Spiritual Communities from Debt
is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a
journalist whose current positions include the entertainment
and a Nashville correspondent
"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." That
petition from the Lord's prayer is taking on new meaning
as churches across the nation pass the collection plate-for
the specific purpose of paying off the credit card debts
of congregation members.
At the forefront of this trend is Bishop C. Vernie Russell
of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.
A few years ago, Russell was inspired by passages in the
biblical book of Acts that described how the early Christians
shared what they had. His idea was to launch a Debt Liquidation
Revival in his mostly African-American church, with the
goal of getting his congregation on solid financial ground.
Now he is leading his flock into the promised land of financial
freedom. "You can't serve the Master and MasterCard," he
is fond of saying. His sermons warn against instant gratification
and 20 percent interest rates on credit cards, while emphasizing
the importance of paying cash and saving money.
Each month, one family is chosen to have its debts paid
off by the church. So far, the Mount Carmel congregation
has liquidated the debts of 75 families at a cost of more
than $600,000. During the rousing monthly service, church
members give an offering to the debt-laden family. At the
end of the service the family cuts up all its credit cards.
A jar full of credit-card halves sits on the pulpit as a
reminder of the congregation's progress. Russell's goal
is to eventually have every member debt-free.
of Financial Empowerment
From this day forward, I declare my vigilant and
lifelong commitment to financial empowerment. I
pledge the following:
of Mount Carmel Baptist Church are practicing principles
of the Declaration of Financial Empowerment.
save and invest 10% to 15% of my after-tax income
be a proactive and informed investor
be a disciplined and knowledgeable consumer
measure my personal wealth by net worth, not income
engage in sound budget, credit, and tax management
teach business and financial principles to my
use a portion of my personal wealth to strengthen
support the creation and growth of profitable,
competitive black-owned enterprises
maximize my earning power through a commitment
to career development, technological literacy,
and professional excellence
ensure that my wealth is passed on to future generations
The Declaration of Financial Empowerment is the central
focus of the Black Wealth Initiative of
magazine. Reprinted with permission,
magazine, New York, NY. © 2002 Earl G. Graves Publishing
Co., Inc, and © 2003 Gale Group. All rights reserved.
inspired Pastor Marvin J. Bentley to launch his own debt-free
mission at the 1,000-member Antioch Baptist Church of Corona,
New York. "One thing that has often been a problem for churches
is that many members will tell you they can't tithe," Bentley
says. "Usually it has something to do with how they manage
their money. Our philosophy is that you can't ask folk to
give if you don't show them how to save and manage their money
effectively. You can't really expect them to allow you into
one of the most sacred arenas of their personal lives unless
you go in there with them, in terms of offering some kind
of help. We say to them, 'If we help you get out of debt,
you owe us some control over what happens from here on out.
If you're not willing to sign a covenant, don't accept this
which began in September 2002, has raised $90,000 to free
14 families from debt. To participate, each family must
agree to commit to God, to the church, and to tithing; attend
debt liquidation workshops; and "Each month, one family
is chosen to have its debt paid off by the church." join
the church's credit union. In addition, they agree not to
purchase anything new (except for necessities) for the next
seven months. A key feature of the program is that each
family also agrees to make monthly payments to the church
for a limited period of time, to help free other families
from debt. "Let's say you were paying $700 a month in credit
card payments," says Bentley. "The maximum that you would
be asked to chip in for other families is $300 a month over
a threeyear period. We don't ask anybody to give back more
than $300 per month, no matter how much they owed." With
the combined payments from congregation members, Bentley
says, "it takes about two or three months to free the next
family that has been selected."
Of the participating
families, none had fewer than three credit cards; one had
16. But now, "all who have been delivered," says Bentley,
"have two or three bank accounts and are working on more.
We talk about CDs and other ways to invest money. It's fun
when you have money you can play with."
program has been very successful, it has not been unanimously
accepted by the congregation. "You would think the program
would be overwhelmingly embraced by our members," says Bentley,
"but it's not." He attributes his congregation's reticence
to New York City skepticism. "New York is one of the most
cynical, non-trusting places on the planet." But as participation
grows, so does the congregation's enthusiasm. "Now that
it is successful with the few who have been embracing it,
we've created a 'spiritual debt liquidation cult' within
the church that is growing."
The effects on
the families who have been helped have been profound. One
woman lost much of her anger after having her debt relieved.
"It has been a complete change in her life," says Bentley.
"She just found peace. Part of her anger was dealing with
her bills not being in order."
For another member,
says Bentley, "this [debt liquidation] ministry has changed
her life so much. She was delivered for just $1,500, but
it was $1,500 that she didn't have. Now she is leading a
prayer group on her job and she's about to become a deacon
of the church. She was always a solid, good member anyway,
but now the Lord has given her a different spirit."
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