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Sisters Respond to Economic Injustice with Quiet Ministry of Lending

Community development investing is a quiet ministry for the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Although it’s low-profile, it’s a high-impact way of responding to the needs of people who have little or no access to credit.

By investing in people who would never qualify for a traditional loan, the Sisters leverage their financial resources to promote economic justice in low-income communities. These innovative and highly collaborative efforts bring together religious women from many different congregations who, as Gospel people, have committed financial assets to raising some of society’s least privileged people out of poverty.

How much does it take to make a difference? In 2013, the Sisters of the U.S.-Ontario Province acted to dedicate 3% of their investment portfolio to community investment initiatives. Province CFO Vicki Cummings, who has been involved with community investing for 30 years, says those funds have helped poor women in Haiti start small agricultural businesses, helped conserve land and clean water in the Pacific Northwest, and supported organizations in several states that assist low-income residents who need adequate housing, education, health care, food and jobs. And that’s just a few of those who have benefited.

In May 2017, Sister Rosemary Delaney and Sister Marcia Frideger had a first-hand encounter with the work of the Northern California Community Loan Fund (NCCLF), one of the organizations with which the Holy Names Sisters have a loan. At NCCLF’s 30th anniversary gathering in San Francisco, they met Sisters from other congregations who contribute to the same loan fund, as well as supporters from business and local government. As part of NCCLF’s commitment to California’s low-income communities, it has partnered with socially conscious impact investors and mission-driven organizations to promote affordable housing, education, health care, food, jobs and economic opportunity for individuals and families in need.

One of its recipient organizations is Planting Justice in Oakland, CA. It’s a grassroots organization with a mission to democratize access to affordable, nutritious food by empowering urban residents with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to work in food production. With an NCCLF loan, Planting Justice purchased 80,000 square feet of land in East Oakland to develop and expand a plant nursery. Planting Justice collaborates with San Quentin State Prison’s Insight Garden Program to provide inmates with training in permaculture gardening and employment opportunities after they are released on parole.

NCCLF also lends to Salud Para La Gente, which began in Watsonville, CA in 1978 as a storefront “free clinic” to serve the health needs of local farmworkers. Over the years, it has become a Federally Qualified Health Center with its main clinic in downtown Watsonville. In 2015, NCCLF provided tax credits financing to renovate and expand the main clinic. The expansion has allowed the clinic to increase services, including counseling and medical, dental and vision care for about 30,000 patients each year.

Community development investing is a gift that keeps on giving, according to Vicki, because nearly all the borrowers pay their loans back, making the funds available for reinvestment. This success rate is due to making the loans highly affordable, combined with proper due diligence to assure the borrowers’ repayment ability.

Rather than lending directly to individuals, the Sisters of the Holy Names work through several specialized community lending organizations. One of them is the Religious Communities Investment Fund (RCIF), a coordinated effort that pools investments from about two dozen women religious congregations to promote economic justice, compassion, human dignity and environmental stewardship.

Vicki, who serves on the RCIF board of directors, points out that the Sisters can support causes they care about both directly and through RCIF. Among the many recipients of RCIF loans worldwide, one example is Fonkoze, an entrepreneurial banking organization in Haiti that focuses on some of the country’s poorest women. In February 2017, Sister Mary Ellen Holohan and Vicki visited Haiti to witness how effectively Fonkoze is using low-interest loans to assist women in remote rural areas by first helping to meet their basic living needs, then accompanying them on the road to literacy, financial self-sufficiency and confidence. As a result, families that once struggled to survive are becoming assets to their communities. Fonkoze receives investments from the Holy Names Sisters both directly and through RCIF.

Community development investing by the Sisters of the Holy Names touches lives in places where Sisters have ministered for decades, including Latin America, Africa, upstate New York, Washington, DC, Florida, Oregon, Washington, California and Mississippi. The Sisters consider it part of their Gospel call to love their neighbors, and to live out their charism of the full development of all human persons.

Photo courtesy of Planting Justice (www.plantingjustice.org)