Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Micro loans revitalize the ones receiving and the ones giving

Local Lutheran congregation welcomes recent immigrants from Togo

A micro-loan program modeled after the one that won a Nobel Peace Prize
for its founder in Bangladesh is being used by a Minneapolis congregation to
ease the resettlement path for immigrants from the West African nation of
Togo in the metro area. Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer (LCCR), a
small ELCA parish in the southwest part of the city, has about a dozen
Togolese immigrants among its 200 members. It is teaming with the
Togolese Community of Minnesota (TCM), which has 200 of the 1,000-plus
immigrants from that nation living in the Twin Cities as members, to provide
interest-free loans of up to $2,000 for specific needs.
“We decided to focus on that particular community because it is a small
community and so are we,” said the Rev. Mary Albing, pastor of LCCR. “And
we felt we could be effective with them and make a difference in the
Togolese community’s lives even though we’re a small congregation.”
The seeds of the LCCR-Togo connection were planted in 2002 when a
married couple — Philippe and Elise Atson-Tsevi — who had just arrived from
Togo lived for the first four months with Dorothy Rossing, a member of the
church. Rossing’s interest in the resettlement of immigrants stretched back a
half-century to her days as a member of the Lutheran Student Association at
Iowa State University.
Philippe and Elise, who left Togo to escape a life of poverty, had won visas
through the “green card lottery,” a U.S. government program under which
50,000 winners annually receive a chance to live and work legally in this
country for an indefinite period of time. The program is designed to attract
persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
The Togolese couple had been unable to bring their three young children with
them, and the need to send money back to Togo to provide for their care,
along with the expense of getting settled in a new country, meant they had to
get loans occasionally from Rossing. Rossing describes new immigrants as
“the poorest of the poor,” and says there is no way they can make it without
the support of an agency or family.
Although Philippe and Elise came from Catholic backgrounds, they accepted
Rossing’s invitation to attend worship services with her at LCCR and
eventually joined the congregation.
In 2006, based on her experience with the Togolese couple, Rossing
approached the LCCR church council and asked whether there was a way the
church could broaden its vision and lend money to other immigrants from
that country who needed help. LCCR is not a wealthy congregation, and one
council member responded with a suggestion that it create a micro-loan
fund “like they did in Bangladesh,” Rossing recalls.
Pastor Albing and the council gave their blessing to a project of that sort, and
the church’s Peace and Justice Committee embarked on a whirlwind four-
month campaign to raise money for a revolving loan fund. By the end of the
year they had raised nearly $26,000 and were ready to activate the fund.
A main target of the fund-raising campaign, Rossing said, was ELCA
congregations that had endowment funds. Six of these, besides LCCR,
responded with grants: Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Bethlehem,
and St. Peder’s of south Minneapolis; Edina Community Lutheran, Edina; St.
John’s Lutheran of Northfield; and Bethlehem of De Kalb, Illinois. The De Kalb
church was Rossing’s home congregation for much of her adult life.
The LCCR committee became aware of the TCM organization and decided to
partner with them, Rossing said, because church members anticipated that
some applicants for loans might not speak English well enough to be
understood.
Eligibility for loans was open to Togolese immigrants who had been members
of LCCR for at least a year or who were referred by a member of the church,
and to dues-paying members of TCM. Borrowers had to be at least age 21,
have a job, and have a Minnesota bank account.
Examples of purposes for which loans might be sought, the sponsors said,
were a personal emergency, education, starting a business, paying a security
deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment, purchasing a car, or air fare
to bring a spouse, children, or other relatives who had finally obtained a visa
to the U.S. Borrowers had to agree to pay back the loans of up to $2,000 in
monthly installments of no less than $100.
Interviewing of applicants from TCM is done by two officers of that
organization as well as by Rossing and another member of the Peace and
Justice Committee. The latter pair also interviews those whose connection is
through the church. The final decision is made by the representatives of the
church, which controls the purse strings, although, Rossing said, “we pretty
much take the recommendation” of the TCM officers regarding members of
that organization.
As of November 1 of this year, the entire $26,000 in the fund had been given
out. Three recipients had finished paying back their loans, and some 24 other
loans were in some stage of repayment.
Prior to 2008 all borrowers were making repayments on schedule, Rossing
said, but because of deteriorating economic conditions, including job losses,
some have fallen behind.
“We tell them to spread out their payments longer or to pay when they get a
job,” the LCCR leader said. However, applicants are told that paying back the
money is essential so that other Togolese immigrants can benefit from the
fund.
Pastor Albing says the advent of the Togolese has been good for her
congregation. Members rejoiced in October when the three children of
Philippe and Elise were reunited with their parents in Minneapolis after a
five-year separation.
Since that first couple joined the parish, it has been easier to make
connections with other Togolese people, Albing said. Another couple with
four children have become members, along with two individuals. And more
immigrants from that country are expected.
“We’ll have at least 15 and maybe 20 Togolese by the end of the year,” Albing
said. With these added numbers, “We’re having to stop and think how we’re
going to manage this,” the pastor said.
One particular benefit from the coming of the Togolese so far, according to
Albing, is that it “helped energize our Peace and Justice Committee.” That
group had been “doing the same thing for some time,” she said.
LCCR has become known for its involvement in peace-and-justice issues.
The many causes it supports range from the neighborhood to the
international level, and they start next door with LCCR’s own affordable
housing project. A duplex which the congregation had converted into a parish
house for its own needs has been turned back into living quarters for two
needy families.