Confessions of an American at a Christian Microfinance Institution in the Philippines
By Jamie Greenthal | KF 17 | Philippines
I must admit that I’ve avoided writing this post for two months. It’s been particularly challenging since the topic has been the “elephant in the room” of my mind. Until now, I’ve been hesitant to communicate how I used to feel about religious businesses because I’ve been working at one. In the spirit of the daily prayer sessions that I’ve participated in, here’s my first confession:
Confession 1: I was wary of organizations that mix religion and business.
From early February to mid-April, I worked at the microfinance institution, Community Economic Ventures, Inc. (CEVI), a Kiva partner that’s headquartered in Tagbilaran City, Bohol, Philippines. I’m fortunate to have been placed with a Christian organization because I’ve made some pre-judgments about these types of institutions in the past; and I hate prejudice.
I strongly encourage all thought and religion; however, I come from a place, both figuratively and literally, where the separation of church and state has been drilled into me for 30 years, and I guess I’ve put “state” and business in the same bucket without much thought. I think my innate wariness stems from the fact that I am a non-religious liberal from New York City, and this background has influenced my views.
Confession 2: I don’t go to church.
I’ve been to church services a handful of times, half of which were for Midnight Mass while on winter break during college because it was fun to see old friends from high school there. While I grew up observing Christmas and Easter, these holidays meant celebrating family gatherings rather than Jesus Christ. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about working for a Christian organization because, well, I’d be the only non-Christian in the office by a wide margin and I came into the experience with preconceived notions. With that as my religious baggage, I hoped for an awakening.
Confession 3: From the start of my work at CEVI, Christianity was everywhere and I was comfortable (and having fun too).
Christianity underpins the work of CEVI’s employees and the provision of its microfinance products and services. For example, its core values are:
WE FOLLOW JESUS CHRIST
“But Remember the Lord your God for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirm this covenant which He swore to your forefathers, as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:18)
WE ARE COMMITTED SERVANTS
“Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to share” (Proverbs 20:13)
WE ARE FAMILY CENTERED
“A man should provide for his family” (1 Timothy 5:8)
WE ARE STEWARDS
“Men are only stewards of God’s resources who are expected to face the master on the day of the reckoning” (Luke 19:11-12)
WE ARE PRODUCTIVE
“Hard work brings profity, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23)
Each weekday morning around 9am, the various departments at CEVI gather for devotional, which lasts about 45 minutes. Here’s the agenda:
- We sing a Christian song (or two). My favorite is “I Give You My Heart”. Most often, someone from the office accompanies the song with an acoustic guitar.
- A designated staff member reads a passage from the Bible, and then delivers an inspirational message that relates to such passage. The message often includes personal stories or references to pop culture.
- We create a list of prayer requests, which range from praying for the safe travel of staff members to the successful surgery for a friend of mine from New York.
- We sing another Christian song.
- We pray silently for the items on the prayer requests list, and then a staff member closes the devotional with another prayer, giving thanks for the day ahead of us.
On Friday mornings, the entire office comes together for an extended devotional. This gathering includes the agenda listed above, but also starts with a game. My favorite is when we divide into teams, and each is given a few minutes to study a few verses from the Bible. We then close our Bibles and the team that recalls the most from memory wins candy.
I would almost always each lunch with my fellow staff members at the “turo-turo” across the street from CEVI. Before these meals, we would bow our heads and say grace. We also said thanks as a group before eating spaghetti and cake for in-office birthday celebrations, and prayed prior to a drive around Bohol to enjoy local tourist attractions.
Christianity is woven into the relationship between CEVI and its clients. At the beginning of each loan disbursement and repayment meeting, the loan officer reads a passage from the Bible to the borrowers, and for the next 15-20 minutes interprets its relevance to the group.
Christianity is equally embedded in the local community. In the BQ Mall in Tagbilaran City, the “Hail Mary” prayer is broadcast over the PA several times each day. The first time I heard it I didn’t know what was happening, so I kept shopping. I quickly realized what was going on when I saw that the heads of my fellow shoppers and mall employees were bowed (except for the department store staffer who was helping me pick out a fan). I whispered “sorry” and bowed my head as well.
The tricycles in Tagbilaran each have a religious message painted on the back. Out of the hundreds of tricycles I saw during my time there, I think I saw two that didn’t have such a message. At one point, I was told by a CEVI employee that despite the messages, the rumor is that some of the tricycle drivers are “bad” because they don’t really believe the messages painted on their vehicles.
Confession 4: After working for 10 weeks at CEVI, I’ve shed my preconceptions about Christian businesses.
I still take longer than everyone else to flip through the Bible and find a particular passage, but I agree with many of the messages that I heard during the daily devotionals, which promoted gratitude, kindness, love, and service. I was unfamiliar with Christian music, but now like most of the songs because we sang them together and no one was shy about belting out the lyrics. (Even if I had chosen to observe, and not participate in, the devotionals, I still would have been accepted by my colleagues just the same.) I never dreamed that I’d be part of an office that sits in a circle and sings together each morning. I now hope that I find such camaraderie at future employers.
I am no longer skeptical of religious organizations. I like to think that I jumped into the deep end of practicing religion in the workplace and learned that I could keep my head above water. I prayed, sang, and solicited prayer requests during devotional. I learned my lesson during that first Hail Mary in the mall, and from that time on I bowed my head just like everyone else. Since the conclusion of my assignment at CEVI a couple of weeks ago, I’ve missed saying grace before each meal. I now think about how lucky I am to have three full meals a day, and regardless of whom I thank, I will no longer take it for granted.
Confession 5: I attribute the amazing time that I had working at CEVI to the fact that it is a Christian organization.
I loved working at CEVI because of the kindness, selflessness, and grace exhibited by my colleagues, both toward each other and me. While they may have learned these admirable characteristics from their families and friends, I think that these traits have been reinforced by their Christian beliefs. I contend that Christianity has helped to make them great human beings, and that’s a belief in which I have unwavering faith.
Jamie Greenthal is a Kiva Fellow working with Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, Philippines. He previously worked with Community Economic Ventures in Tagbilaran City, Bohol, Philippines.