Confessions of an American at a Christian Microfinance Institution in the Philippines

6 May 2012 at 06:12 6 comments

By Jamie Greenthal | KF 17 | Philippines

A towering statue in Jagna, Bohol.

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.

I’ve seen this message from the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals in public places throughout the Philippines.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. We sing another Christian song.
  5. 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.

One-stop shopping for religious icons and supplies in Compostella, Cebu.

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.

A typical message on the back of a tricycle in Tagbilaran.

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.  

Entry filed under: KF17 (Kiva Fellows 17th Class). Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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6 Comments

  • 1. Kristian Piala  |  24 July 2012 at 22:20

    I am so thrilled and glad reading about this post regarding Christians organizations. It is so true that sometimes we have this perplexity and hesitation about it. But, that doubt is non-existent when you are with the CEVI Team. Our trust in God is the greatest foundation to continue the mission in promoting transformation to the lives of the many. CEVI is not just a microfinance solely working for only one thing but an organization that aims in helping people grow economically and spiritually. We believe that a person doesnt only need material things in order to live a happy life but rather a complete and healthy well being is taken with great consideration and significance to experience fullness of life.

  • […] Confessions of an American at a Christian Microfinance Institution in the Philippines Jamie Greenthal | KF 17 | Philippines Jamie discusses his preconceptions about working with a Christian field partner in the Philippines as a secular New Yorker. Through a series of confessions, Jamie expresses just how false these preconceptions were and how much he’s learned about the positive elements of a religious workplace. […]

  • 3. jlgreenthal  |  6 May 2012 at 19:13

    Thanks for the comment. Hope you’re doing well. Christianity is practiced throughout the majority of areas where CEVI works; however, CEVI also works in the Muslim area of Mindanao, and has products tailored to that community. Unfortunately I was not able to see CEVI work in that area. I have some literature on CEVI’s Islamic lending product, so shoot me an email if you want to take a look at how they structured it.

    • 4. hsullivan3  |  7 May 2012 at 00:34

      Thanks–mostly curious about whether there’s a mix of Christian faiths represented. Here in Indonesia, “Catholic” is considered separate from “Christian” (with both represented in Kupang). The iconography here (if it can be called that…) is crazy! The public vans are painted with bizarre, bold logos that manage to mix the sacred and profane in all sorts of novel ways… Enjoy the remainder of your fellowship!

  • 5. hsullivan3  |  6 May 2012 at 18:27

    Wow, Jamie! I admire your effort to assimilate into your MFI and I do think that religion is an important guiding force behind many partner MFIs. While I have respect for my colleagues and their religious views, it’s safe to say that my participation in morning devotion has been more spotty… Are all the areas where your MFI works religiously homogeneous?

    • 6. jlgreenthal  |  7 May 2012 at 17:46

      Heather, the Philippines is 80% Roman Catholic, so I’m extrapolating that roughly the same percentage applies to the Christian communities that CEVI serves. To answer your original question, pretty homogeneous. Thanks for sharing your experience in Kupang. I was doing some reading about the location and your MFI there. Sounds like a really interesting place, particularly in the context of the majority religion in Indo.


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