Malawi is a cash economy where the two dominant currencies are the US dollar and the Malawian kwacha. The current exchange rate, give or take 10 kwacha, is 1 USD equals 730 MK. The largest denomination on a kwacha is 2000. The largest bill here therefore equals about $2.75 USD. If you are buying groceries you carry roughly 50 bills; buy a car and you could be carrying close to 30, 000 bills. I’ve never felt so rich going to the grocery store.
And in many ways, I have never been so rich. Relative to those around me I am in the 1%. There are billionaires here and many who are wealthy, but the vast majority are poor. 1% of the population is 160, 000 and we are definitely in that group. Even maintaining a modest middle class North American standard of life here—single income under $100,000 CDN, one small car, 4-bedroom rancher that we don’t own, defined benefits pension plan, small investments—makes us rich.
We’ve had a lot of help to get as rich as we are. Parents, friends, financial advisors, and employers have all assisted us with an essential part of wealth accumulation: balancing the demands of today with the needs of tomorrow. For instance, each month I make a contribution to the PCC pension plan in anticipation that when I retire some of that will come back to me. This kind of delayed gratification is only possible because I can cover my basic needs in the moment. Even with my current needs looked after, it is hard to prioritize my future over my present. Thaler just won the Nobel prize in economics for his work on how to ethically “nudge” people into making good decisions about their economic futures.
Those caught in a cycle of poverty live with the reality that their present needs are not covered. Every cent that they can eek out goes to food and shelter. In Malawi, that looks like 45% of your daily salary going towards one simple meal. Dotted across the landscape here are unfinished houses. People have received a windfall, perhaps through a meager inheritance, and immediately spent it on constructing some kind of house. When the windfall money runs out, and it does quickly, and the house is not done, then a partially built building will remain for years, perhaps decades, as their only form of “savings.” For the poor, the tyranny of current needs overwhelms the ability to plan for the future.
This kind of short term economic thinking is not just personal; it is institutional. Compare the construction of two libraries. The first, at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS, my alma mater), cost in excess of $100 million USD (or approximately 73 billion kwacha). Even for PTS this is a large sum and caused quite a bit of controversy. Once the Board had decided to go ahead though, the project went largely as planned. PTS was able to finance the project because it had a large endowment to serve as equity and had demonstrated financial stability over many decades. Moody’s and Standard & Poor both have a credit rating for PTS.
Compare that to a library project at Zomba Theological College (ZTC, where I am on faculty). Originally a donor gave seed money for a library. Management at ZTC had other priorities including a large auditorium and so the project morphed into a library/auditorium. Truth be told, it morphed into an auditorium with a smaller library. Other funding for the project was not forthcoming because ZTC had little equity and is not financially stable. The denominations that support ZTC are just as cash strapped, so even with the best of intentions they could not bail out the project. The seed money was not sufficient for the new plan and therefore the building sits unfinished with no prospect of getting completed (see the picture that accompanies this post).
At first glance this comparison does not make ZTC look very good. That is not the intention at all. Rather, the comparison should illustrate that institutions are not that different from individuals when it comes to financial planning. A school that covers its current expenses can finance a long-term project; one that struggles to make payroll has a shorter-term outlook. And just like wealth begets more wealth in Western economies and rich families bequeath money to their children, so too goes the nature of institution building. To build a theological school, both physically but also institutionally, is a long-term project. PTS, founded in 1812, has handed on wealth, both financial and institutional, from generation to generation. Good education requires stability and poverty is inherently destabilizing.
In his book, Missions and Money, Jonathon Bonk uses an image that illustrates a possible mutually beneficial relationship between these two. The ancient Romans recognized that some vines required elevation to produce fruit and that some trees did not produce useable fruit. They paired these together, planting groves of elm trees that produce no fruit on their own with varieties of fruit vines that need to be elevated. Separately these two plants, an elm and a fruit vine, are insufficient; together they produce both shade and fruit. Elms are a long-term project, requiring diligence and discipline to grow. This kind of investment is unjustified because in and of itself it produces nothing; growing elm groves only makes sense pragmatically when paired with fruit vines. Fruit vines are a short-term project in that they grow quickly and produce fruit the season that they are planted. Unless you can elevate them however, you will sit and watch your fruit spoil.
I am pushing the image of the arbutus further than Bonk likely would, but it strikes me that many North American Christian institutions do not produce much fruit but have been tended to for generations so are solid. I mean this as both an observation and a critique; narratives of decline point to a lack of fruitfulness which is judged, not by me, but by God. All the while, Malawian Christian institutions, as far as there are some, produce much fruit but struggle to realize their full potential because they can’t get off the ground. Could it be that the North American church needs the Malawian church in deeply spiritual ways? One of the Biblical criterion for faithfulness is fruitfulness. If North American Christians are not producing much fruit ourselves, could it not be a movement of the Spirit for the North American church to provide the structures of wealth required to allow the Malawian church to be fruitful?