Amidst poverty and insecurity, community banks promote social cohesion and provide financial services to the poor in South Sudan.
Editor's Note: This article by The Reverend Jeff MacKnight first appeared last week on the official blog of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Father MacKnight, a Five Talents board member, is the Rector at St. Dunstan's Church in Bethesda, MD.
I know we'll never all agree on the hot-topic issues, but I still hope we can act together on basic Christian values, like helping the poorest folks in the world. Five Talents is an Anglican organization that does just that through microfinance services at the grassroots level in the poorest countries of the world.
Five Talents was started at a global meeting of Anglican Church leaders, in response to their deep concern for the poorest of the poor. The founders wanted to guard the dignity of poor people, and assist them by creating jobs and opportunities to rise out of poverty, so in 1998, Five Talents was founded. Its byline says it all: "Fighting Poverty, Creating Jobs, Transforming Lives."
I've been involved with Five Talents for years, and now serve on its Board. St. Dunstan's has supported Five Talents projects in the Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia, and South Sudan.
One of the things that excites me about Five Talents is the faith-based organization's focus on transforming not only the financial situation of their clients, but also their social and spiritual well-being.
A great example of this transformation is the story of Carmen in Bolivia. This 35-year-old woman, a single mother, sells cosmetics and, on weekends, works as a kitchen assistant in a restaurant. Carmen is also the treasurer of a Five Talents savings group that calls themselves the "Saving Bees."
Awhile back, Carmen's son, Luis, became very sick. Under normal circumstances, she would not have had any money to pay for medical treatment. As a result, she would have had to borrow money from her business – or from a loan shark. Either one of these options would have set her family back.
Fortunately, she had been saving money every week through the Five Talents savings group. So when Luis became sick, she was able to use some of that savings to pay for a medical procedure.
"If I had not saved money, I don't know what I would have done to get the money," she told staff from Five Talents' partner organization in Bolivia, Semillas de Bendicion (Seeds of Blessing).
But this is only half of the story.
Carmen's spirit was troubled when she first joined the Five Talents program. She rarely smiled and could sometimes act harshly with others.
"She didn't leave her house, and she didn't talk much with her family. The saddest part was that you didn't see her smile – she simply escaped from any activity that could provoke a smile," said Sara, a staff member at Semillas de Bendicion. "But without a doubt she was the best in how she handled numbers, and she was very honest." That's why, last year, her peers elected her to be the group's new treasurer.
Slowly, as Carmen grew into her new role, her outlook began to change. She smiled more often. She began thinking about attending night school. And everyone – including Sara – noticed her gradual transformation.
"Now she is a friend to all of us, and when she sees us, she has a beautiful smile on her face. Moreover, she isn't as harsh with the members of the savings group – she is cordial and friendly, and they always laugh with her. We are happy for her because she is beginning to live with joy."
Carmen's transformation is a gift from God, through Anglicans working together at Five Talents. Through training, savings groups, and microloans, Carmen has lifted herself – and her son Luis – out of grinding poverty.