Edgar Villanueva: Churches must reimagine their relationship with money

Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, uses the indigenous idea of "money as medicine" as a guide to dismantling colonialism. Photo courtesy of Edgar Villaneuva

With over 15 years engaging in “social justice philanthropy,” an author and member of the Lumbee Tribe encourages faith communities to revitalize the ways that they approach money, wealth and philanthropy.

Even though they couldn’t make the mortgage, Edgar Villanueva’s church gave. They took on significant risks, supporting missionaries, responding to natural disasters, helping hungry families.

They felt called to make major investments in the community, so they did. Even though it was scary, God always just provided, Villanueva said. It was biblical, he said, to continue toward their calling and trust that things were going to be OK.

“Helping generate wealth in diverse communities is one of the greatest things that churches can do,” Villanueva said.

A registered member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Villanueva was first introduced to giving and selflessness through his mother, who did outreach for her church in the time between her several labor-intensive domestic jobs. She was passionate about getting people to church, especially kids, he said.

Villanueva is now a leading expert in global philanthropy and serves as the vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. He is the author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance.”

Villanueva spoke to Faith & Leadership about philanthropy and how the church can better engage with wealth. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with modern philanthropy.

Being a person who works with money and wealth, and being a Native [American] working inside these charitable institutions for about 15 years now, I’ve had a lot of contradictions that I’ve had to hold. My own personal journey of healing helped me get to the place to understand that money and wealth actually does not have to be something that causes trauma and separation in our communities. It can actually be a tool of ministry and a tool of healing.

Book cover - Decolonizing WealthPeople misquote the scripture all the time and say, “Money is the root of all evil.” Those of us who know the scripture know that that’s a misquote; the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil, so money is actually a neutral thing. It’s the love of money that becomes the problem. If we love money more than we do people, if we love money more than we do relationships and community, that’s where the [evil] is. I make the case in my book, “Decolonizing Wealth,” that money is actually neutral.

It’s how we use resources that matters. If we’ve used resources in the past as a way to divide and conquer and control and dominate communities, can we use wealth and money in a way that actually repairs that, helps to facilitate healing, a connection, and builds relationships? I say yes.

Q: Talk a little about the process of writing your book and how you found healing through that process.

After a number of years doing this work, I started feeling very heavy, like I had a burden. I also experienced different situations, some that I share in the book, where I just felt like I couldn’t believe this is how things really are.

“Philanthropy” literally means love of mankind, and I was working in institutions where I didn’t feel any type of love. I just felt very convicted that I wanted to do something to really push on our idea of philanthropy and wealth.

While writing the book, I also began to see the reality of how things were -- that in the philanthropic sector, only crumbs of money actually go to communities of color. Only about 7.5 to 8 percent of grants go to communities of color. Less than 1 percent of funding goes to Native [American] communities. I felt that was really unjust considering the role that people of color and the indigenous people have played in this country’s history to help amass that wealth, and so I started saying these things to people, and people couldn’t believe it.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? In native communities, we say “all my relations,” which is the same concept. If we were in a place where we were loving our neighbors as ourselves, then we would operate a lot differently in our organizations, and invest differently in our communities.

I’ve been out being an evangelist for that message. I’m preaching love. In 2018, I was named a radical critic of philanthropy, and I thought it was really sad that the idea of love and justice are considered to be radical in this space.

I was just conflicted by all these things that I felt were really unfair. I started writing this book out of a place of pain and anger, and then at a certain point in my process, it diverted. I got reconnected to my calling and why I do this work. I spent a lot of time talking to indigenous elders and other leaders I felt were forward-thinking about the world, and I decided that I don’t want this book to be angry. I wanted to explore what being in a community is really about.

Q: How can faith communities navigate money as a neutral rather than an evil or a positive?

It is tricky. I think that often in communities of faith, we don’t talk about money enough. Of course, there’s the time that Jesus went into the temple and [overturned] the tables, and we don’t want to make the temple like a marketplace.

But for me, that means we’re not supposed to get caught up in terms of materialism and worldly desires. [It’s] not that money is a subject that shouldn’t be discussed. The Bible talks about money more than any other subject, so I don’t think we should ever shy away from that conversation.

I think the church and faith communities have such a critical role to play in thinking about how resources and wealth should be more equally or equitably distributed in their communities. The nonprofit sector in the United States originated from the faith community, and this whole charitable sector all began in the church.

Churches have to use our resources and our platforms to really push for transformative change in communities that will lead to sweeping changes for people who are living in poverty.

I think sometimes churches are afraid to get political. I know there are certain limitations within the law, but there’s a lot more that we can be doing to advocate for social justice and to push back on some of the things that we see happening that go against our faith. I definitely feel discouraged when I see faith leaders jumping on board with leaders that are passing policies that are really harming our communities.

I think we sometimes misunderstand the scripture that says we should pray for our leaders. Yes, we should, but we also need to be very firm in our convictions. To look at Jesus, who in the Christian faith we model our lives after, and see that he was very much focused on people, and that didn’t always align with those who were in power.

Q: How can mostly white churches do better work with indigenous people and people of color?

The first step is acknowledging the history. In the second half of my book, [which lays out] seven steps to healing, I outline how people can begin to go on this journey.

The very first step is to grieve. The truth is when we come to terms as people or as organizations with the nasty history of racism and colonization, it’s sad. And you’re going to feel -- if your heart is really sincere -- a sadness about it, especially if you are part of an organization or a family that was on the front lines of causing someone this harm.

I know several people who have researched their family history and learned that their families owned slaves, and some of them even have the paperwork that shows names. No one wants to think of their loved ones as people who were involved and were engaged in that.

Same with the church, a place that brings us so much joy and belonging. To imagine that there’s a role that the church has played in racism and colonization -- that’s really hard.

But in order to move forward and to heal, we have to dig deep into the darkness and the ugliness of that reality and let the grief work its way through us before we can even respond. Once that happens, you’re going to be in a much better position to actually go out and do something about it.

The second step that I outline is to apologize. When you apologize, that means that you are acknowledging your role and making a conscious effort to not be involved in anything that is going to harm communities going forward.

Indigenous people and many people of color in this country, we’ve never had a public process of truth and reconciliation like they’ve had in other countries, like in Canada, South Africa, Australia.

I never heard from the U.S. government that they were sorry for what has happened, for every treaty that’s been broken. When we hear “I’m sorry,” it just completely liberates the person that’s apologizing and also begins to set [those who were wronged] free in all kinds of ways. That’s really all that most people want -- that acknowledgment.

It’s not about money. It’s not about [feeling] like you owe us something necessarily, but it’s that we want to be seen, heard and understood. There’s a major role that the church can play in supporting that type of healing process in our communities.

Q: What would engagement with reparations look like for faith communities?

Everyone immediately gets shut down when you say “reparations,” because it sounds like -- it’s a scary word. It seems like the country will just go bankrupt. But other countries have figured it out, and faith communities should explore this.

I think the church can be a place where we begin to educate people about all of this, so reparations wouldn’t seem like such a scary and impossible concept. Really, the reason that we haven’t been able to get there is because we haven’t done the other work first.

We are not truly sorry. If we were truly sorry as a country, we would be open to a conversation about how to repair the damage that has been done. Because we have not been truly sorry, fixing this feels almost impossible.

If churches were on the front end making connections and relationships rather than having conversations and meetings, we could get to the point where we could have conversations about reparations and it wouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea.

I don’t necessarily think that churches need to take all their money and give it out. But I do think that they hold a lot of political power and a lot of space to educate and engage people, and they could be supporting conversations about racism and reparations.

Sometimes, churches do sit on big pots of money, whether that’s through their endowments or donations or they’re just a big church. As people of faith, we have to be keenly aware of how we’re using money. Whether you’ve got $5 or you have millions of dollars, we have to be aware of how our money is being invested.

Are we invested in harmful industries, like tobacco and private prisons? Unfortunately, a lot of the funds that seem to make the most money are the ones that are connected to dynamics of colonization. Our motives have to be around investing in communities rather than just making more money.

We have a say-so about where we invest our money -- our retirement funds and our investments and endowments. We have a say-so in the vendors that we choose to select and in the businesses that we use. Those are just small ways that businesses or churches or organizations can think critically about the ways that we’re using our wealth. Questions like, Can we sometimes hire a catering company that is owned by a woman of color just to spread the wealth?

Sunday is the most segregated day of the week, [but] by being mindful about money, the church can actually open up its doors and build relationships with people.

Helping generate wealth in diverse communities is one of the greatest things that churches can do.