Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Appreciating Our Volunteers

Leslie/Todd: We have an amazing group of volunteers at PEER Servants. Most of them are extremely dedicated and go far beyond what might come to mind when you hear the word "volunteer". They dedicate many hours a month using the talents and skills God has given them to empower the materially poor by serving our microfinance partners and PEER Servants itself. They donate their own money and/or raise funds from family and friends to provide loan capital, pay for their travel, and cover many of PEER Servants' expenses. And they do all of this with the humility of Christ and the gratitude for the enrichment of their own lives through the materially poor and our partners who serve them.

In August we took advantage of an opportunity to say "thank you" to these amazing volunteers. Susan Tavilla opened her beautiful home and threw a great "Volunteer Appreciation Party". The event was catered by a local restaurant, the food scrumptuous, and the fellowship sweet. We have a special community within PEER Servants and it was good to be together, not only to say "thank you", but to be re-energized in our desire to work together to serve the materially poor in the name of Jesus. The event was such a success that we have already planned to make it an annual event.

Special thanks to Susan and her sister, Sandy, for hosting the event. And to the PEER Servants volunteers. whose acts of service inspire us and many others around the world.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lydia Award Celebration

Leslie/Todd; Once a year, PEER Servants gives out the Lydia Awards to recognize the very best micro-entrepreneurs among the thousands served by our microfinance partners. Who is Lydia, you may ask? You can read about her in Acts 16 -- she was a businesswoman who sold purple dye and cloth and from her profits supported Paul and his missionary companions. She is credited by church historians as being an important person in the spread of the church to Europe.

Each of our microfinance partners can nominate up to two of their very best clients based on six factors: growth in the business, being a good MFI client, innovation, perseverance, church/community impact, and business growth potential. A Lydia Awards Committee of PEER Servants volunteers and board members then picks three semifinalists. From there we post the three semifinalists online and allow online voting and then have a Lydia Awards Celebration wherein we serve food from the countries of the three semifinalists and have in-person voting after passionate presentations by those supporting the respective candidates. At the end of the Lydia Awards Celebration, the Lydia Award winner is announced. The whole process is a lot of fun, very inspiring, and very helpful to our microfinance partners and volunteers in learning how to effectively tell the story of the transformation they are witnessing.

Our three 2010 semifinalists (pictured right) were Emily (a curtain/pillowcase maker from the Philippines), Victor and Lilea Chifeac (vegetable/fruit farmers from Moldova, with just Victor pictured) and Arul Rathi Rajendram (a livestock breeder/retailer from South Asia). All three were amazing in the transformation they had experienced in their own lives, but also the transformation they were effecting in the lives of their families, churches, and communities around them. Emily grew her business to employ 16+ seamstresses; Victor and Lilea used profits from their business to give their four oldest children a university education and help build the first evangelical church in their village; Arul Rathi overcame widowhood in a war-torn country and made it possible for her children to get a good education while helping other women in her community. All three semifinalists were very deserving and the overall voting was very tight, but in the end, Arul Rathi took 1st place with 36% of the vote, Victor & Lilea took 2nd place with 33% of the vote, and Emily took third with 31% of the vote.

Transformation in the lives of the materially poor is a major part of our mission at PEER Servants, and the Lydia Awards is a great opportunity to celebrate that part of our mission. But our overall mission goes well beyond that. We are ultimately focused on transformation among the materially non-poor (that's us!) as well. May we be open and eager to learn from and be enriched by the Emily's, Victor and Lilea's, and Arul Rathi's of the world in areas like being very generous to God before we spend so much on ourselves and overcoming adversity. May God use them to help us see beyond the confines of our culture to what it really means to follow Jesus, and to experience more of the abundant life as a result. Lord, make it so!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Looking Up in Uganda

Todd: The Africa trip that started in May in South Africa ended in June in Uganda. Dave Ryder, PEER Servants Board Chairman, and I spent a week with Christian Action for Empowering Church and Community (CAFECC), our Ugandan microfinance partner. It was a very encouraging week.

To say that CAFECC has struggled since their inception may be somewhat of an understatement. Sustainable, transformational microfinance is not easy -- indeed 90% of MFIs never become operationally sustainable (covering all of their operating expenses from the interest and fees they charge). But it is the goal of every PEER Servants microfinance partner to become sustainable. And not only sustainable, but transformational. For the few MFIs that can become sustainable, many give up on becoming highly transformational because they see it as too expensive and too much a threat to their sustainability. CAFECC and every other PEER Servants partner is trying to become sustainable and transformational. May God bless their path and the services we can provide to encourage them along that path!

We were very encouraged with the progress CAFECC is making. Much of this is the result of two key positions being filled within the past 18 months or so. First, James Kepo became the CAFECC Board Chairman, He is very dedicated to the success of CAFECC, and very competent to oversee its pursuit of realizing its vision. James spearheaded the hiring of Patrick Obija (right in picture) into the position of CAFECC Accountant and Acting Executive Director. Patrick has done a fantastic job in this role and CAFECC is now making great progress to becoming a sustainable MFI. Patrick works with two loan officers -- Jimmy Lumago and Mambo Charles (left and middle in picture). They, too, are very dedicated and competent at what they do. Together, they are bringing hope to the people of northern Uganda and the opportunity to not only be transformed, but to become an agent of transformation.

Our time with CAFECC was spent primarily on training Patrick in key areas to effectively lead the organization and report on their results. It wasn't all work - we had great times of fellowship, complete with one of my favorite foods in northern Uganda -- white ant paste. It is really good!

If reading this makes you a little "antsy" to join us on a future trip to northern Uganda, let us know! You will be tremendously blessed and enriched by the people of northern Uganda. God has made them rich in many ways. As a result, we, too, are becoming rich.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Marvelous May!

Todd/Leslie: May was quite a month! It started with the 5-day visit of three staff members from The Center for Community Transformation (Philippines), included our first Spring Celebration Event (a fundraiser focused on raising funds for PEER Servants itself). went to the weeklong visit of Ghena Russu, Managing Director of Invest Credit (Moldova), and ended with the first half of Todd's trip to Africa, focused on South Africa and time with Aloga Financial Services. It was an exhausting but very full and rewarding month. As always, God's grace is sufficient. We were very blessed by our visitors from the Philippines and Moldova and the time in South Africa (more on the Africa trip in the next blog entry).

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6 about hard work and sleepless nights. He lists many other actions taken, all part of urging the Corinthian church not to receive God's grace in vain. In months like May, we learn a bit more about God's grace. It is the most amazing resource we could ever imagine -- more precious than gold, yet in endless supply. God really does supply our every need. He gives us strength when we need it, and the blessing of fellowship with Him.

We met this elephant in South Africa on the last day of May. It reminded me (Todd) of God's grace. It came within just a few feet of us and could have easily charged. Yet, it left us in awe as it used its amazing trunk to enjoy a feast among the tree branches. We couldn't help but worship and thank God in seeing what He had done in creating this elephant the way He did and allowing us such a close-up view. God came among us in the form of Jesus and has given us a close-up view. He could have come in power and might, and yet He came in peace and love. What an amazing life He led, and yet, He tells us in John 14:12 that "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." He has gone to the Father to intercede on our behalf in hopes that we will tap into the grace needed to do even greater things.

May we tap into His grace today in a new way.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reaching New Heights in Peru

Todd: I joined three other PEER Servants volunteers - Carol Mostrom, Devin Erhardt, and Rob St. Germain, in an April 14-23 very encouraging trip to Cusco, Peru to serve Kallarisunchis. Kallarisunchis became operationally sustainable in 2009 - that means they cover all of their operating expenses. They are now entering a phase where they are focusing on growth, with the desire to serve 1,000+ active clients within the next 3-5 years. Our team was able to have great discussions and training with the board and staff of Kallarisunchis to map out some of the steps needed for that growth to take place. The case studies developed on our much larger Filipino partner were very well received by our Peruvian partner, and there was a significant amount of focus on how the organization can build in more spiritual integration. We met a number of the clients served by Kallarisunchis and were encouraged by all of them (one of them pictured to the right). Combine that with the stunning beauty of the Peruvian Andes and the friendliness of the Peruvian people and you have a great trip! We thank God for the time in Peru and for your prayers and support to make it and the transformation that will result from it possible.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fantastic Trip to Nigeria!

Leslie/Todd: We had the tremendous privilege of traveling with five other PEER Servants associates to Nigeria from January 29 through February 14 to serve (and be served by) Good Seed Enterprise Development, our microfinance partner in the very troubled city of Jos. It was a fantastic trip for many reasons.

Nigerians Are Amazing People: Les and I were convinced long ago that Nigerians are some of the most amazing people on the planet - now we have some trip mates who are also singing that tune! The people of Nigeria have been rated by objective researchers as some of the world's happiest people. What makes them so happy? Despite having relatively little materially, they live in community and have a deep and vibrant faith. We have lots to learn from them of what it means to live in community and have to be totally dependent on God.

Nigerian Are Great Entrepreneurs: We met some amazing entrepreneurs -- not just in the businesses they have established, but more so what they are doing with the businesses they have established. You may have heard of some of them already. Comfort and Bamidele Padonu use their chicken breeding business to allow almost 100 widows each week to earn an income as they distribute the eggs. The Padonus are making great progress on building a ministry center for widows and orphans as they live very simply and pour the profits of their business into this ministry. There there is Kikielomo Oluwasegun, another chicken breeder and now fish farmer who directs the profits of her business to make the cost of Diamond Private School affordable to 100+ school children. What a beautiful sight it was to visit this school and see all of these bright young children receiving a top notch education. There are many more stories to tell of impressive micro-entrepreneurs whom we met on this trip.

Nigeria Needs Our Prayers: Jos, the city we visited, had experienced the most recent Muslim-Christian conflict less than two weeks before our arrival. 300-500 people were killed and many homes and businesses were burned. Some of Good Seed's clients had their businesses burned to the ground. Our Christian brothers and sisters are requesting that we pray for God's wisdom as to what they should do. This is the third major crisis in the last 9 years. Muslims have been moving into this predominantly Christian area and are attempting to force conversion to Islam, using all means, including violence, to do so. Very committed Christians are asking "what would Jesus do?" There are no easy answers to questions like that, but let's pray for wisdom and protection over them.

We thank God that we can partner with Good Seed Enterprise Development as they serve the materially poor of central Nigeria in the name of Jesus. Our team was able to assist them in better marketing their program, providing training based on the successes of our microfinance partner in the Philippines, and helping GSED identify new ways to raise much needed funds to fuel their growth. God used our Nigerian brethren and the events in Jos to really strengthen us in our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. As a result, this is a trip we will not soon forget.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 2010 - What A Month!

Todd/Leslie: For many people around the world, January 2010 was not the way you want to start a new decade. A devastating earthquake in Haiti, religious conflicts killing hundreds in Nigeria, and floods in Peru all took place in January, and all affected PEER Servants and our microfinance partners. It was a challenging month! And yet one wherein we were reminded that we are ultimately not in control and our gracious. merciful God is. More than ever, we are called to follow Jesus and be a means through which more of Him and His Kingdom can be seen in even the very troubled parts of our world.

Haiti: I (Todd) received a text from a close friend right around 5 pm ET on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 -- "Major quake hits Haiti." What?, I thought, Haiti? While Haiti had had everything else thrown at it but an earthquake, Haiti and earthquake did not seem to fit together. Having been to my beloved Haiti many times, I could only start to imagine the likely devastation. Within hours, CNN removed any need for my imagination.

In the hours and days that followed we confirmed that our two PEER Servants volunteers living in Port-au-Prince were both alive. They had both been in buildings that ultimately collapsed (one of them in the United Nations building) and left meetings they were in early for unknown reasons at the time. Our microfinance partner, ACLAM, had building and most of their staff in tact and set out on a mission to assess how many of their microfinance clients were killed or had their businesses totally devastated -- they may never be able to come to a final tally on that. We had four other PEER Servants volunteers living in North America who were originally from Haiti. Amazingly, Christina, the wife of volunteer Marculey Sanon, left Haiti on the last flight to Montreal just hours before the quake. She went to see a mother she had not seen for six years, and sadly, a mother she would never see again. Their house collapsed on her mother and she passed away the next day.

We will work more closely with our Haitian microfinance partner than ever before in the months ahead as we try to support them in the monumental task that lies before them. May the hand of God keep us from growing tired from the long path ahead of walking closely with our Haitian brothers and sisters as they start the rebuilding process.

Nigeria: The Sunday, January 17, 2010 Skype IM came in from the Executive Secretary of Good Seed Microenterprise Development: "We are being visited by evil once again." Looking out his window, he saw the smoke billowing from Jos. At least 25 were dead in the latest round of Christian Muslim violence. We were very concerned for our Nigerian brethren who live in a part of Nigeria that Muslims have been fighting to dominate for years. Given our plans for a January 29, 2010 departure of a team of seven, we were also concerned whether it made sense to stick with our travel plans. Both concerns were significantly heightened two days later when additional conflict left hundreds dead.

While a fragile peace has held under a very heavy military presence in the days since, the damage may be irreparable. Many Good Seed microfinance clients lost everything. Since many killed in this January violence were Muslims, there are real concerns that the Muslims will take revenge and kill Christians. Even the most mature Christian leaders are at a loss of how best to respond in a Christ-like manner given the jihad that some Muslims have declared against the Christians of the area.

Our team is still planning to go, leaving tomorrow (January 29). We are looking forward to the time with our Nigerian brethren and something we rarely have an opportunity to fully experience in North America - a need to be totally dependent on God. May God use our time there to strengthen our partnership with Good Seed and strengthen our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and have the joy of doing so.

Peru: If the news out of Haiti and Nigeria were not enough, we then received this news on January 27, 2010 from the board chair of Kallarisunchis, our microfinance partner in Peru: "nuestra ciudad de Cusco en estos ultimos dias realmente ha sido golpeada como nunca antes" ("we have been struck in Cusco in these last days like never before"). Heavy rains lasted for days, leading to record flooding, massive destruction, and many deaths. Cusco is a beautiful city nestled in the Andes but a potential death trap if such heavy rains occur and cascade down the mountains into the valleys. Even the tourists at Machu Picchu were stranded.

The current assessment by our Peruvian partners is that their staff are OK and few of their clients have been impacted directly, but all of Cusco is dependent on the tourism industry. Machu Picchu is closed for an indefinite period of time, and that will dry up the tourism economy.

We never could have seen the likes of January 2010 coming. But we are leaving this most challenging of months with the assurance that our God is almighty and fully capable of taking these tragedies and turning them into something good, especially if we will act as the hands and feet through which He can extend more of His Kingdom among us.