DETROIT – As directed two years ago, the Presbyterian Foundation has found ways to invest thousands of dollars to support business development, says Tom Taylor, the president of the Presbyterian Foundation. Taylor made this report to a crowd of 100-plus General Assembly attendees at a breakfast banquet this morning.
The featured speaker at the event was theologian and ethicist scholar Stanley Hauerwas, but the program began with Taylor reporting and showing a video that outlined ways that the Foundation implemented the request of the 220th General Assembly (2012) that was adopted at that time in place of proposals that the PC(USA) divest funds from businesses profiting from the occupation of Palestinian lands.
Working with colleagues at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, several prominent congregational leaders and partners in the Middle East, the Foundation has worked over a year and half to complete two investments and is nearing completion on a third. Partnering with consulting firms and companies in Israel, the West Bank and Great Britain eagerly embraced the prospects of positive investment in the region. They could foresee how visionary investing could become key drivers of the Palestinian economy – education, microfinance, renewable energy. They joined with the Foundation and already are making news and having a transformative effect on lives in the region.
The video presented three ways in which the Foundation has invested its funds.
The first project entails a construction loan to Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem. This Christian college serves both Christian and Muslim students with a focus on job preparedness and employability. The loan will fund construction of a new building to house culinary and tourist industry classrooms, offices and other facilities. In addition, the project will eventually include two restaurants, one with a 360-degree view of Bethlehem where tourists and outside conference groups can visit and dine, and another that will operate at the culinary training kitchen for the college’s future prospective chef-graduates that will serve the faculty, students and administration.
This project promises financial success given its connection to the Palestine’s “natural resource” of religious tourism. Increasing visitors to Bethlehem and other places of Christian significance in Palestine is driving the rise of new restaurants and hotels opening throughout the region. Graduates of the Dar al-Kalima College programs will fill many of the new positions being created at such businesses.
So far, $750,000 has been invested through the Foundation’s program. The college is looking for an additional $250,000 in loans and $400,000 in grants.
With more than 300 days of full sun each year, daylight serves as another of Palestinians’ greatest natural resources. Like most other places in the world, demand for electricity continues to grow, and in the Palestinian territories, which rely on Israel for 90% of their energy, brownouts are common and prolonged. What better than to tap the solar energy that is so readily available? Domestically generated solar power can help reduce the cost of energy in manufacturing, allowing for more job creation and lower overall costs. The lower overall costs will be passed down to the end-consumer making consumer staples more affordable.
So, the Foundation recently finalized details of a $300,000 amortizing term loan to build a solar energy facility near Jericho managed by the Arab Development Society, which will cut the amount of purchased electricity by one-third. The project will involve the installation of a grid-connected, photovoltaic power facility to support manufacturing and agricultural research and training activities near Jericho.
Small loans can make a huge difference for Palestinians trying to start or grow businesses. In Palestine, the combination of high education (95% literacy) and high unemployment (over 20%; even higher among women) has led many Palestinians to great ingenuity and energy in entrepreneurship. Micro-loans of start-up capital, usually in the $1,000 – 20,000 range, are helping create new businesses and grow the Palestinian economy. And, the average payback rate of these loans is over 98%.
The Foundation has partnered with a Ramallah-based bank, which specializes in microfinance lending, to create a $500,000 loan program with a special emphasis on women business owners. Nine women have already secured loans to open shops, start agricultural initiatives, purchase taxis, start a kindergarten, launch a photography studio and more. The women have described these loans as life-changing boosts that are calming their spirits about the conflict in the region, while also lifting their hopes that their futures for them and their families will be bright.
“On a recent visit to Ramallah, I got to meet one of the women who has built a successful business on one of these microloans,” said Tom Taylor, the Foundation’s president and CEO.
“Buthaina is a seamstress by trade, and she opened up a dress shop to rent and sell wedding gowns and party gowns that she has designed. She borrowed $3,000 from our micro-lending partner, The National Bank, and had such success in the first year that she was able to open a hair and make-up salon next door to serve her customers. She went on to open an accessories shop across the hall, and then a dry-cleaning business upstairs. She has four full-time employees now and turned a nice profit last year.”
Further, Taylor added, “If one person can create five sustainable jobs from a $3,000 loan, imagine what is possible with the microfinance program Presbyterians are developing,” said Taylor. “When people’s fundamental needs are met – when they know they can provide homes for their families and put food on the table – then their sense of security increases. This is an essential condition for creating peace.”
Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and president of Dar al-Kalima University, affirmed the Foundation’s approach. “In the last twenty years, there has been lots of peace talking – negotiations and so on – that went nowhere,” Raheb said. “The situation on the ground actually became more difficult. And this is where I always say that Jesus knew how to choose his words. He said ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ not the peace talkers. We will not wait for the day when peace comes to start creating facts on the ground. It is the facts on the ground we are creating now that will bring peace in the future. That’s why our philosophy is to invest at all times, at times of war and at times of peace.”
Funding for these investments comes from several sources. Initial investments are from the Foundation’s Creative Investment Funds, which the GA set aside in years past for just such benevolent investments and which represent a limited portion of unrestricted permanent endowment funds held by the Foundation for the benefit of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Additional funds have been provided by several lead congregations – either from their own endowment funds or from their mission funds.
Some of the earliest Presbyterian mission efforts in the 1800s went to the Middle East, particularly the land of ancient Canaan/Israel/Palestine.
As 20th century politics, wars and migrations unleashed waves of strife and violence in the region, the Presbyterians have not been willing to distance themselves from their sister and brother Christian Palestinians, nor from the many other friends they had come to know among the Muslim and Jewish communities. Their missional presence pressed them to look for ways that to partner together to promote peace and justice in their land.
But the formulation of strategies and tactics that could bring the best benefits while addressing the worst injustices has eluded all efforts to form any kind of consensus.
Since 2004, much of the debate has centered on efforts to divest church-held shares of companies that are viewed as profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel. However, in 2012, the 220th General Assembly called for an alternative approach – “positive investment.” That GA determined to “make a difference in the lives of those who are most vulnerable,” to “help in the development of a viable infrastructure for a future Palestinian state” and to aid in job creation and economic development while preserving an effective witness to peace in the region.
Jack Haberer is the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook