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Calling on Gospel to Call Off Debt
As Financial Crisis Grows, Many Turn to Church for Help

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.

"I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't been for the church," said Andrade, the mother of one teenager. "I had gone to social services, but they said they wouldn't help because I was working."

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said the problem for some church members is that "Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with money."

On the one hand, Wolfe said, believers are told that the love of money is the root of all evil. Then there are those who preach a prosperity gospel, which promotes that God wants believers to have an abundant life with extraordinary financial blessings.

Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most renowned preachers of the prosperity gospel, has not tailored his messages to address the changes in the economy or how people should manage their money. But his Dallas-based church, the Potter's House, offers a program that provides tips on financial literacy, budgeting and credit restoration.

Spokesman Curtis Coats said about 250 people are enrolled, with 108 more on a waiting list. Over the past year, 1,000 people have finished the course.

"There has been a huge increase over the past year," Coats said, citing the economy as a driving force.

In the Washington region, churches have recently partnered with the state and federal governments to host foreclosure prevention forums. Some have distributed brochures that suggest that people contact their bank to create a "workout" plan, find creative ways to save, and seek legal advice if they believe they have been a victim of predatory lending.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has encouraged ministers to discuss the foreclosure crisis, saying that religious leaders built their churches "on the middle-class bubble of success." If churches do not address the foreclosure crisis, he said in a December visit to Prince George's, parishioners will not only suffer, but "your churches will suffer" as well.

So far, some area churches say they remain fiscally strong despite the struggling economy. It's their members that leaders such as the Rev. Timothy R. Wood, pastor of the Calvary Gospel Church in Waldorf, worry about.

"We can't pay people's mortgages, but we can do more with the food bank," said Wood, explaining how churches such as his are finding ways to help people other than by giving them cash.

Church leaders at St. Martin's, which regularly provides credit counseling to its parishioners, said they have been inundated with calls from people seeking help with their mortgages, rent and utilities. About 50 people attended last month's foreclosure prevention workshop.

"We saw the crisis and decided that we had to do something," said Adriana Ferpozzi, social concerns minister at St. Martin's. "Many times people wait too late and they lose their homes."

The close relationship between people and their churches has prompted state officials to work with the faith-based community to identify homeowners facing foreclosure and warn people of the dangers of mortgage rescue scams. In turn, area churches are directing struggling members to state programs.

The Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, said his church acts as a liaison for the government because houses of worship are limited in how they can help people. He said some churches set aside money to help its members in financial distress, but the amount is restricted and almost always less than the need. "We're going to direct them to places that can help them navigate through the system," Browning said.

Money management sermons and classes have been part of the ministry at First Baptist Church of Glenarden for about 10 years. About 120 students take the classes each year, and there is always a waiting list. The pastor said interest in the classes has picked up this year. Les Hamilton, a member of First Baptist who enrolled in the 10-week seminar this spring, said he tried to get into the course last year but couldn't because there was a waiting list. Hamilton said he and his wife signed up "not because of financial hardship, just my thirst for God's principles on money."

Hamilton said the class offered tips to prevent him from getting into a financial bind, reminding him not to lend money to friends or to whip out a credit card for something he can pay cash for.

Brenda Miller, laid off from her job as an information technology specialist two years ago, also attended First Baptist's class in the spring. She said she has been able to live off her savings and has never missed a payment on her mortgage. The class gave her the advice she believes will help her stay afloat financially until she gains steady employment. "I had some issues that I needed to get answers to biblically," said Miller, 46, of Waldorf.

It was a decade ago that Katrina Clements enrolled in the class to help pay off $30,000 in credit card debt. "It was very foolish spending," said Clements, 56, a registered nurse from Waldorf who racked up $500,000 in credit card charges over 15 years. "I was spending as I was living. I had no true direction as to how to spend and how to save."

Clements said she used her credit cards to make a down payment on a Mercedes Benz. Following advice from the class, Clements contacted her creditors and persuaded some to adjust her balances. She also got rid of things she didn't need: one of her cars, gym equipment and her two lifetime gym memberships. She stopped eating out so much and downgraded her cable and phone service.

In 15 months, Clements was out of debt.

"I know the difference between a need and a want," she said. "I know that it's okay to shop at thrift stores, and not always buy designers. It's okay to fix my own breakfast in the morning and not stop at 7-Eleven."

These days, she testifies to participants in the Financial Freedom class about her experience.

"I could not lean to my own understanding," Clements said, paraphrasing a scripture. "It wasn't for me to figure out, it was me turning it totally over to God to figure out."

Staff writer Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.

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