Essie Bidsse lives on a pocked dirt road, in a house made of concrete blocks with a dirt floor and an iron-sheeted roof. A pair of light bulbs strung to a nearby power line cast just enough light to read. In her neighborhood, no one picks up the trash or repairs potholes. There’s no sewer or drainage system, and few buildings are equipped with indoor plumbing.
She’s been a Christian for many years, and like many American women she faithfully attends church, reads her Bible, and stays close to a few good friends. But for Essie, faith, theology, and the Christian life are woven into a cultural cloth that most Americans can’t conceive — where children are hungry, there’s not enough food for one more meal, this week’s money didn’t make it past Wednesday, and there’s no way to buy much needed medicine. For Essie, it’s hard to think about a Tuesday-morning Bible study, or somebody’s sick aunt two towns away, or even the fine points of Reformed theology.
Essie has lived her whole life in Lomé, Togo — a sliver of a country wedged between Ghana and Benin in West Africa. For her, and for every neighbor she’s ever known, there’s no chance for an 8-to-5 job and a steady paycheck. She and her neighbors exist on the fringe of a tiny and always ailing economy. They have no access to capital or the basic services that keep modern life moving forward. For them, and the millions who are just like them, there’s virtually no hope for a more abundant life.
Believing God in the Midst of Poverty
And yet, in recent weeks Essie and her friends have been reflecting on a truth they have long neglected, or simply couldn’t comprehend: that Christ came so that they — poor and all but forgotten people — might have life and, in fact, have it abundantly (John 10:10). Last week and the week before that these women have dared to believe what the Scriptures tell them — that God plans to give them a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11), and that such a future has already begun.
For two months, Essie has gathered with 12 friends after church on Sunday mornings. The women aren’t discussing one of Paul’s epistles; they’re not looking at a cluster of Psalms or studying a major prophet. This isn’t a Bible study per se — it’s a “savings group.” And today, before they save and share their money, these women will talk about business.
These ladies — wives, mothers, and fledgling entrepreneurs — are studying a curriculum developed by The Chalmers Center, founded by Covenant College professor Brian Fikkert and based on his book “When Helping Hurts,” co-written with Steve Corbett. Today’s lesson is about segregating business funds from personal money. The women (groups are segregated: Men and women meet separately) are told that they mustn’t use “business” money for personal needs. For example, the leader explains, they can’t give business money to their mother-in-law. It doesn’t matter what she needs or that she tenaciously demands it — the business’s money isn’t theirs to give. But, the leader goes on, once the business makes a profit, once they’re able to pay themselves a reasonable wage, then they can become generous neighbors in ways they never thought possible.
Through the Chalmers savings groups, Essie and her friends are also learning about products and markets. They discuss how to find the right location for their fruit stand, beauty shop, or seamstress service. They learn about promoting their business, too. They learn this in church, and through the overarching narrative of Scripture.
But the curriculum seeps deeper into their lives. Beyond the business and financial principles, it spurs the creation of supportive, loving relationships. Group members talk about the whole of their lives, including their families, finances, and marriages. They pray for one another — that God would bless them and provide for them and give them wisdom. They pray for the church and the neighborhood, too, that life might thrive in new ways and to a degree they’ve never dreamed of.
This is no prosperity Gospel. Through the Chalmers program, these women, for the first time, are coming to grips with the truth that they — though poor and practically invisible — are the very image of God. Essie and Edith and Beauty — women who once saw themselves as inferior and isolated, as people who had nothing to offer the world or their community — have come to see that they have, in fact, been blessed with unique gifts and delightful talents. They’ve been given sound minds and the ability to reason. They and each of their neighbors possess something unique and valuable, and they each have the capacity to create and provide. God has, actually, provided what they need for their families to thrive.
They’ve also learned to view their communities from a fresh perspective and to see that the land in Togo is rich, that they’re surrounded with wondrous animals, and that the church provides a network of caring neighbors. They may be poor, but they are stewards of God’s rich blessings.
Saving, Sharing, and the Fruitful Results
And that includes their money. At each meeting’s end, members save and share a portion of what they have. And by using what God has provided, they strive to make life more satisfying.
Every week, each member passes 500 CFA francs (roughly one U.S. dollar) to the group leader. And then the money — about a week’s salary — is handed to one member. This week it goes to a hairdresser, who’s been waiting her turn so she could invest in new equipment. The week before, a slipper maker purchased the materials she needed to fill a new order. The week before that, a woman bought vegetable seeds so she could keep her roadside stand freshly stocked and fully supplied.
The money matters, and 13 dollars often help one sleep more soundly, at least for a little while. But the money always becomes the means to other fruitful ends. Group members — women and men alike — discuss what they’ve done with it. They explain how the money affects their lives. Which means they talk about what they have and what they need, where they are, and where life is going. Week by week they form a bond that’s tighter and healthier than any they’ve ever known.
As a fully intended consequence, the church has become an intriguing presence in the community. For example, one woman explains that her Muslim neighbor asked to join the group. The money surely enticed her, but it wasn’t what she ultimately wanted: She coveted the prayer. The Muslim neighbor wanted to be where Christian women prayed for each other, where they believed God would hear them and change their lives and neighborhood. That, not the money, is what she longed for.
Another group member was invited to take the program into the neighborhood schools. The lessons, she says, have struck a chord with students and teachers. This makes sense to them, she said, that they’re God’s image, made to create and provide and to be a part of His plan — not just for them, but for the neighborhood and the world.
God’s Hands in a Glorious Work
In her poverty and hopelessness, it had never occurred to Essie Bidsse that Christ would transform her work and finances. Nor did she ever imagine that He, working in and through her life, would make all things new in Togo. But through her Chalmers savings group she and her friends see Christ at work — redeeming, renewing, and restoring the world around them. They understand that God is reconciling all things to Himself, including Togo’s schools, government, and neighborhoods. They know that one day these will reflect His goodness, and they believe that they — His hands and feet in this humble community — are an indispensable part of His glorious plan.
For more information visit The Chalmers Center.
Photography by Ryan Estes