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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Black clergy seek economic freedom for their flocks

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“Almighty Debt,” the most recent CNN documentary in the network’s series on African-Americans, related how severely debt imposes complex, real-life financial challenges whether the issue is foreclosure, long-term unemployment, or financing higher education.

Central to the documentary was Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr. of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., whose members were also featured.

Rev. Soaries is not alone. There are more pastors, congregations and alliances that have made a serious commitment to both economic justice and financial literacy.

In fact, these clergy view economic empowerment and justice as an essential part of their clerical duties. Theirs is not a choice between serving the church or its community; but rather the divine power that has dominion over both.

Negotiating better terms

For example, Bishop T. D. Jakes, an author and senior pastor of the Dallas-based Potter’s House, has a nonprofit organization, the Metroplex Economic Development Corp., that teaches the basics of credit and debt management. This wing of Bishop Jakes’ numerous endeavors also meets with banks and negotiates better terms for his flock and community.

In a recent guest opinion for CNN, Bishop Jakes wrote, “What we must realize is that it is not wrong for people to want a new home or car. But it was wrong for financial institutions to prey on those desires with unbalanced financial solutions.”

That financial imbalance experienced by many African-Americans is also the focus of the Collective Banking Group Inc. (CBG), formed in 1993.

Following the call to serve as a pastor in a Maryland church in 1988, Rev. Jonathan Weaver led his church out of debt with early retirement of a $200,000 mortgage incurred before his service. As the church grew and sought a $50,000 loan for expansion, the same lender advised Rev. Weaver that the bank would “consider” the smaller loan only if a number of conditions were met: collateralize the mortgage; secure an appraisal and three church trustees who would personally guarantee the loan. The bank didn’t consider relevant the fact that the church held accounts with it for 25 years.

Rev. Weaver then sent the president of the bank a letter asserting that he would soon advise his 750-member congregation of the bank’s decision and ask them to consider whether they should retain their individual accounts with the lender. Soon after that, the same bank official who had set the loan terms promptly reversed himself and approved the loan without additional conditions.

More importantly, Rev. Weaver subsequently discovered that other pastors and church members in Prince Georges County, Md., and the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area had similar experiences with lenders. Long-term, faithful and regular deposits seemed never enough to secure financing from area lenders.

Collective banking expands

Their collective concerns led to the founding of CBG with 20 churches in the D.C. metro area. Today, Rev. Weaver serves as CBG’s national president and the faithful alliance has grown to 150 congregations representing 175,000 congregants through chapters in Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Md.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Miami, Fla.

Research by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) has shown consumer lending concerns in many of these same locales, particularly as they relate to African-American foreclosures.

CBG’s Miami chapter is now strengthening and revising its 10-point agreement with its bank partners and is in discussions with another major lender.

Hundreds get homes

According to Rev. Joaquin Willis, who serves dual roles as vice president of the national CBG and president of CBG-Miami-Dade and Vicinity, “Church members and interested community members received homebuyer education and loan packaging programs that successfully placed hundreds of families in homes during these crisis years – without any problems at all. In 2010, we began to implement a back-end solution with the National Association of Consumer Activists (NACA) who contacted us.”

“CBG Miami and NACA together developed a series of preliminary workshops to prepare people for pre-packaging home loan modifications,” said Willis. “We opened our doors to troubled homeowners, whether they were a church member or not.”

“We are anxious to expand the number of people served and drill deeper into the problem of debt,” said Willis. In Miami we are looking to also do collective buying and collective building in addition to continuing our efforts on collective banking.”

CBG’s vision is “to stimulate and actualize economic empowerment in the African-American community and other underserved communities; and to leave a legacy for future generations.”

Weaver, the Maryland pastor, said, “We’ve got to learn to manage very, very carefully the money that has been entrusted to our care. The days of treating money frivolously need to be long gone. I think the reverends and all of CBG deserve an ‘amen.’”

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s communications manager for state policy and outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org

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