From Hand Out to Hand Up
Their accents put the sound of Arkansas into the air. But Christian businessmen Dale Dawson, Dabbs Cavin, and Todd Brogdon are half a world away from Little Rock. They are in the garden of Des Milles Collines, better known as Hotel Rwanda and featured in the film by that name. These three are here on a life-changing mission: to help build Rwanda's largest bank for the poorest of the poor.
How these men got from Arkansas to Rwanda is a story they eagerly retold to Christianity Today during their recent trip to this East African nationone still recovering from the 1994 war and genocide.
Economics of transformation
Dawson spent the first half of his life in investment banking and later went into the truck-parts business. By the time Dawson sold his firm to the AutoZone retail chain, it was the largest in the U.S. He was 46 and well-off beyond his dreams. He went back into investment banking, but sensed that something was missing. "I had lost the passion," he said. "I was in the wilderness." Dawson envied friends who could "surrender everything and go to serve God in Africa." Finally, it clicked. "I needed to make myself available to God."
Dawson prayerfully did so, and things began to happen. He found himself at an event hosted by Opportunity International, the Chicago-area ministry that specializes in microenterprise development.
Microenterprise makes small loans to organized groups of entrepreneurs, helping them build sustainable local businesses such as dressmaking or selling produce. Last year, this poverty-fighting strategy grabbed global headlines when Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank from Bangladesh won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Microenterprise is designed to reach the chronically poor. In many nations, 90 percent of clients are women. More than 3,100 programs operate worldwide. Major faith-based groups, including World Vision, are involved as well as major banks, such as Citigroup.
Having come from big business, Dawson thought microfinance sounded strange. At the OI conference, he watched a video of a Filipino woman who got up at 3 A.M. each day to sell vegetables. It gripped him because years ago his father had sold milk, eggs, and ice. The impact was piercing. "I just began to cry. I knew I had found my calling," he said. He worked up a personal vision statement"To build a bridge between the rich and the poor and to transform both"and then waited to see where God would lead him next.
In the meantime, Dabbs Cavin was being stirred. Instead of truck parts, Cavin had made his money in community banks. In 2002, Cavin and his partners sold their bank in Little Rock to a larger bank. Cavin had always wanted to serve God in Africa. Now he was free and financially able to do so. But where? In Little Rock, Cavin was part of a small breakaway congregation, whose members had split from the local, left-leaning Episcopal parish. Their church, St. Andrew's, turned to Rwandan Bishop John Rucyahana for pastoral oversight.
Soon Cavin found himself in northern Rwanda helping out at Sonrise, the bishop's top-ranked Christian school. Returning to Arkansas, he raised $1 million to support the school, seeking the help of a longtime friend: Dale Dawson.
After helping raise the funds, Dawson asked Bishop Rucyahana what else he could do. "He quickly told me that, while his school for orphans could provide superior education and business training, unless Rwanda had a better economy to provide career opportunities, his students would leave after graduation for America or Europe."