The money in my pocket

My legs were growing stiff from sitting cross legged on a mat in the shade of a mango tree. Sweat trickled down my back from the sticky heat of a South Asian summer. I was sitting in a circle with fifteen Bangladeshi village women who had been conducting their weekly savings group meeting for the last hour. They’d worked through their agenda, finishing a lesson on how to keep their family healthy and depositing their ten taka weekly savings.

Now, under “Any Other Business,” a group member had raised the financial plight of one of her neighbours. The neighbour’s rickshaw puller husband had fallen seriously ill. All the cash to hand in the household had gone to taking him to the clinic and getting a medical diagnosis. Now two thousand taka was required to buy special medicine. Without it the husband’s condition was deteriorating and he couldn’t earn his daily income, but the family had no more money. They were talking about selling possessions.

The four five hundred taka notes (about £17.50) I’d brought as “standby” funds for the trip were burning a hole in my pocket. I could solve this problem as easily as pulling my wallet out. Job done, and Jesus’ love shown! At least that was what was going through my mind. Didn’t Jesus tell us to have compassion for the poor? What about the parable of the sheep and the goats – I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the divide here. And anyway, my legs were getting sore. Just give them the money and lets bring the meeting to an end so I can stand up.

But there were other competing thoughts. I remembered the discussion with a new young expatriate colleague the week before about Bryant Meyer’s book Walking with the Poor. Meyer’s reminds us of the dangers of the “God-complexes” of the non-poor—satisfying their own desires for significance by taking on God’s role as provider and saviour and, in the process, dis-empowering the poor as problem solvers. So I kept quiet and continued to listen.

The woman had shared the details of the situation with her fellow savings group members. The discussion bounced around the circle. They were clearly concerned for the neighbour and her family. But what could they do? They were equally poor. Maybe they could give the neighbour a loan from their savings fund. Yes, group policy permitted giving loans to non-members in special circumstances. But wait, how would she repay the loan? The family has lost lots of money with this illness, and even when the husband was fit and working they would struggle to make the monthly 1% interest payments. Group policy required realistic plans for repaying loans. So an interest free loan then? They’d even struggle to just pay the principal back. Eventually the group agreed to make a grant to the family with no expectation of repayment. The money was to come from the profits the group had gradually built up in its savings and investment fund - the fruits of wisely investing in the village agricultural economy.

I was so glad I’d kept my money in my pocket that day. Stiff legs was a small price to pay for the lesson that had unfolded before my eyes. The poor are generous and compassionate. They can solve problems. They grow in dignity and self-confidence when given space to solve their own problems with their own resources. The gentle encouragement our fieldworker had given them over the years - teaching how to organise a savings group; helping them think through what might be profitable investments for their savings; and mentoring them in running their own group - all this walking alongside had borne fruit that day.

That experience was one of many that has demonstrated the truth that we don’t overcome poverty by doing things to or for people. God makes it possible for people to do things for themselves, and gives us the privilege of being his agent to walk along with people as He does so. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to be involved with the same groups of people for extended periods of time. I’ve known groups of women who, when they started, would hide behind their saris rather than look at me and could not answer a question about their dreams for the future because they had none. Two years later these same women would be bubbling with enthusiasm about how they were changing their families lives with the profits from the investments they had made with their own savings. They couldn’t stop talking about their dreams for the future.

As groups matured and organised themselves into larger collaborative organisations the spontaneous compassion and generosity I had seen that day was not lost. It became organised and embedded within the culture of their organisation. All the groups in an area came together to manage a benevolent fund, sourced from taking a small cut from every profitable investment made by each groups’ saving fund and managed by a committee of trusted women who assessed needs within their local community and made grants in response to cases recommended to them.

Perhaps none of that ever would have happened if I had pulled out my two thousand taka one day to ease my own discomfort.

Let’s all pray for the privilege of being God’s channel for transformation by walking alongside the poor as they find ways to solve their own problems with what God creates and provides.

This post was originally written for the Reconciled World Blog.

4 Jan 2016