Sandusky church makes loans to working poor around world

SANDUSKY Gbamra Akouda, a farmer in Togo, Africa, needed $300 to buy fertilizers and other good
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010



Gbamra Akouda, a farmer in Togo, Africa, needed $300 to buy fertilizers and other goods to increase his yield of sorghum.

Marcos Bogado of Paraguay, who makes and sells tapioca, needed a $1,000 loan to buy raw materials.

Sergei Dzenkov, who sells car parts in Ukraine, was looking for a $1,575 loan to buy more car parts.

All of these people, separated by thousands of miles, have something in common. They received part of the money they needed as a no-interest loan from members of a church congregation in Erie County.

St. Stephen United Church of Christ, 905 E. Perkins Ave., raised $1,960 from its congregation, taking contributions of $20 and up. The church has made $5,900 of loans so far, without ever losing any money. It has participated in 75 loans to people in 23 countries on five continents.

"We're just trying to help the people who need it," said Roger Kleckner, 62, a retired Margaretta Schools teacher who organized the effort.

The church makes its loans through, a San Francisco Web site set up to make it easy for people to make small loans to entrepreneurs all over the world. Anyone willing to put up as little as $25 can make a loan to people in Asia, Africa, South America and other Third World areas. Recently, loans also began inside the United States.

The local church's efforts is part of a worldwide movement called microlending, also known as microcredit. The concept was invented by Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor from Bangladesh who discovered in 1976 that very small loans could make a big difference in the lives of poor people. Yunus' first loan, $27, was made to 42 Bangladeshi women who bought bamboo to make furniture.

Last week, when President Barack Obama awarded the 2009 Presidential Medals of Freedom at the White House, most of them went to better-known celebrities, including Sandra Day O'Connor, Billie Jean King, Sidney Poitier and Desmond Tutu.

But Obama also presented one of the medals to Yunus.

"Mohammed Yunus was just trying to help a village, but he somehow managed to change the world," Obama said.

St. Stephen United Church of Christ -- listed as Firelands Area UCC on the site -- has made 75 loans so far.

The loans from the church are pooled together with loans from other groups and individuals.

For example, Akouda, the African farmer, a married 32-year-old father of two, got only part of his $300 loan from the St. Stephen fund. The church's money was pooled with money from people in California, Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Minnesota.

Kleckner saw a program on microlending and wondered if it was something he could do at his church.

Because he spends his winters in Arizona, Kleckner actually has two churches. He began by raising money from the church in Arizona. That worked well, so he asked members of St. Stephen to give it a try. is run strictly as a charity, so no interest is received on the loans. Almost all of it is paid back, however, so the loan money has been recycled into new loans. The church considers it a mission project, not an investment, Kleckner said.

Sandusky's church has "never lost a dime," Kleckner said. The Arizona church's only loss was $32 loaned to a woman in Kenya, who had repaid two-thirds of her loan but disappeared after violent disturbances in the country killed many people. No one knows what happened to her, Kleckner said. has made more than $86 million in loans to about 210,000 people in 182 countries, according to its Web site. The repayment rate is more than 98 percent. The average loan was about $411.