Geico and Ten Thousand Villages have one thing in common. They both eliminate the middle man. One claims to save you money on your car insurance. The other brings you handmade craft items from around the world and pays the artisans who make them a fair wage.

Will Rupp is the president of a group which is planning to bring a Ten Thousand Villages store to Oak Park in 2007. Raised as a Mennonite in Lancaster County, Penn., Will decided to work in a government hospital in Haiti for two years after he finished his medical internship in the 1950s. While in Haiti he became convinced that direct relief to Third World countries often created an unhealthy dependency.

He became interested in a project fellow Mennonites started way back in 1946. Rupp learned that a Mennonite woman had visited a friend in Puerto Rico. While there she encountered women weavers who were doing excellent work but charging next to nothing for the textiles they were producing. She bought as many pieces as she could fit in her luggage, brought them back to Pennsylvania and sold them to neighbors and friends for a price many times greater than what she had paid for them. She then sent all the money she had collected back to the women who had made them, asked them to send her more and the program that would grow into Ten Thousand Villages was born.

The concept is called “fair trade.” Fair trade, Ten Thousand Villages-style, is based on the following principles:

 A fair price – Artisans (from Third World countries) set the price for all of their products, covering labor, materials and a livelihood, with dignity.

 Cash advances and prompt final payments – Artisans receive up to 50 percent in cash advances when an order is placed, and payment in full when an order is shipped.

 Long-term relationships – Artisans can plan for the future with consistent orders from year to year.

 Design assistance – Artisans build on their traditional skills with trend and color information (from Ten Thousand Villages), new product suggestions and visits from buyers and designers.

Ten Thousand Villages, with over 100 stores in the United States alone, grossed $16,085,864 in the fiscal year which ended last March. It is a nonprofit arm of the Mennonite Central Committee of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. In the last fiscal year, the U.S. stores purchased $1,180,382 worth of goods from artisans in India, $806,660 from Pakistan, $300,885 from Peru, and $2,821,267 worth of product from 21 other countries, including Swaziland and Burkina Faso.

Customers at Ten Thousand Villages stores in Evanston and Glen Ellyn can buy ceramic planters made by Nguyen Thi Yen in Vietnam, baskets created from banana leaf by Carol Namayanja in Uganda, or star garlands produced by Sobita Sarkar in Bangladesh.

Among the board members whom Rupp has assembled locally, several have had overseas experiences similar to that which their president had in Haiti. For example, Jennifer Murtoff, who currently lives in Oak Park, learned how purchases made in North America have a financial and environmental impact on people living in Costa Rica while she was studying there for a semester. She also discovered that many countries producing goods for sale in our country do not have laws to protect the laborers.

Jan Lugibihl, also an Oak Park resident, became interested in fair trade while working in the Philippines with the Mennonite Central Committee in the 1980s. While there, she got to know Fr. Shea Cullen, a priest who ran a home for boys off the streets. She recalled, “The boys came from very poor families and most of them had worked in the entertainment industry, often as prostitutes. Fr. Shea and his staff taught the boys to make baskets and rattan furniture, and Ten Thousand Villages was one of their biggest customers. Seeing the boys’ self-esteem grow as they learned a skill and earned their own money was amazing.”

Most also seem to share Rupp’s spirituality, a way of relating to God which can be summarized in a quip attributed to St. Francis which goes something like, “Preach Christ at all times. Use words if necessary!” Lugibihl said, “I know that I am among the privileged in this world, and I believe we who are privileged are called to use our gifts to help those who have fewer choices than we do. I believe that Jesus wants everyone to have enough, to have work that confers dignity, and to have options.”

Megy Karydes, who attends St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln Park said, “My family came to America as refugees from Cyprus when a war forced them to leave their homeland in 1974. Growing up, we were taught to appreciate what we had. We have so many privileges in our country, and I strongly believe each and every one of us has an obligation to do what we can to make our world a better place to live for our families, neighbors next door and neighbors across the world.”

Jennifer Murtoff put it this way: “I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, which is affiliated with Mennonite Mutual Aid, the parent organization of Ten Thousand Villages. I believe that part of the world-wide church is to help the oppressed, poor, and less fortunate. There are various Biblical references to this calling, both in the Old and New Testaments.”

Will Rupp and his fellow board members were attracted to the work of Ten Thousand Villages because of their approach to global missions which emphasizes sustainable development, trading partnerships, capacity building, gender equity, good working conditions and care for the environment.

An article at the Ten Thousand Villages website (www.tenthousandvillages.com) entitled “How We Practice Fair Trade” includes a story about Maya Halder who makes palm leaf star garlands in Agailjhara, Bangladesh. Halder said, “We are poor, distressed women working at Keya Palm to build our lives. By working together, we are able to overcome our problems. We become united in one mind. We will send our children to school with our earnings. Also, we are able to purchase our food and clothing. From our profits, we plow our gardens and cultivate crops, we repair our houses and plant trees.”

Jennifer Murtoff remembered the lessons she learned in Costa Rica when she articulated her hope for the store scheduled to open next year. “I hope that, through this store, we can better educate people in and around Oak Park about fair trade and the impact a purchase can have on the life of someone 8,000 miles away.”

Megy Karydes added, “My hope is that one day our world will understand the importance of fair wages, decent working conditions, and no child or sweatshop labor as a reality rather than a dream.”

Concluded Jan Lugibihl, “The world gets smaller and smaller as technology brings us closer together, yet it seems we really know less and less about each other. I think a Ten Thousand Villages store will help people in Oak Park and surrounding communities connect in a meaningful way with folks in other parts of the world.”

First the food pantries, then PADS, then the Walk-In Ministry which opened last year, and next year Ten Thousand Villages. That is how religious progressives work in this country. Preferring to use words like “serve” and “educate” rather than “evangelize,” they seek to change people’s hearts and minds through serving the needs of the poor and oppressed.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...