Britt's Blog

March 16, 2016

Really? You think THAT’S why people aren’t going to church?

Filed under: Uncategorized — davebritt @ 10:08 am

Every now and then, one of my churchgoing friends shares an article on Facebook that claims to explain why people aren’t going to church.  Sometimes it’s about millennials, sometimes it’s about singles, etc.  For some reason these articles never fail to exasperate me.

I just read one article that claims the reason kids leave church when they grow up is – get this – we put them in children’s activities instead of forcing them to sit through “big church” (my term).  These kids grew up but felt that traditional worship was alien to their tastes and sensitivities, so when they were old enough, they ran out the door in terror.

Pish tosh.  The reason people leave the church has very little to do with what music we choose, whether we have a praise band, or even children’s church.

Full disclosure: I led children’s church for five years when my kids were small.  The reason was that my oldest son sat in worship with me starting in his first-grade year and was bored out of his ever-lovin’ mind.  He hated, hated, hated it, almost to the point of tears.  He tried; he really did, for three years.  But he couldn’t stand it.  And he wasn’t alone.  By the time our second son got to first grade, the ranks of kids squirming in the balcony had hit a demographic high.

There was nothing wrong with the music – it was world class.  The preaching was excellent.  But none of it spoke to my sons, not in the first grade or the fourth grade.  A friend whose kids were the same age as ours was having the same problem, so we volunteered to begin a children’s church.  We met with some resistance from the ‘establishment,’ but we weren’t asking their permission.

The issue was this: our faith was important to us, and we wanted to do everything we could to pass on an opportunity for our children to share that faith.  Traditional worship wasn’t working, for whatever reason.  So we tried a different format.

My friend was a gifted music teacher, so he began the children’s worship time with a hymn or two.  He used the time as a teaching opportunity, and the kids responded.  Yes, it was a bit more informal, but we met in the chapel with pews just like the ones in big church.  We had a couple of adults at all times to settle kids down if necessary, but that wasn’t very often.  We prayed, and we invited the kids to pray.

After music time, I told a Bible story.  I embellished a bit here and there, and I added a few sound effects, but it worked.  We discussed the meaning of the stories with the kids, and we asked them what they thought.  The kids paid attention and learned the stories.  They told the stories eagerly to their parents on the way home.  They brought friends.  The “kids” are in their thirties now, and one I hadn’t seen for years volunteered with no prompting that the Nebuchadnezzar story was his favorite.

The kids were completely turned off in adult worship.  They were energized and engaged in children’s church.  Some of them today go to church, and others don’t.  We moved away and lost track, so I don’t know percentages.  One of my two sons found a great church where he and his family are quite active.  The other has been content not to look all that hard.  Of the other kids I’ve been able to keep up with, some go to church, some don’t.

I am firmly convinced that the reason the Church didn’t retain all of these kids has nothing to do with worship formats.  If you’ll pardon the cliché, that argument is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  The reason goes much deeper than that, and it actually got a lot more attention in the 1960s than it seems to get today.

The reason people don’t go to church is that they can’t for the life of them figure out why they should.  They don’t see the point.

As Pierre Berton wrote in The Comfortable Pew in 1965, “The church to its opponents has become as a straw man, hardly worth a bullet.”  If you haven’t read Berton’s book, find a copy and read it.  Berton was a respected Canadian journalist whom the Anglican Church of Canada invited to write its 1965 Lenten periodical.  Though he had quit going to church himself, Berton allowed himself to be persuaded to write the thing, and it immediately outsold every other book published in Canada up to that point.  I think we can safely say that no other Lenten periodical has come close.

Berton laid it on the line as no one else had done to that point.  The Church in Canada and elsewhere had become an agent of the social status quo.  It had virtually no prophetic voice, though the gospel clearly demands otherwise.  Ten years earlier, church attendance in the United States had peaked at almost 50% every week.  Church leaders were confident and ecstatic.  By 1965, however, church leaders were worrying about the “Crisis” of the church.  That’s a remarkably short turnaround.

I can’t summarize Berton’s book here.  Suffice it to say that my two sons had plenty of moral and prophetic energy in elementary school.  They were serious about conservation and justice; they just couldn’t see that the church cared about either of those things, what they had learned about Isaiah notwithstanding.  Churches are almost always concerned first and foremost with their own survival and repairing the buildings they inherited from the fifties.  Frankly, it’s easier just to let them die.

Diana Butler Bass documented an enormous shift in her 2009 book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  Within a ten-year period, “religious” went from a positive association in the minds of most Americans to a negative association.  It has to do with institutions, organization, and dogma.  On the other hand, the word “spiritual” now has a mostly positive connotation after many decades as a negative word (it once connoted a lack of accountability).  The word “spiritual” is about experience, explained one man.  “Religious” is about infrastructure, more or less, and nobody gets excited about infrastructure.

In essence, the North American church has talked far more about theological opinions than about the experience of God.  Those groups such as the Pentecostals were exceptions, but they often took anti-science positions, so mainline churches felt a need to put distance between themselves and spiritual experience.  Their memberships have plummeted; vast numbers of congregations have closed, while others are too small to support a trained pastor.

The most vital religious movement I see today is contemplative.  Resurrected from Catholic monasticism through Thomas Merton and others, contemplation and meditation are drawing larger numbers of people who are disaffected with their churches, Protestant and Catholic alike.

While some will be predictably threatened by this movement, I see it as the hope of the church in the future.  It feels like authentic faith because it is felt and practiced.  It’s not about dogma or doctrine that evolved out of some national cultural conflict centuries ago.  Opinions are pretty much irrelevant.  It’s simply about opening oneself to God’s presence in the present moment, and trusting that God’s presence will lead you right.  It’s not about orthodoxy; it’s about faith.

I can tell you that the church of my childhood never mentioned any such thing.  I got a taste of it in seminary when one of my professors introduced me to Thomas Merton’s books, but even then it didn’t sink in very far.  It took a Catholic friend who gave me Richard Rohr’s little classic, Everything Belongs.  That book literally changed my life and my faith.  It led me to others such as Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing, Douglas Steere’s books from a Quaker background, and to classics of Christian devotion from centuries ago.

More than that, my journey led me to an active prayer life.  It’s mostly silent prayer, listening for God rather than instructing him on what needed to be done that day.  Some people call it “centering prayer,” while others call it meditation.  Whatever.

The point is this: prayer matters to me now.  Doctrine, i.e. theological opinions, matter far, far less, though they can still make for interesting bull sessions with the right people.  Contemplative spirituality is the real business of the church; of this I’m utterly convinced.  It should have been our business all along, but we were too busy sanctifying success and securing a place for the institution to muck about with humble and honest spirituality.  Churches still distrust prophets until the rest of society has decided to honor them; at that point the church may (or may not) follow along.  That’s not a very inspiring performance.

So forgive me if I don’t see your point when you tell me that people don’t go to church now because we worshiped the wrong way when they were kids.  The problem was, we weren’t really worshiping at all.

 

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February 22, 2016

The Wide and Narrow Doors

Filed under: Uncategorized — davebritt @ 3:59 am

In our lifetimes, the Church has gone through a great deal of change and trouble.  The older you are, the more you can testify to that.  Actually, if you read the New Testament much at all, passages such as the ones we have today (Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:23-35) will probably convince you that the church was born in troubled times.  The specific troubles have changed through the centuries, but if you read much church history, you’ll be hard pressed to find a time when the church wasn’t going through some sort of crisis.

I was born in 1955, the year when church attendance in the United States reached a peak at 49 percent of the American public telling George Gallup that they attended church in the same week he asked the question.  Not just some of the time, but half of the United States population had been in church that week.  Some people even said that you had to be a churchgoer in order to be a good American, though of course not everyone felt that way.

However, church attendance began to decline as soon as it had peaked.  It was gradual at first.  By 1966, the percentage was down to 44 percent.  Fast forward to 2013 and the Gallup organization reported polls showing weekly church attendance down to 37 percent.  A different poll found that by 2010, only 30 percent of Americans said they attended church weekly, while many more – 43 percent – said they attended church rarely or never.

Back when I was born, church leaders must have felt on top of the world.  The economy was great, unemployment was low, and people were building new homes in new suburban neighborhoods that were rising up out of cotton fields and cow pastures.  New churches were being planted in all those neighborhoods, and large, modern sanctuaries were built to hold hundreds of people.  The fifties were a time of great optimism in the church.

How quickly things can change.  By the time I turned ten in the 1960s, church leaders had started using the word ‘crisis’ to describe what was happening.  In 1969, a sociologist named Jeffrey Hadden published a book entitled The Gathering Storm in the Churches: A Sociologist Looks at the Widening Gap Between Clergy and Laymen.  Hadden made the case that the church in America was becoming irrelevant, in part because it hadn’t been very prophetic.  In fact, it was doing the opposite of being prophetic: the American church had come to embody and defend the status quo in American culture, not challenge it.

Hadden laid out three kinds of crisis that had come to challenge the American church.  The first crisis was over the very purpose and nature of the church.  A number of clergy in the sixties had gotten involved with the civil rights movement.  It isn’t hard to find Biblical support for justice and equality, and seminary studies seemed to open a lot of pastoral eyes.  They interpreted the Bible to mean that the American institutions of slavery and then racial segregation hadn’t represented the gospel of Christ very well.  But a lot of lay leaders didn’t agree, and in church after church they withheld donations or voted out the pastors who preached on civil rights or other ‘social issues.’  This conflict opened up a rift in nearly every denomination that led many to question the moral integrity of the church.

In 1965, the Anglican Church of Canada was looking for a fresh approach to its Lenten study series.  The series had gotten pretty stale, and very few people bothered to read it.  The decision was made to ask Pierre Berton, a well-known Canadian journalist, to write a study guide for them even though Mr. Berton was not an Anglican or even particularly a churchgoer.  He was a “name,” as we would say today.  It was a bold step.  Mr. Berton came back with a challenging book entitled The Comfortable Pew.  The book succeeded in one sense beyond all expectations; within six months it had outsold every other book ever published in Canada.

But the book was a bombshell in another sense.  It said that Anglicans and all other Christians had simply ceased to matter in the modern world.  Berton declared that the voice of the church had become “weak, tardy, equivocal, and irrelevant… The Church to its opponents has become a straw man, scarcely worth a bullet.”

Berton pointed out that the church had failed to take any strong prophetic stands until after the rest of society had already taken them and moved on:

“It has all but been forgotten that Christianity began as a revolutionary religion whose followers embraced an entirely different set of values from those held by other members of society.  Those original values are still in conflict with the values of contemporary society; yet religion today has become as conservative a force as the original Christians were in conflict with.”  (The Comfortable Pew, p. 80)

So much for the first crisis.  Jeff Hadden described the second crisis of the church as a crisis of belief.  In 1963 an Anglican bishop named John A. T. Robinson published a little book called Honest to God.  We don’t hear much about it anymore, but like The Comfortable Pew it became an immediate best seller.  It set off a firestorm by claiming that the image of God held by the typical churchgoer was a bad or just outdated image.  He tried to translate the academic work of contemporary theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich for the masses, who of course don’t often read many serious theology books.

But the masses fought back!  Many of them couldn’t separate their traditional image of God from the worship of God himself, so they thought that Bishop Robinson was saying that God didn’t exist.  C. S. Lewis thought the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot; he said that most people “had long abandoned the belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven.  We call that belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time.”  But the controversy lived on and even expanded.

The crisis of belief had many sources other than Bishop Robinson’s book, but it led to tremendous conflicts within religious bodies that continue into our day.  The seminary I attended – and the Louisiana College that some of you attended – were both forever changed by the reaction to that conflict, and not for the better.

Hadden’s third crisis was a crisis of authority.  Churches are voluntary associations, meaning that people choose whether or not to attend.  If they don’t like a particular pastor or lay leader, they are free to go to another church or to go nowhere at all.  I remember my mother once saying that in her day, meaning the 1940s, if the pastor of a church like First Baptist Dallas said something, it never occurred to her to question it.  By the time I was a teenager, that wasn’t so much the case.  I remember being disappointed in a young assistant pastor who told my mother that the Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson, was sacrilegious.  I told Mom that, to the contrary, I thought Jesus would appreciate the song’s message, which wasn’t anti-God as much as it skewered the hypocrisy of modern religion.  The sixties were a tough time for pastors who expected their authority to be respected.

Much of American religion in the mid-twentieth century assumed that everyone ought to go to church.  It wasn’t just a religious duty; it was a civic duty.  American neighborhoods were supposed to have at least one neighborhood church.  If you didn’t go to church every week, and many of course didn’t, then at least you were supposed to be a member somewhere.

All this leads us back to a basic question: do we really expect everybody to be a full-fledged person of authentic faith?  Is being a Christian really so easy that everyone not only can do it, but will want to do it?

Jesus didn’t seem to think so.  In our passage from Luke today, some unnamed person has obviously been disturbed by what Jesus teaches.  He asks Jesus, “Lord, are you telling me that only a few will be saved?”  You can imagine the unspoken “Surely not!”  It sounded as though entering the kingdom could be a challenge.  Here’s what Jesus said:

13:24 Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able…

13:29 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 

13:30 Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” 

Jesus made the kingdom of God sound important, but he never made it sound easy.  He never seemed to assume that everyone in the country would find it convenient or take it for granted.  In fact, Jesus warned his fellow Israelites not to assume they were ‘safe’ with respect to God just because they were Israelites.  In the same way, many people in our country today assume that they are ‘safe’ or ‘correct’ because they’re Americans, or because they belong to God’s favorite church.

But Jesus repeats in verse 29 something of what almost got him killed in his hometown synagogue (see Luke 4): people from outside of Israel – east and west, north and south – will ‘eat in the kingdom of God.’  Those whom we think of as last will end up being first in the kingdom, and those who think of themselves as first, will find that God has put them last.

Jesus went so far as to say that Jerusalem, the capital city, was already far gone away from the kingdom.  Most people back then called Jerusalem the “city of God” because it was the political center of Israel as well as the religious center.  Jerusalem had the one and only Temple, a fantastic edifice where Jews came from all over the world to worship.  Jesus shocked his listeners when he said that Jerusalem wasn’t what they thought.  Jesus labelled Jerusalem as the place that killed God’s prophets, the place that rejected the son of God.

We need to be very careful not to repeat the mistakes Jesus warned Israel about so long ago.  Jesus honored the prophets, those bold men and women who pointed out where their country failed to provide justice and a decent life for the poor.  Prophets denounced rich people who enjoyed luxury when others had no food.  Prophets said things like “Do justice and love mercy.”  They focused their warnings on their own country’s leaders because they cared more about the kingdom of God than any kingdom of men – even their own.

Jesus warned us not to trust to our institutions to protect our spirituality.  He warned us that human institutions, even religious ones, can be just as likely to threaten authentic faith as to promote it.  It’s dangerous to assume that because we belong to the right church or the right country, God is happy with us.

The challenge for us who would follow Jesus today is to do so honestly, with integrity.  Simply going along with what our religious friends and family think is no guarantee that we opened ourselves to follow the Christ who sacrificed all for us.  As someone said long ago, it’s possible to be sincere and sincerely mistaken at the same time.

So what are we to do?  Perhaps the first thing is to stop looking to our culture or our institutions to do our spiritual work for us.  That’s the wide door that most people use.  It’s important for us to take the narrow door, to meet God ourselves and not rely on someone else’s report about him.  We look to the God who created our world and then placed us in it, the God of love who calls us to follow in loving even ‘the least of these,’ the God of justice who cares about widows and orphans and the poor.  Especially in this political season, that’s the road less traveled.

The good news is that this God of love and justice and creation cares about us and is available to us.  We cannot achieve our own salvation; our job is to empty ourselves and open ourselves to his presence.  If we follow that divine presence in our lives, we will find ourselves caring about different things than others do.  We may find ourselves bored by the things everyone else finds exciting.  But we will find joy in the following, joy in the praying, joy in just being who we were created to be.

I’ve often thought that the church of my youth had gotten off on the wrong track.  Back then we spent a lot of time developing our intellects for God.  That’s not a bad thing; I’m for it.  But intellect isn’t the core business of the church.  Living out the kingdom of God is.  That takes faith, humility, and openness to God’s presence.  Intellect helps, but you can be as dumb as a box of hammers and still live out the kingdom.  The last shall be first.  The first shall be last.

I’m encouraged that the church in some quarters has begun to take a contemplative course.  It’s about becoming aware of God’s presence in our world.  It’s not about achievement or authority or orthodoxy; it’s about love and service.  Really.  It’s about learning to listen and pray in silence.  It’s about emptying ourselves and allowing God to fill and transform us.  It’s about a lifelong journey of prayer and faith.

The door is not narrow because it’s hard.  It’s narrow because most people won’t want it.  And no institutional system will make it any wider or more popular.  The challenge is whether we live it and learn to love it.

Let’s pray together now:

God of our hearts, we confess in this Lenten season that we often seek to take the easy road,

  the road with fewer stones and bumps, the road where everyone seems to be on autopilot. 

Help us to remember our ultimate goal: to know you, and in knowing you, to know ourselves.

When we feel at odds with our world, help us remember that the world has rejected you.

Forgive us our lack of courage. 

Help us to pray. 

Amen. 

 

August 3, 2007

Sunday School Teachers and Philanthropy

Filed under: Philanthropy — davebritt @ 6:50 pm

     Remember Mark Twain’s gem about Tom Sawyer and the Sunday School superintendent?  Tom traded fishhooks and licorice for a fistful of blue, yellow, and red tickets, which together alleged Tom’s mastery of two thousand Bible verses.  The superintendent, startled but on the spot in front of visiting celebrity, awarded Tom a new Bible and no small glory in recognition of his “achievement.”  Unfortunately, Tom proceeded to demonstrate the quality of his work by naming the first two disciples as “David and Goliath! 

     Twain loved to lampoon pompous windbags, and God knows that Sunday Schools have harbored more than a few.  I’d like to take a moment, however, to praise the good ones, and I have specific reasons that have nothing to do with theology. 

     Research shows that a good Sunday School teacher is an exceptionally valuable commodity.  He or she can do at least two very constructive things for children.  It turns out that one hour or more of religious study per week correlates positively with academic and emotional success in children.  Right there, a good Sunday School teacher is worth a lot, regardless of your denominational leanings.  If you count yourself among their ranks, I hope your chest is beginning to swell with a permissible degree of pride. 

     Research also shows that a good Sunday School teacher does at least one other good thing for kids, though this one isn’t limited to teachers: they can use their time to care.  When children can name at least three adults other than their parents who genuinely care for them, they tend to succeed much more readily in school and in life than kids who lack such adults in their lives.  Those adults can be neighbors, aunts, uncles, Scout leaders, or any adult who has the child’s best interests at heart. 

     How do I know this?  The Search Institute in Minneapolis has spent years pulling together a great deal of research that shows how children succeed.  They’ve come up with forty developmental ‘assets’ that all children need in order to thrive.  Half are things that the community must provide, meaning the family, the school, the church, or the neighborhood.  The other half are values and habits that children must develop for themselves, such as achievement motivation, integrity, cultural competence, and a sense of purpose.  You can download a summary of the Forty Assets at your United Way of Central Louisiana website, www.uwcl.org. 

     As with most research, some of the findings are entirely predictable.  What’s the number one most important asset a child can have?  It’s a loving family, of course.  That correlates more with child success than any other single asset. 

     The great tragedy of our children’s lives, however, is the research revealing that most children in the U.S. get fewer than half the assets they need to succeed.  Children who fail in life affect all of us.  A child who fails to grow up successfully becomes the surly store clerk, the incompetent mechanic, or the destructive supervisor.  You and I need every child in central Louisiana to succeed, whether or not we have children of our own. 

     Children need dependable grownups who are there for them consistently.  It matters how much time we spend with them.  It matters whether children see us smiling or shouting, reading or scolding.  It doesn’t matter nearly so much what you know or whether you have all the answers to childhood questions. 

     A caring Sunday School teacher matters.  Regular schoolteachers, shopkeepers and neighbors ~ how we relate to each other’s children matters. 

     Whatever your profession, however you spend your time off, do yourself and the rest of us a favor.  Find a child and spend a few years convincing that child that you care.  Be honest.  Be kind.  But be there. 

     Just watch out for the yellow tickets. 

June 29, 2007

Change Happens

Filed under: Uncategorized — davebritt @ 8:51 pm

Here’s a link to a five-minute video about the increasing rate of change in our world.  It will blow your mind. 

http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/video/shifthappens

May 10, 2007

Compassion by the Numbers

Filed under: Philanthropy — davebritt @ 1:44 pm

Once again, Nicholas Kristof has found hard numbers to back up what old hands sort of knew: people don’t get motivated to help other people by statistics.  In rigorous research, people were much more likely to give money to a single person ~ preferably a child ~ than to wrestle with the implications of systemic poverty.  Put that way, it’s not surprising. 

He points out that many of us in “the biz”, however, work hard to develop numbers in order to make a case for giving.  And there are those funders like United Way and foundations that do insist on having a persuasive case to give.  (My point, not Nick’s.)

But most individuals are hard-wired to respond to individual cases, not to global issues.  So people who refuse to give to United Way at the office will dump their change into the jar at the cash register with a picture of a little girl and the words “Please Help!” 

Someone, of course, including people like Kristof, has to put the numbers together.  Someone has to understand the big picture and figure out how to move the rest of us to action.  But we have to be able to speak at least two languages ~ the abstract and the concrete. 

March 30, 2007

Savings for the Poor

Filed under: Philanthropy — davebritt @ 3:14 pm

There’s an interesting article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, entitled “Can Poor People Be Taught To Save?”  I admit, my first reaction was a bit negative.  I’ve caught myself too many times making condescending assumptions about ‘the poor.’  But the article provides good food for thought. 

As a middle-aged, would-be do-gooder, I’m struck by the creative ways that people are finding today to make a real difference in people’s lives, as opposed to simply starting up a new agency or a new program.  A lot of them are focusing on giving people a financial hand up so that they can stay their on their own. 

In the early 1980s, an Indian friend named Mohandas Mohanty asked me to serve on the board of an orphanage he was planning to start back in India, after he finished seminary.  I agreed, as did a dozen or so others.  We had the best of intentions, but at that time it was unbelievably difficult for a group such as ours to get financial or in-kind support to the orphanage.  I remember one box of supplies came back to me fully two years after I mailed it, looking for all the world as though an elephant had stepped on it before the Indian postman sent it back.  

The effort failed.  The logistics were just too difficult.  I finally lost touch with Mohanty and his wife Bulbul somewhere along the way.   

Today I can microfinance a bakery while drinking coffee in my pajamas.  Science fiction stuff only yesterday.  Let’s see what we can do with the new options at our disposal. 

March 27, 2007

Everyday Philanthropy

Filed under: Philanthropy — davebritt @ 1:26 pm

Nonprofits today are undergoing a sea change.  People are figuring out new ways of doing things to make real differences, rather than simply supporting organizations.   

Today’s column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times tells of an exciting use of technology that allows average folks in the U.S., and I include myself in that category, to assist people around the world.  It’s a website that allows me to lend $25, if I want to, to a baker in Afghanistan so he can expand to a second shop.  

Here’s Kristof’s column ~ I couldn’t figure out which parts to leave out:

You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor

KABUL, Afghanistan

For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier.

That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through www.kiva.org, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.

So on my arrival here in Afghanistan, I visited my new business partners to see how they were doing.

On a muddy street in Kabul, Abdul Satar, a bushy-bearded man of 64, was sitting in the window of his bakery selling loaves for 12 cents each. He was astonished when I introduced myself as his banker, but he allowed me to analyze his business plan by sampling his bread: It was delicious.

Mr. Abdul Satar had borrowed a total of $425 from a variety of lenders on Kiva.org, who besides me included Nathan in San Francisco, David in Rochester, N.Y., Sarah in Waltham, Mass., Nate in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cindy in Houston, and “Emily’s family” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With the loan, Mr. Abdul Satar opened a second bakery nearby, with four employees, and he now benefits from economies of scale when he buys flour and firewood for his oven. “If you come back in 10 years, maybe I will have six more bakeries,” he said.

Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women. She ended up working for Mercy Corps and becoming a first-rate financier; some day she may take over Citigroup.

“Being a finance person is better than being a doctor,” Ms. Sadat said. “You can cure the whole family, not just one person. And it’s good medicine — you can see them get better day by day.”

Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his pioneering work with microfinance in Bangladesh.

In poor countries, commercial money lenders routinely charge interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Thus people tend to borrow for health emergencies rather than to finance a new business. And partly because poor people tend to have no access to banks, they also often can’t save money securely.

Microfinance institutions typically focusing on lending to women, to give them more status and more opportunities. Ms. Sadat’s group does lend mostly to women, but it’s been difficult to connect some female borrowers with donors on Kiva — because many Afghans would be horrified at the thought of taking a woman’s photograph, let alone posting on the Internet.

My other partner in Kabul is Abdul Saboor, who runs a small TV repair business. He used the loan to open a second shop, employing two people, and to increase his inventory of spare parts. “I used to have to go to the market every day to buy parts,” he said, adding that it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. “Now I go once every two weeks.”

Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between. Another terrific Web site in this area is www.globalgiving.com, which connects donors to would-be recipients. The main difference is that GlobalGiving is for donations, while Kiva is for loans.

A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost.

“I believe the real solutions to poverty alleviation hinge on bringing capitalism and business to areas where there wasn’t business or where it wasn’t efficient,” Mr. Flannery said. He added: “This doesn’t have to be charity. You can partner with someone who’s halfway around the world.”

Kristof is a great columnist to follow for those who are interested in making the world a better place, everyday. 

March 22, 2007

Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — davebritt @ 3:08 am

Some younger friends have inspired me by starting an intelligent dialogue on creating a better world in central Louisiana.  Two of them are actually in Tibet at the moment, but that just goes to show that Central Louisiana is important all over the world.  We’ll see whether I have anything to contribute to the conversation.  Stay tuned as I bring my blogging skills slowly up to date. 

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