Calling on Gospel to Call Off Debt

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Following the advice of their pastor, the men and women shuffled to the altar, cut up their credit cards and placed them near his feet.

"If we want to have victory, we have to come out of financial bondage," the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden shouted during a recent sermon.

Ordinarily Jenkins's sermons are about spiritual freedom and ridding one's self of sin. But his message has taken a different turn lately -- one that preaches the dangers of overspending and debt.

The sermons are not unusual. With the country on the cusp of a recession and many people burdened by the mortgage foreclosure crisis, skyrocketing gas prices and rising grocery bills, religious leaders across the Washington region are increasingly ministering to their members about financial responsibility, encouraging them to control their spending.

"We tell our members, don't buy dresses and shoes, take trips, all on credit," Jenkins said in an interview. "It's killing us."

Churches are going a step further by providing financial counseling and pointing people to local and state programs that help with finances.

McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia offers classes on how to handle money according to Biblical principles. And last month, St. Martin's Catholic Church in Gaithersburg hosted a foreclosure prevention workshop to help those in danger of losing their homes.

The churches' efforts are timely. Consumer debt, which does not include mortgages, reached $2.56 trillion in April, up from $2.28 trillion at the end of 2005, according to the Federal Reserve. And a recent report by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University found that the region has one of the fastest growing foreclosure rates in the country.

In Prince George's County, one in 163 households received some type of foreclosure filing in May, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks foreclosure trends. In Prince William County, the numbers were even more staggering with one in every 92 receiving a default or foreclosure notice.

"What we are trying to get over to people is that we have to teach about stewardship the same way we teach about forgiveness," said the Rev. Kerry A. Hill, president of the Collective Banking Group, a consortium of pastors in Prince George's and the District who help area churches finance projects. "A lot of pastors agree that we have talked about tithing, and we need to talk about the other 90 percent."

Zulay Andrade, 41, of Gaithersburg, was three months behind on her rent and afraid her car would be repossessed when she turned to St. Martin's in Gaithersburg. Unemployed for five months, she had recently returned to a job at Target but was struggling to regain her financial footing on a $350-a-week salary.

After going over her finances, leaders at St. Martin's advised Andrade to negotiate with creditors for a reduction in bills, such as her car payment. This month, the church also gave her $200 toward her rent and put her in touch with a program that kicked in an additional $200 for back rent she owed.

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