16 May, 2021

Your Money and Your Life: Impact Investing

16 May, 2021

Your Money and Your Life: Impact Investing

by Louise Westfall

My favorite comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, from which I’ve previously quoted, features animal characters as stand-ins for human types. There’s wise old Goat, clueless Pig, and cynical Rat, and I often recognize myself in their interactions. A recent strip had Rat uncharacteristically leading with a profound observation:  I’m starting to think Buddhism makes a lot of sense. For example, it teaches that desire is the root of suffering. So to eliminate suffering, you first have to eliminate desire. Goat agrees: That does make sense. Rat continues, Yeah, and here I’ve spent my entire life just desiring money. Goat inquires, Right. So how can you reduce desire? Responds Rat: Someone writing me a check for ten million dollars.

Oh, Rat!  You clearly don’t understand what’s required to eliminate desire and attain true peace and a sense of abundance. Gratitude, for instance. Trust. Personal effort and self-discipline. We know that money can be the root of evil when it is worshiped above all else; when its pursuit becomes our purpose. We’ve thought about the responsibility we have as people of faith to counter our desire for money with trust in a providential God whose grace and goodness flow abundantly with all we need to live well. We are called by God to “do justice,” and in the face of stunning and increasing wealth disparity, we cannot close our eyes to systemic racial, economic, and spiritual realities that have contributed to injustice. We can’t turn away from the consequences of such injustice: lost potential, diminished lives, such deep divisions that make it difficult to address problems together. We cannot rest easily when one in seven US households report they don’t have enough food, families that include twelve million children. Worker wages have not kept pace with economic output—if so, the minimum wage today would be somewhere around $22. Even before the effects of the pandemic, a resident of Globeville had a life expectancy thirteen years shorter than a resident of Hilltop. The causes of these stark statistics can be debated, and how to address them even more. But can we agree to move beyond labels and over-generalization to imagine that thriving is both an outcome of personal AND collective responsibility? Can we acknowledge some of the benefits we’ve enjoyed that have very little to do with our initiative, drive, and hard work? I hope we can move away from a fear-based understanding of the world as zero-sum game with winners and losers, and instead look through the lens of Christian faith and the conviction that God wills abundant life here and now and for eternity for everyone. Raising the prospects of the poor; integrating immigrants into the work force; insuring affordable health care and improving the quality of public education; do not threaten our way of life. In fact, they will strengthen it, because it reflects the truth that all life is interconnected. All of our flourishing is mutual.

And here’s the thing:  money has a role to play in that mutual flourishing. Today, we’re going to explore its power to accomplish good purposes, reflective of our personal values and those of Christian faith. We’ll consider how we can join God in the reparative, restorative, and reconciling work God is doing to produce abundant life.   We begin by adding a word to those other considerations:  risk.

The ability to risk may not immediately strike you as a spiritual quality, maybe one more associated with gamblers and hedge-fund managers. But think about it: risk requires vision–a hoped-for prize not yet realized. Risk requires an offering, an investment of something of worth. And above all, risk demands that we relinquish control; that we let go of security, “the sure thing,” and even the desired outcome because we have faith in something bigger (be it markets or Messiah).

Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus gave his disciples an image of dying and rising, perhaps to fortify them at the time of his crucifixion. It’s a humble image, one understood even by the youngest child who has ever planted a seed in a cup of soil, and cheered when it “came up.” A reading from the gospel according to John, in the 12th chapter, reading verses twenty through twenty-six. Listen for God’s Word to anxious investors, fearful of coming up short, of making mistakes or exposing vulnerability or who simply can’t imagine a return beyond their wildest dreams. [John 12:20-26]

There’s always a tension in Christian faith between life and death, this world and the next. Here Jesus suggests holding that tension tightly, because to invest only in mortal life means you’ll end up losing to the Grim Reaper. But don’t think for a moment that means to disengage from the world to focus instead on your heavenly destination. Instead there’s a kind of freedom in giving yourself –investing yourself, deeply, boldly, faithfully–in service to others just as Jesus did, because you know there is more ahead than the inevitability of the grave. Whoever serves me must follow me, Jesus said, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

Well, we know where “there” is–among the poor and disenfranchised, the hungry and unhoused, the prisoner and migrant, the ones blocked by the powerful from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the “little” ones dismissed and disregarded  and sometimes destroyed by social, political and economic realities set against them. The Church has long understood its mission to be one of service, acts of compassion in Jesus’ name to his beloved people who need them.  Central, you are leaders in these ministries and the range of Summer of Service offerings provides more evidence of your commitment to love your neighbors.

And… (notice I didn’t start this paragraph with “But” as if the two are mutually exclusive), there are ways to invest yourself and your resources in longer -term actions, ones in which you won’t get the immediate gratification of building a Habitat house, or delivering food to New Genesis. They’re a little closer to Jesus’ image of the seed going into the ground where it remains unseen for a period of time, but eventually yields a bountiful harvest.

A woman in our congregation who has been a professional singer described this kind of investing as similar to the passionate intensity of performance. I left it all on the stage, she said. Nothing was held back; she threw all her seeds into the ground.  But then she went on to relate this perspective to the pandemic year of racial reckoning and national turmoil. I have two young daughters staring up at me, and I will not be satisfied by keeping silent or ignoring hard realities. By speaking out, by emphasizing faith values in response to the daily news, and by contributing to church and non-profits that support these values, Charis and Ryan are investing themselves. The seeds of justice they are planting may not be seen…yet…but they are all in, not for today only but for tomorrow, and for their children’s tomorrows.

We all benefit when there is give and take; when we are recipients of grace and goodness and when we share what we have for the good of others.

They let me share this with you because I want to say explicitly that investing in the good can take many forms, including time and skill and passion as well as money. And there is more than one way to use money to bring about good. I know a guy who turned down a lucrative corporate job to work in the non-profit world (I’m not suggesting this is the best or only choice in every life, but for him it was a conscious decision to prioritize the common good beyond his own). Government relief checks and continuing Child Tax Credits in the recent stimulus package will literally double the annual income for 500,000 poor families with two or more children. By some economists’ estimates, the bill could cut child poverty in half this year (see, for example, Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Ending the End of Welfare as We Knew It). Look, there’s some seeds sprouting…

Visionary leadership here in Denver has led to one of the nation’s first efforts to determine the effectiveness of getting money into the hands of poor people. Denver Basic Income Project has partnered with City government, philanthropic groups (I did notice that the only religious group listed was Mile Hi Ministries) and the private sector to provide cash payments to those living in poverty especially those who are unhoused. The program is based on extensive research that correlates direct payments to housing stability, increased and more consistent employment, and improved health. The research also showed that cash recipients prioritized spending on housing, food, transportation, health insurance, utilities–and a whopping 39% reduction in spending on items such alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes  [Denver Post, Your Hub, page 2, May 6, 2021]. Hope and opportunity really can move the needle toward thriving lives…and bumper crops.

Consideration of how our wealth is generated has become an increasingly popular way to keep it consistent with our values.  I heard Denver attorney and philanthropic strategist Bruce DeBoskey challenge foundations and family trusts to evaluate environmental, social and governance factors in portfolio selection and management, which increases the impact of money even before it is donated. [The Denver Post, DeBoskey column On Philanthropy, February 2021] There’s interest in reviewing Central’s Endowment funds through this lens, to reflect our church’s commitment to alleviate human suffering, do justice, and be good stewards of the earth.

Perhaps you have done this with your own portfolio, and I’d love to hear your experiences and insights. Here’s another opportunity. As you know, we are financing part of our renovation project through the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, a non-profit agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Money borrowed through the Program came from Presbyterians just like us. Now we have the opportunity to support another church’s project just like this one, at the same time we are helping Central reduce interest on our loan. We are invited to make an investment through interest-bearing Term Notes. There’s much flexibility about the amount of your investment and length of term. At the end of the term, you can reinvest or withdraw your money with interest. In the meantime, you’re investing in the growth of the Presbyterian Church throughout the United States, and helping Central reduce the cost of our construction loan. There’s information in the newsletter, bulletin, and website, and please don’t hesitate to contact Derek Jones or me to learn more.

It’s something I think the Presbyterians got right about wealth in general. We all benefit when there is give and take; when we are recipients of grace and goodness and when we share what we have for the good of others. Jesus’ centering of the poor and outcast, the “least of these,” undoubtedly reflected the heart of God so full of compassion. He fed the hungry and healed the sick and welcomed the ones judged by others to be “untouchable” because he loved them. But that is not the only reason. Jesus knew that the powerful and privileged needed the Spirit’s embrace as well. Because finally, friends it’s not your money or your life. Both are generous gifts from the One God whom alone we worship and serve.

So let us take these precious gifts and with courage born of trust, let them go into the dark and mysterious earth, tend and nurture them…and prepare for a harvest of love beyond all imagining.

Thanks be to God!

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