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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > January-February 2009 > Economic Empowerment as Christian Mission

Madeline Gnakouri (not pictured) operates a small restaurant in the back of her home in Abidjan. She began it with the help of a microfinance loan from Sarepta Bank. Photo by Mike DuBose
Economic Empowerment
as Christian Mission

The women of The United Methodist Church in Cote d'Ivoire started a bank to reduce poverty. The Sarepta Microfinance Bank (Clef Sarepta) receives deposits and makes loans, giving women ways to achieve greater self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. Borrowers buy equipment, including sewing machines and trucks, which is essential to setting up income-generating businesses.

Sarepta Bank is one of many economic empowerment ministries initiated by United Methodists, and others of Methodist heritage, in areas of the world where poverty is a grim reality. Among the others are:

- Mushroom cultivation by new congregations in Laos,

- Banana chip production by Simon Peter United Methodist Church on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines,

- Home-based handicraft industries in Central America and the Andean highlands.

A Worldwide Priority

Engaging in ministry with the poor, one of the four denomination-wide priorities for The United Methodist Church, is not limited to but incorporates economic development within and beyond the church. Economic empowerment is one way to assist and respect those on the margins of their societies.

The United Methodist Church is present around the world in many cultures and economic circumstances. Conferences and partner Methodists outside of the United States significantly engage in ministry with the poor, often in collaboration with the General Board of Global Ministries, based in New York City.

Biblically Rooted

Ministry with the poor is biblical and has been a strong component of Methodism since its founding more than 200 years ago.

Much of Jesus' ministry was among the poor. He taught constantly about the responsibility of those with means not only to assist but also to respect the economically deprived. John Wesley incorporated ministry with the poor into the foundation of the Methodist movement as the industrial revolution came to dominate late-18th-century England.

Wesley would be highly pleased to see Sarepta Bank in Cote d'Ivoire providing loans to help women gain economic self-sufficiency. While Wesley first led his followers into providing food, housing and other essentials of life for the poor, he soon realized that charity was not enough. The young Methodist movement turned to ministries of empowerment. One method was establishing lending societies, similar to Sarepta Bank, for the poor to provide for themselves.

Adele Yed started Sarepta Bank in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. Photo by Mike DuBose
Sarepta Bank

Adele Yed used her own money and capital from the Fellowship of United Methodist Women in Cote d'Ivoire to open the bank. The main office is in Abidjan, the nation's capital. Several branches are in outlying areas. Yed, a prominent United Methodist leader in Cote d'Ivoire, has brought the bank into the international network of microfinance institutions. Sarepta Bank advertises its close association with the church. United Methodist Women in the United States have also helped Sarepta accumulate capital through a grant by the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries.

Members can obtain small loans six months after they join Sarepta. The loans are usually for start-up businesses, such as vegetable cultivation, food production or sewing.

One group of women that borrowed money for a vegetable business also uses its truck to attend women's events at church. Dealing with Sarepta also teaches the women to develop business plans and strategies. The skills learned then translate into leadership capacity within churches and communities. Women gain self-respect and the respect of their families and peers.

Church Mushrooms in Laos

Cultivating mushrooms is proving to be a remarkably successful form of economic empowerment for poor members of the growing United Methodist Church in Laos. It works like this: Global ministries' personnel supply mushroom plantings to church families. When the crop matures, in a relatively short time, the mushrooms are sold on the commercial market.

United Methodist mushroom farmers pay a tithe to the church, have small but growing incomes to support their families, and benefit the entire community by bringing in cash. The "mushrooms of faith" project has gained the attention of Laotian regional governments, which are now encouraging the spread of the ministry throughout the country. Today there are 77 United Methodist congregations in Laos. Education for meaningful careers is another priority of the dynamic new United Methodist community in the Southeast Asian country.

Banana Chips and Jelly in the Philippines

On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, the Simon Peter United Methodist Church oversees banana chip production in the small village of Acacia. Twenty-three families have learned to process bananas, turning them into packets of banana chips readily bought by urban customers. Families and communities both benefit.

Guava jelly and bags made of woven palm leaves are other products of the Innovative Ministries Partnership Program of The United Methodist Church of the Philippines. Global Ministries is a major funding partner of this effort that targets some of the poorest areas of the island nation. Indigenous peoples, who have retained their own cultures despite more than 300 years of "Hispanicization" begun during Spanish colonialism, respond enthusiastically to the United Methodist economic empowerment ministries. They also participate in church-sponsored literacy classes and take advantage of church-run day care centers.

Children from the Ngobe-Bugle Reservation in Panama benefit from the sales of crafts and other ministries. Photo by Chris Heckert
Handicrafts and Agriculture
in Panama

The people of the Ngobe-Bugle Reservation are among the poorest of the poor in Panama. United Methodists, through Global Ministries and the Evangelical Methodist Church of Panama, have been involved with the indigenous tribe for some 15 years, providing basics such as a clean water system, health clinics, preschools and nutrition programs. Today, the emphasis is also on sustainable agriculture and handmade arts and crafts that can be sold for hard currency.

The 164,000 Ngobe people who live in Panama's mountainous provinces are noted for their beautiful artistry. The crafts program produces children's clothing, jewelry, hats, pottery and a variety of beaded and carved souvenirs. Samples are displayed in a community center accessible to tourists and others.

Global Ministries missionary Rhett Thompson is one link to the reservation. He coordinates United Methodist Volunteer-In-Mission teams that come to Panama for short-term service, which has included building a bridge and an aqueduct on the Ngobe-Bugle reservation.

To transform the world

Cote d'Ivoire, Laos, the Philippines and Panama are but four of the places where United Methodists -- richer and poorer -- connect with one another and with other people of compassion to transform the world into a place of plenty and justice.

--Staff, General Board of Global Ministries, New York City.




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