Alums changing the world one small loan at a time

January 24, 2011

PSR has a historic tradition of nurturing students’ interests in ministries of social justice in a global context. But rarely have the ministries of three different alumni who attended PSR at separate times converged as they did recently. For a time last year, alums Terry Provance (MA ‘88), Marijke Fakasiieiki (MDiv ‘98), and Polly Hamlen (MDiv ’02), all worked for Oikocredit, one of the largest microfinance funds in the world.

Microfinance is an industry based on lending small amounts to poor individuals and groups for investment in local business ventures. These small-time entrepreneurs use the loans to build up their businesses, leading to steady income for their families and investment in their communities. The borrowers pay back the loans with interest and those who invest the capital make a small profit. The system gives monetary credit to poor borrowers who have little access to traditional financial services.    

“It’s a myth that poor people are lazy and unimaginative,” says Provance. “There’s a role for donations but also for credit on fair and just terms that leads to employment, which leads to development.” Provance, who works in Washington D.C., is the head of U.S. operations for the Netherlands-based Oikocredit. The U.S. offices are focused on investor development and relations.

Provance worked with some of the bright lights of PSR in the 1980s—his thesis committee included Karen Lebacqz, Robert McAfee Brown, and UC Berkeley professor of sociology and frequent PSR collaborator Robert Bellah. During his time in seminary, he studied language and theology on a fellowship in South America, and, inspired by his professors, raised awareness on PSR’s campus about issues of social justice.  

“I served on the board of trustees as a student representative and was involved with PSR’s decision to divest in apartheid South Africa,” Provance says. “It was a good test sample of church, student, and seminary activism influencing an institution to choose to be not only theologically but economically correct.” 

Fakasiieiki met Provance when he was working with UCC/Disciples Global Ministries. Seeing his international approach of enacting what she calls “God’s economy” in a practical way, she thought, “I'd like to do that kind of ministry.” When an opportunity opened up at Oikocredit as a local outreach coordinator in San Francisco, it seemed like the right fit.    

Fakasiieiki had pursued international studies as an undergraduate, and prior to coming to seminary she studied at the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland. At PSR, Fakasiieiki also worked with Lebacqz, and with Sharon Thornton and Doug Adams, who encouraged students to take what they learned in the Bible and put it into practice. She also resonated with Jeffrey Kuan’s work to welcome international students and integrate their perspectives with the community and the curriculum at PSR.   

Hamlen had not met the other alums prior to her work with Oikocredit, although she traveled in some of the same circles, including the WCC Ecumenical Institute. As a seminarian, Hamlen took full advantage of PSR’s ecumenical and interfaith offerings, taking classes at eight different GTU schools and academic centers. She says she appreciated PSR’s tradition of “faith connected to action. It was part of our conversations as seminarians and part of my education in the classroom. It was always about a connection to the real world and an engagement in the community.” Hamlen's work for Oikocredit was based in Boston, and although she recently left her paid position for a job in the tech sector, she remains involved with the organization as a volunteer.

Microfinance borrower in Bolivia Oikocredit was founded by the World Council of Churches in 1975, although it is now independent of the WCC. It is one of the world’s largest microcredit funds, valued at $650 million, which generates capital that it uses to support 842 projects in 71 countries through 560 microfinance partners. Large loans from Oikocredit go to microcredit banks and cooperatives in local communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that make small loans to individual entrepreneurs that average between $25 and $400.      

“About 87% of microcredit loans go to women,” Provance says, “most of that for agricultural projects. Women will buy tomatoes or corn from a rural farmer and re-sell it in a central market or public square, or they'll make something those crops and sell them as finished food items like bread or tamales. Others may buy a cell phone and rent it out, or buy a sewing machine to make clothing, or even run a small medical clinic and serve as a midwife or nurse.”

Two recent events have significantly raised the profile of microcredit: the U.N. declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit; and in 2006, Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the first microcredit bank, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since these events, microcredit has become a hot commodity for idealistic capitalists. Oikocredit has about 40,000 individual and organizational investors, most from religious constituencies. The payback rate on loans from microfinance institutions is 97%, and investors in Oikocredit see about a 2% return.

“Credit,” says Provance, “is much more powerful than a donation. A donor can stop giving, but a loan means poor people can maintain economic viability and take a step up the economic ladder to a life that allows them to build self-respect and provide for their children.”

Fakasiieiki notes, however, that the work goes beyond the practicalities of investments and global markets. She finds inspiration for her work in her study of scripture. “A major theme running throughout the bible is the challenge to be living God’s economy. The Sabbath, the Jubilee, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—that is all about the challenge to be living out a just and a moral economy. It’s not to be waiting on some manna from heaven, but to really strive for the kingdom of God here on earth.”

Hamlen continues her interest in global ecumenical ministry through her position on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and as chair of the Sommission for Ecumenism of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. She credits PSR with giving her “a solid foundation for ministry—and ministry can be in a lot of forms. What was exciting about working for Oikocredit was being able to connect faith and justice together; that’s something that PSR holds as a value. One of the great things that PSR does for the global community is create future ministers who feel a responsibility to do something for the world.”  

To learn more about Oikocredit and its online investment opportunities, visit www.oikocredit.org.

(Photos of seamstress in the Dominican Republic, vegetable vendor in Bolivia, and market co-op in the Ivory Coast courtesy of Oikocredit.) 

Terry Provance presented a workshop at Earl Lectures 2011: “The Redemptive Power of Microfinance” on Tuesday, January 25, from 2:45-5:00 pm.

Updated January 26, 2011