual loan amount of $15,000. The company is profitable again and now provides work for 12 disadvantaged people from their community. Amongst their current employ is a long term worker who “made a mistake” and is now a prisoner on house arrest but is able to work, eat and sleep at the plant while serving his sentence.image

Carmen does all the administration – no computers in this 30 year old operation but she assures us that her two children are on Facebook

In October 2012 Carmen was given the great honor of being chosen to speak at the Grand Opening of the new Colombia Opportunity International Bank. Brian Olarte, the Marketing and Transformation officer with the Opportunity International Bank, says that Carmen was chosen “because her story is very inspirational and we believe that cases like these are the reason why we are in Colombia; helping people who have the will, ability and just need a little push to work their way out of poverty.”

Carmen attributes her success to her “hard work, love of God and for God [and the people she helps by giving them work]. Most of all, my husband’s craftsmanship.” She is a true leader of transformation.

 

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one of the 30 workers begins to form the container utilizing the high speed lathe and a shaping tool

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Finishing touches on the container take just a few seconds with Jael on the lathe – he designed and built all of the machinery

For more information about Opportunity International and microfinance See http://opportunityinternational.ca/

Ripples of Transformation

Misha MacKinnon is a carpenter with a love of finishing and a long term employee of Legacy Kitchens with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for everything he does. He was selected as part of the group of 10 from Legacy that visited our work with Opportunity International in Colombia this past January. Misha’s wife is Paula Vargas who was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. This is their unedited impression of the fascinating visit we had with Isela Torres, a loan recipient of Opportunity. When I read this story from Misha and Paula I was struck by how transformation affects those around us, our communities and those who hear our stories. 

For myself, it was my first visit to a client’s home.  Not a house but her home.  Isela greeted us with a wonderful smile.  She invited us in and made us feel welcome with a hug and kiss on the cheek.  Her house had been flooded a few years earlier and with a roof and floor loan* she raised the floor 2 feet up.  And just to be clear “raise up” means raising the walls and roof up 2 feet as well because the new floor is added to the ground level.  You would otherwise be 2 feet closer to the ceiling.  The roof is basically lifted off and 2 more feet of bricks and cement are added on as well.

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Steps lead from the backyard to the raised portion of Isela’s home. 

She spoke of her thankfulness for the loan and for the fact that her community and Opportunity International had faith in her and her abilities.  She looks out for and cares for her community and in return the trust group** believes in her.  She runs a small business out of her home selling wares such as dresses, hair ties, school supplies, candies and chocolate, and some of the daily needs like something for a headache.  I was able to purchase a pair of flip flops from her which now brings back inspirational and grounding memories.  Her place was clean and well organized.  She spoke of her hopes and dreams and future plans.  She would like to add another room on to the house for her mother to move in with them as she is getting older.  We walked through the small 4 room house, as we introduced ourselves and told her about our families and our dreams and then out to the back yard.  A small pet turtle was clambering around in a water tub and a little white kitten joined us for some hang out time.

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Visiting in Isela’s backyard

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Isela’s in-home store

On this trip I was repeatedly reminded of how strong a community can be and how distant, and detached western ones often are.  These trust groups are a great way of using the financial investment for a stronger community.  If someone gets sick, then the others must help them with their health and family responsibilities and also with their loan payment if necessary.  Some of the trust groups have even started trying to save some of their money from profits to use as an emergency fund.  As you probably know there is no healthcare plan and certainly no welfare.  If someone keeps missing loan payments from irresponsible reasons then the group may not invite you back.  It sounds like a great loan system even for North America.  You can live next to someone for 10 years and not know if they are married or have any kids.  That would be impossible here.  If they don’t come together life would be much more difficult.

The loans run on small amounts first and on short terms, as little as two months, allowing for a “light at the end of the tunnel” and a sense of accomplishment to have taken out a loan, and showing your peers that you can handle it.  During the trip I made a comment about the “hand up instead of a hand out” idea and someone pointed it out that it’s really a “helping hand along”.  The people we met were entrepreneurs before the money was there.  They are now just able to legally fund their businesses, and with an organization that respects and encourages spirituality.

When we left we felt we were welcome back anytime.  I knew if we were able to visit her again in a couple years, there would be more house projects completed, more stories of community becoming stronger and of course closer.  We met one of her three daughters as we were leaving and I tried to figure out who was prouder of the other.  Isela, proud of hard hard work to be able to give her family a dry home to sleep in and solid floor beneath their feet when they get up in the morning.  The benefits of having a roof over your head and floor that doesn’t turn to mud when it rains can give a family a sense pride and dignity.  A feeling like they are in fact, getting ahead.  Often a trip like this will help one appreciate what you have.  It also made me realize what I don’t have.  Things like worrying if it’s going to rain soak me while I’m sleeping or a community that really knows and cares about me and my family. They have less than I do but they know what strength and love is and what it’s like to really want the best for each other in health, spirit and true success.
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Misha and Paula making their purchase


I thanked her and daughter for opening arms and sharing their lives with us.  And for the flip-flops; To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity.

Holistic Transformation Through Microfinance

In July of 2008, a group of managers from Legacy and Affinity Kitchens took an insight trip to Cartagena, Colombia to see how Opportunity’s unique delivery of microfinance helped bring holistic transformation to the lives of their clients. To make it easier for us to bring the story of our experiences back to our employees we produced the following 9 minute video. Although some of the statistics you will see are from 2008, the video is an accurate picture of how OI is organized at the grass roots level to help the entrepreneurial poor. The people of Cartagena featured in this video, the clients and the OI staff that serve them, are indeed heroes of transformation.

The Transformative Power of a Gift

About 12 years ago my good friend Bob Wiens asked our company, Legacy Kitchens, to purchase a table for an Opportunity International fundraiser banquet in Calgary. Having heard enthusiastic reports from him about this organization’s concept of microfinance for the poor, but not really wanting to attend myself, we were intrigued enough to ask a few of our managers to attend. They came back with great reports about the organization and how they were using microfinance to help people living in poverty in South America. We supported OI in this small way for a few years when they showed up in Calgary every fall, sending our managers to these fundraising dinners.  In 2005, we decided to get more involved with OI because we were very interested in microfinance, small loans they were making to the entrepreneurial poor in South America. Bob suggested we do it through his Rotary Club, who would use the donation as a challenge amount for a number of Rotary branches in Southern Alberta to match against. We liked the sound of that, so we gave Rotary the check, having confidence that this money and more would eventually find its way to OI in South America.

A few months later we got an email from Bob saying that our “incentive funds” worked very well in mobilizing Southern Alberta Rotary clubs to participate and that the total campaign will exceed the original gift by a factor of 11 times. Gary Walsh the Canadian president of OI at the time followed up with an email: “there are special moments when a gift is disproportionately significant. It seems as though you have chosen well and the result …. will go beyond our expectations.” 

Needless to say this was a small miracle for us to pay attention to. To see what we thought was already a large donation multiplied by a factor of 11 was a sign in large capital letters to get more involved in a cause that attracted that kind of get on board effect in donors. That same phenomenon was the cause; the well-documented multiplication effect observed when loans given to the entrepreneurial poor by Opportunity International are consistently repaid with interest and then to be reloaned over and over again. The word that they used in their work was transformation, a simple word with profound consequence which I didn’t really appreciate at the time. They took this very seriously; to the extent of a person in leadership at the ground level having the job title of Director of Transformation.

In August, 2006 my wife Evelyn and I went on on an Opportunity International insight trip to Lima, Peru with a number of other Calgarians to see the work of the organization first hand.  We visited with clients in their homes and saw them living meaningful lives, despite their desperate circumstances and environment, because someone had offered them a chance.  The chance came through, not a handout, but a hand up, in the form of small loans and training that would allow them to start small businesses through which they could provide for their families and others in the community.  We saw that it was faith based work where weekly training and interaction with loan officers resulted in real transformation (that word again) in clients’ lives. We knew then that we wanted to be involved in a more significant way than we already were with this amazing organization.

Our company has been able to support a number of different fine organizations over the years also involved in transformation. It was always a dream of ours that Legacy would have its own project that the whole company could rally around, something more than just a place to send checks to.  We wanted a project where we could get up close and personal to the grass roots of work with people in poverty and where we could see the real impact of our giving. After taking the insight trip to Peru and seeing the amazing work of Opportunity International, I asked the Canadian Vice President Doris Olafsen, if it was possible for Legacy to have a specific OI project that we could focus in on with our employees. Doris came back within a week or two with a proposal for Legacy to be involved in supporting a new microfinance project being established in the Nelson Mandela Barrio, a squatter’s town of about 50,000 in Cartagena, Colombia.  We were very excited to have our company involved in such a focused way, but for our employees to get close to the work we would have to take a group from the company to see it for themselves and then come back and tell the story to everyone else.

For more information on Opportunity see: http://www.opportunityinternational.ca/

Next post: Our Visit to Cartagena