More Than Money
Issue #37
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Money and Community

Table of Contents

“Entering the Promised Land”

Freeing Spiritual Communities from Debt

By Beverly Keel

Beverly Keel is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a journalist whose current positions include the entertainment editor of American Profile and a Nashville correspondent for People Magazine.

"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.

Declaration of Financial Empowerment

From this day forward, I declare my vigilant and lifelong commitment to financial empowerment. I pledge the following:

  • To save and invest 10% to 15% of my after-tax income
  • To be a proactive and informed investor
  • To be a disciplined and knowledgeable consumer
  • To measure my personal wealth by net worth, not income
  • To engage in sound budget, credit, and tax management practices
  • To teach business and financial principles to my children
  • To use a portion of my personal wealth to strengthen my community
  • To support the creation and growth of profitable, competitive black-owned enterprises
  • To maximize my earning power through a commitment to career development, technological literacy, and professional excellence
  • To ensure that my wealth is passed on to future generations
Members of Mount Carmel Baptist Church are practicing principles of the Declaration of Financial Empowerment.
The Declaration of Financial Empowerment is the central focus of the Black Wealth Initiative of Black Enterprise magazine. Reprinted with permission, Black Enterprise magazine, New York, NY. 2002 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc, and 2003 Gale Group. All rights reserved.
Russell's actions 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 money.'"

The program, 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."

Although the 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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