Wednesday, January 14, 2015

16 Months of Experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

Leslie/Todd:  So much for keeping this blog current!  It's been a remarkable 16 months - super typhoons, new partners, new office, and around the world in 80 days a few times over.  Our 2014 theme was "Go. Extend the Kingdom." and that we have tried to do by remaining sensitive to the Holy Spirit's leading.  As we have tried to extend the kingdom, we have experienced a lot of it as well.

The word "kingdom" is used a lot by followers of Christ.  We've worked with our volunteers and partners and friends to try to come up with a decent definition, and here's where we currently are...

The kingdom is a time and place where Jesus reigns, and as a result...
  • We honor and worship Him.
  • We live with sufficiency and dignity and in right relationship with each other and creation.
  • We have access to power to overcome forces of evil.
  • We experience the truly abundant life.
  • We joyfully extend this kingdom to others.
Perhaps when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth, He had in mind something like this.

These are unsettling days in our world.  Children are being used as suicide bombers, new undetectable bombs pose a risk to airplane travel, and the person you stand next to on the subway could have just returned from training for some special mission.  Yet in the midst of these days, I can honestly say we have been experiencing aspects of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

There are at least three dimensions to experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth - the material, social, and spiritual.

For virtually all of us in North America, we experience the material aspects of the kingdom of heaven on earth every day.  We read about heavenly mansions - if Jesus were to walk in to our apartments or homes, He would likely see them as such.  We read about heavenly banquets - if Jesus were to open our refrigerators, He would likely see them as such.  We have access to healthcare that allows us to recover from ailments that have killed people for centuries.  We have much to thank God for in allowing us to experience the material aspect of the kingdom of heaven and to so easily be able to extend it to others.

Our material wealth sometimes leads to social and spiritual poverty - we don't think we need each other or God.  It doesn't have to be that way.  We have a wonderful global discipling community of PEER Servants volunteers and we are so blessed by the fellowship we have with each other across many lines - socioeconomic, racial, national, ethnic, denominational, age, and much, much more.  We also have God's Word, His Spirit, and constant reminders from God's provision and watching God's people of what an amazing God we have, and we cannot help but worship Him.

So these have been 16 months of tremendous blessing amidst huge challenges and at times difficult circumstances.  One of the many lessons we have learned from our brothers and sisters around the world is that one can still experience the kingdom of heaven on earth despite difficult circumstances.  The much bigger threat to experiencing such a blessed life is when we put our will and our interests first, before God's will and interests.

May God enable each of us to seek His kingdom first and as a result to experience life as He envisioned it for us and for others to whom we can extend that kingdom.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What a Summer!

Leslie/Todd:  As we head into the fall and already start to see the hint of color in the trees, we cannot help but look back and praise God for an amazing Summer of 2013!  We have tried to capture the summer in this 3x3 collage...

Starting upper left...

  • Box 1 - We kicked off the summer with our June 1 Boston Walk for Economic Empowerment.  It was a beautiful day and through it we have already raise over $30,000, 100% of which will go to extend more of the kingdom to the materially poor.  We love days like that!  It was a family affair, and for the third year in a row, our 6-year old grandson Joshua raised over $1,000.  He'd actually still like to get to $1,500+ - click here if you'd like to help him get there!  (Thank you!)
  • Box 2 - Days after the Boston Walk found Todd with a small PEER Servants team in the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa.  Our primary purpose of this trip as to provide consulting to Aloga, our South African microfinance partner, as they merge with another South African Christian MFI.  The merger has gone well and will allow Aloga to better serve the materially poor, like these clients "The Women of Integrity", a small cooperative of seamstresses Aloga helped form and support so that they could grow more effectively together.
  • Box 3 - From South Africa, Todd headed to Zambia's Western Province to work with CEMFIN, our Zambian microfinance partner.  Joined by a Charlotte-based PEER Servants volunteer, we had very encouraging meetings with CEMFIN that significantly strengthened their board, shown here, and put in place much stronger governance that will allow CEMFIN to grow and serve more of the materially poor.
  • Box 4 - The final stop of the June/July 24-day Africa trip was the very northwestern corner of Uganda - Arua to be exact.  Todd was joined here by 6 other PEER Servants volunteers as they served and were blessed by CAFECC, our Ugandan partner, in many ways.  It's at CAFECC that we have "Group to Group", a program that liaises groups of Uganda microfinance clients with peer groups in the United States to get to know other other better, pray for each other, and even get to meet each other, as happened here.  The Northern Ugandan people are some of the most hospitable on the planet and we learned so much from them of what it means to follow Jesus.
  • Middle Box 5 - A week back in Boston was followed by a 9-day mid-July trip to Sri Lanka for Todd.  Here we focused on risk management training for the staff of YGRO-HEED, our Sri Lankan microfinance partner.  YGRO-HEED has a fantastic, very dedicated staff that has allowed this partner to grow to 5 branches serving over 1,300 clients amidst tsunami, civil war, and more.  It is always a great blessing to be among them.
  • Box 6 - The end of July found the PEER Servants family at the home of our Board Chair, Dave Ryder, and his wife, Betsy, enjoying our Annual Volunteer Appreciation Party.  We had a beautiful day, a great turnout, and a relaxing venue to say "thank you" to these super-inspiring, very dedicated PEER Servants volunteers who are so effectively experiencing and extending more of the kingdom of heaven to earth.
  • Box 7 - Early August found PEER Servants hosting the Annual Lydia Awards Celebration where Richard Candia, pictured here, and served by CAFECC/Uganda, received top honors.  Richard has started a cassava processing business (cassava is a staple food in the area) and, through it, employed over 10 women in his area.  He is now able to significantly increase his support to his church and the local youth program.  Our Lydia Awards Celebration may be our favorite night of the year in PEER Servants - this year's was probably our best event yet!
  • Box 8 - The morning after the Lydia Awards Celebration, Les and Todd were on a 6:30 am flight to Washington, DC to meet with the folks from CCT, our microfinance partner in the Philippines.  We were joined by many other North American organizations also supporting them for an Annual Forum wherein CCT CEO and Founder, Ate Ruth Callanta, gave us an update on where God is leading CCT.  Attending organizations also discussed how we can best collaborate to support CCT in their amazing work that is extending the kingdom to the poorest of the poor in the Philippines.
  • Box 9 - The morning after returning from Washington, DC, Todd headed to Cusco, Peru to work with Australian filmmakers as they created promotional videos for Kallarisunchis, our Peruvian microfinance partner.   Kallarisunchis is expanding beyond Cusco to better serve the rural indigenous populations, so Todd had the advetnure of going to some of the Andean mountain peaks in filming some of the Quechua clients involved in potato and avocado farming.  Australian filmmakers Tim and Kate Robinson volunteered their services and were wonderful to work with.  We can't wait to see the finished product!
While Todd traversed three continents, Les held down the fort at home and in the PEER Servants office.  It was a simply amazing summer as we got to see so much of what God is doing to extend His kingdom through our microfinance partners and their clients.  Thank you for partnering with us to make possible the business of extending a bit more of heaven to earth.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Soaring with the Super Eagles

Leslie/Todd:  We returned a couple weeks back from Nigeria, one of our favorite places to visit!  Our Nigerian brothers and sisters in Christ are nothing short of amazing.  They live in turbulent times with ongoing Muslim-Christian conflict, yet they are so quick to love as Jesus loved and beautifully bold in their Christian witness.  We have so much to learn from them!

Todd with Reverend Panya Baba, the person who introduced Leslie and Todd, and one who has discipled both of them in more of what it means to follow Jesus.  Reverend Baba's wife brought Todd his favorite Nigerian snack.
We were pleased to see a semblance of peace return to Nigeria's Plateau.  In our previous visit, hundreds had been killed just days before our arrival and hundreds more were killed days after our arrival.  We were on a 6 pm to 6 am curfew then.  People were quite tense.  There remain smaller skirmishes to this day where a person or two are killed here or there, but in general, peace has returned for a season on the Plateau.  The peaceful Nigeria we had known for decades was back, and so beautiful.

Except for one night.  You see, if there is one thing than can bring peace to all of Nigeria other than Jesus, it's football, or soccer as we call it in these parts.  And while we were there, a great thing happened.  Nigeria's football team, the Super Eagles, won the Africa Cup of Nations - Africa's football championship.  As the 95th minute of their championship match with Burkina Faso ticked away and the Super Eagles claimed their victory, all of Nigeria broke out in celebration.  We didn't mind saying goodbye to peace for a night.

We need to be praying for our Nigerian microfinance partner.  This trip focused on discussing with them the way forward in the midst of these turbulent times.  Their microfinance program has been hit hard as markets have been burned down and many put out of business.  Management and governance of the program suffers in times like this.  What was once the strongest of our African microfinance partners was really struggling.  They have great resolve to turn things around.  Let's pray that they can do that, because there has never been a time when Nigeria needs a strong Christian microfinance program like now.

Les with members of a fantastic Nigerian organization doing urban ministry.
As you might suspect, in Nigeria Todd is "Mr. Leslie".  Les lived almost 17 years in Nigeria, so our visit was packed with visits from people we love dearly - those whom Les raised as literal babes are now taking their university exams.  Les has maintained ties with an urban ministry in Nigeria and they had some great meetings  while we were there.  We even found time to make some new Nigerian friends, and we can see how God may use their ties to further extend His kingdom from heaven to earth in the years ahead.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's More Fun in the Kingdom!

Leslie/Todd:  It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but sometimes we can be so dull!  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to understanding truth from the Scriptures.  Our cultural bias and worldview significantly impacts and limits what we pick up on as key themes or what we dismiss as"surely that can't be!".

That has been the case with us when it comes to "the kingdom".  We certainly were familiar with the term, especially as it is used in the Gospels, but we often relegated it to heaven.  It was just something to come, and if we "believed" in Jesus (where that belief was never associated with works, because we held firmly that salvation is not by works), then someday we could extend our lives from earth to heaven.  Given our conviction, we hoped others would see the light as well and be saved.

As we have re-read the Gospels, we're convinced that is really shortchanging what Jesus meant by the kingdom.  Jesus Himself prayed "your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven".  I would go so far to suggest that was Jesus' Vision Statement.  Jesus talked about the kingdom being near, within, among, and to come.  So, Jesus seemed to be much more concerned with extending the kingdom of heaven to earth than just extending my life and a few others from earth to heaven.  Certainly extending the kingdom of heaven to earth starts with understanding who the King of the Kingdom is - it's Jesus Himself.  And as Jesus stated to Nicodemus in John 3, we need to be born anew or born again to see and enter the kingdom.  But we need to go much further than that if we are to experience the kingdom and extend it to others.

Imagine just how great the kingdom of heaven must be, and then imagine this King has entrusted you and me to join the Holy Spirit in the work of extending His kingdom to earth.  That's a HUGE calling!  It requires you and me to wake up every day and ask "what can we do to extend the kingdom from heaven to earth today?".  It's such a huge calling that I can now better understand why Jesus instructed us to go make disciples - not just believers.  You see, it's far too tempting for believers to be so focused on just getting to heaven that they really aren't too concerned on how they live their lives up to that time.  Meanwhile, disciples, at least the kind Jesus said He wanted, would appreciate that they have to give up everything, deny themselves, and take up their crosses daily to usher in this kind of kingdom.  They understand Jesus' teachings warning about how greed and money in particular could pose some of the greatest threats to experiencing the kingdom (Jesus said it will be very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom) and extending that kingdom to others.  They would appreciate how huge the task is, how short their lives are likely to be, and how critical it would be to put their hands to the plow to make way for the kingdom of heaven on earth.  They would be a people set apart, a people who realize their real citizenship is in heaven and they are here as ambassadors. They would also appreciate how focusing one's life on such may someday lead to hearing "well done" from the King of this kingdom.

Who, in addition to the Holy Spirit, has God used to open our eyes to the Scripture's teaching on the kingdom?  The staff, board, and clients of our microfinance partners from around the world. Inspired by an excellent ad campaign from the Philippines Tourism Board entitled "It's More Fun in the Philippines" (click here for their < 3 minute video, but be forewarned that you will want to hop on the next plane to Manila!), we have adopted a 2013 theme in PEER Servants of "It's More Fun in the Kingdom.  Experience It. Extend It."  You'll be hearing more about it in the months to come.

Imagine YOU can experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Something tells me once you experience something like that, you will be most eager to extend it to others.  As Jesus prayed, may it be so.

A final note since it has been 6+ months since our last entry - the latter half of 2012 was fantastic!  We were with teams in Moldova, Zambia, and the Philippines.  We are witnessing transformation in the lives of thousands of the materially poor and dozens of our volunteers.  We remain in awe of the place God has put us to get to see His Kingdom being extended to earth.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Uganda Makes it Two in Row!

Leslie/Todd:  June brought our Annual Lydia Awards Celebration - our opportunity to celebrate the microentrepreneurs served by our partners who are blessing others while they are being blessed.  It was an unusual year - of the 170,000 clients served by our ten microfinance partners, the three Lydia Award finalists were all men!  We have been doing these Awards almost annually since 2004, and that has never happened before.  Given that 70%+ of the clients served by most of our microfinance partners are women, it's quite a feat for the men this year!

The three finalists are pictured to the left - Nicolae, a custom furniture manufacturer from Moldova; Alex, a construction supplier from Northern Uganda; and George, a chicken breeder/retailer from Northern Sri Lanka.  After a Committee reviewed their applications, almost 400 people voted online, and the final votes came in at the Annual Lydia Awards Celebration, Alex from Northern Uganda was selected as the 2012 Lydia Award winner.  He is very deserving -- starting with a loan of just over $100 for some cement, he built a construction supply business that now has three branches and employs over 10 people.  He and his workers have helped construct and repair roads at no cost when the government was incapable of doing so.  He has used the growing profits from his business to support his church and fund a Christian daycare for 30+ children in a predominantly Muslim area.  We congratulate not only Alex, but CAFECC, our Northern Ugandan partner that has so effectively served Alex.  It is CAFECC's second Lydia Award winner in a row -- they are gearing up for a three-peat in 2013!  Click here to check out a 5-minute video on this impressive organization.

These three Lydia Award finalists may need to learn to smile when their picture is taken, but they have something to teach us about giving to support the extension of God's kingdom.  They, like Lydia of Acts 16, are using what God has given them to bless others.  God used Lydia to start the church in Europe -- just imagine what He may choose to do through these three inspiring men.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hosting the Inaugural CCT KN Annual Forum

Some of the CCT KN Annual Forum Attendees (and family!)
Todd:  May's highlight?  Hosting the inaugural CCT KN Annual Forum.  You probably know by now that CCT is The Center for Community Transformation, our Filipino microfinance partner.   For the past two years, we hosted a forum for them to come and present to their US-based partners.  Last year, these organizations decided to more formalize their collaborative efforts to support CCT, so the CCT Ka-Partner Network (and thus, CCT KN) was formed.  It is the group of North American-based organizations supporting CCT in their great work of extending the kingdom.  Founding members in the CCT KN include, HOPE International, and Five Talents.

Six people came to the CCT KN Annual Forum representing CCT, including three board members and three senior managers.  While most of our time was spent in meetings getting the latest updates from CCT and discussing ways we could partner together as CCT KN members to better serve the implementing partner, we also had some time for fellowship and relationship building.  Perhaps the two highlights were walking the campus of Harvard Business School with CCT Board Member Professor Quintin Tan, a HBS alum of some forty plus years ago, and enjoying a whale watch where a pod of seven humpback whales entertained us for the better part of an hour as we watched them consume lunch.  It was a rich time together -- encouraging CCT in their work, discussing ways we could collaborate better as Christian international development agencies, and enjoying the fellowship that comes from following Jesus together.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Winter/Spring 2012 Travel

Todd:  After a nice time together with family over the Christmas holidays, the significant Fall 2011 travel extended into Winter/Spring 2012, with travel to Haiti, India/Sri Lanka, South Africa/Zambia, and the Philippines.  Fortunately this time it wasn't trying to scrunch 6 countries into 6 weeks!

ACLAM/Haiti Staff with PEER Servants Volunteers
January is a great month to visit Haiti if you're from Boston, although this winter, even Boston didn't have much of a winter.  We had a great team of PEER Servants Team Haiti volunteers -- Elie Lafortune, Barb Crossman, and Marie Williams -- join me to co-host ACLAM/Haiti's Strategic Planning Staff Retreat.  It was our first time ever being with the entire ACLAM staff - all 35+ of them.  We were very impressed with their level of experience, dedication, and vision for empowering the materially poor of Haiti.  This is especially true of Christon Domond, the ACLAM/Haiti Executive Director, who has been leading the organization for well over 20 years.  We gathered a lot of very good information at the Retreat that will allow us to work with ACLAM in the writing of their Five Year Strategic Plan over the coming months.  They would like to become the leading Christian MFI in Haiti and to get there not so much on their own but by working closely with and serving other Christian MFIs so that they can complement more than compete with each other.  It's a great vision, and we look forward to working with them to pursue it.

CSS Clients on the outskirts of Kolkata, India
February included a fantastic trip to India and Sri Lanka with PEER Servants Board Chair, Dave Ryder, his daughter, Patty, Dave Leach, and Team Sri Lanka members Ramesh and Sheba Telore.  It was my first visit to Christian Service Society (CSS) in India after our decision to partner with them in January 2011.  We were so impressed with the work they are doing -- starting with very small loans, often less than $25, in predominantly Hindu and Muslim villages on the outskirts of Kolkata (Calcutta).  It is certainly a challenging area to do this kind of work, but they are doing it faithfully.  CSS serves almost 20,000 clients in the area, and from their microfinance work they are able to generate surplus that can be used to fund a boys home and a girls home for over 75 children.  They do animal husbandry work and much more.  Himadri Munshi, CSS Executive Director, is certainly one of my disciplers.  He lives very simply, all in an effort to channel as many resources as possible to extend more of the kingdom to the materially poor.  He is a great example for many of us in the West.  Dave Leach assisted CSS with some of their MIS work and then we were off to Sri Lanka for a week with YGRO-HEED, our partner for more than 10 years.  We joined them in celebrating their having become operationally sustainable and serving more than 1,000 active clients (over 5,000 since inception) -- pretty amazing accomplishments given the tsunami, civil war, challenging government environment, record floods, and more.  YGRO-HEED has a fantastic staff and they are really establishing an exemplary Christian MFI in Sri Lanka.

The CEMFIN/Zambia staff and local advisory board
The travel in March was to was to Western Zambia, with a quick stopover in South Africa.  The time in Zambia was spent training the CEMFIN staff and local advisory board to be ready to make their first loans in May.  They have a great team and I know the Lord will use them to empower the people of Western Province in Zambia -- one of the materially poorest areas in the country.  Leading the CEMFIN team is pastor Alick Kalonga -- he has been working tirelessly for many years to bring CEMFIN to where it is today, so the fact that they are weeks away from making their first loans is quite the buzz on the main street of Mongu!  Joining me on the trip was PEER Servants Team Zambia member Ken Lloyd.  Ken and his wife, Phyllis, were SIM missionaries in Zambia and exemplary ones at that - very much loved by the Zambian people given their humble and engaging posture.  I really enjoyed traveling with Ken.

Sri Lankans, South Africans, Ugandans, and Americans learning from Filipinos

The last trip of the Spring was back to CCT in the Philippines for a phenomenal training module on establishing and multiplying healthy microfinance branches.  Our partners from Sri Lanka, Uganda and South Africa joined us for this very practical training, and once again, CCT excelled at offering it.  CCT has 140 branches around the Philippines, and these other partners are just starting to establish their branches (none had more than 5 branches).  CCT showed them how to create a branch viability model (determining what it takes in financial and human resources to start a new branch), how to establish appropriate internal controls, how to disciple staff at a distance, and so much more.  We were further blessed when CCT decided to add to our numbers their new branch managers.  Having them as students right along with the others made for a great learning experience.  Three PEER Servants Team Uganda volunteers also joined in on the trip - Richard Kinyua, Canga Kamwambe, and Jake Mahon.  We all left the Philippines eager to return to our different parts of the world and apply what we learned -- not just the nuts and bolts of branch expansion, but such effective ways to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed.

The last day of the Philippines trip was the first day in May -- and no international travel on the horizon until August!  It will be nice to spend much of the summer in Boston and catch up on many PEER Servants and family-related issues.  Speaking of family, we were so blessed by one of our very close friends who made a family vacation to Hawaii (her residence) possible on my way to the Philippines.  It was the best family vacation we have ever had - Les, Ayak, Joshua, Berni (Les's mom), and I had a once-in-a-lifetime vacation together as family in one of the most beautiful places God has created on the planet!  We are so blessed by our many friends and partners in this ministry.