Credit unions are effective tools for the Church
They are not to convert people to Christianity but an effort to improve the lives of all people
Today, Indonesia celebrates National Cooperatives Day. But for the Indonesian Church it could mean something else -- a celebration of the success of credit unions. Indeed, the presence of credit unions in Indonesia has undoubtedly benefited many people, particularly the poor. For the Catholic Church, credit unions have become a popular way of reaching out to people since they were first introduced by a German Jesuit priest, Father Albrecht Karim Arbie, in 1960. Ever since then, the Church has considered a credit union a means of teaching people about values such as self-help, responsibility, compassion, democracy, equality, justice, solidarity, love, brotherhood, togetherness and honesty. These values made the Church continue what Father Arbie started. In 1975, a credit union was introduced in West Kalimantan and several others were later formed. However, they all later collapsed. The Church didn’t give up and revived the idea by establishing the Credit Union Pancur Kasih in Pontianak archdiocese in 1986, and which is today regarded as the largest credit unions in Indonesia. At present, credit unions have mushroomed in nearly all the dioceses in the country. All have one goal, which is to help the poor and marginalized improve their lives. "Credit Unions are not vehicles to convert people to Christianity but part of the Church’s efforts to improve living standards for all people. It is the manifestation of the Catholic responsibility to proclaim the Good News to others,” said Capucin Archbishop Hieronymus Bumbun of Pontianak. Through credit unions, people learn how to manage their own finances for long-term benefits such as health care, education, investment and insurance. Currently more than 1.3 million people across Indonesia have seen their lives improve after joining a local credit union. Today, the question is no longer about whether a credit union is relevant to Indonesian people in the age of globalization. The question perhaps now is how to make them sustainable, which is also a challenge for the Church. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia, credit unions were able to survive because their strength lay with the people. Their strength is not just that they are a solution to economic problems; they are also a binding force that pulls people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Probably that was the intention of Father Arbie 50 years ago, when he introduced that first credit union while he was working as the director of Jakarta archdiocese’s social development organization. What Father Arbie introduced in 1960 has become an evangelical tool in many dioceses throughout the country. During a 2005 synod, the Indonesian bishops recommended Catholics develop micro-finance institutions to boost social and economic conditions at Basic Ecclesial Community levels. The recommendation was then reformulated in a bishops’ pastoral letter in 2006 titled New Habitus: Just Economy for all. In the letter the bishops said: “Credit unions run by Catholics should care for the poor.” A credit union was seen as part of the “new habitus” where goodness, love and justice became the catalyst for individuals and groups to act. The late Pope John Paul II, in Centessimus Annus, explained that a credit union is a human endeavor that can shed light on the Kingdom of God, leading to the creation of justice and love for the common welfare of Man.