The Black Church is Losing Faith in Big Banks - The Grio, October 21, 2011

From The Grio

As the fight against big banks and Wall Street carries on, Aaron Williams said he believes black churches are not doing enough. That is why he and a coalition of black church leaders are coming together to figure out what role they can play in Seattle.

"I have been talking about the problem and preaching about the problem," said the pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, WA. "We have to come up with a strategy."

Historically, Williams said, the black church has been more reactionary than it has been on the offense.

"Certainly we are doing that now, we are reacting. For the most part, the black church has not thought strategically enough on how we can make an impact on a larger scale," he said.

"Boycotting has always worked in the black community. If we hit them in their pocket, then that is where it can start to work. Until we start to hit them in their pockets, then they will start to listen."

Many are familiar with the grassroots efforts that have been taking place across the country over the past few weeks.

You have some occupying Wall Street in New York, while others are doing the same in Atlanta and other major cities. Other groups are holding die-ins in banks in Chicago and in San Jose, People Acting in Community Together (PACT) divested from Bank of America and other major banks, ending years and years of relationships and businesses and moving to credit unions.

Many of these organizations are affiliated with the New Bottom Line campaign .

Jordan Estevao, bank accountability campaign director of the National People's Action - another organization affiliated with the New Bottom Line campaign - said they have been working with local Black churches for years.

"The mainstream media has been paying attention since 2008 when it started to hit a lot of white people," Estevao said. "But our organization has been working on this for 30 years now."
He said their roots are in the black community, adding they were warning about the impeding predatory lending and loans crisis before the crisis went mainstream.

"We saw it happening in the communities we work. We were sounding the alarm to the regulators that the [home loan industry] was a house of cards and [would soon] tumble down," he said.

He said the response now has been a tricky one. Their minority issue has become a majority issue. 

"That's what you want. You want the majority on your side. It is easier to win and get results when you have the majority on your side. It's a good thing," he said. "But on the other hand, we are trying to inject into the conversation that 99 percent of people that have been screwed by the excesses and by the unscrupulous practices of the financial industry are people of color."

Estevao said as families go into foreclosure the first place they are going to go is to the church and pastor. Churches are getting overwhelmed by the need of their parishioners. Not to mention, as whole communities get wiped out by foreclosure, collections fall behind causing churches to get behind on their mortgages.

And even though churches getting involved in these movements may result in the church ended up on the wrong side with their banking institutions, Estevao said they have not come across a church that has been hesitant to stand up and fight.

"If there is a reason for a church to not get involved [it is] because they are just so overwhelmed," he said. "They are stretched very thin. Most of the churches we have been working with have taken a principle stand at least in spirit if not otherwise."

Williams believes there could be some sort of backlash, which is why he and the other 25 churches in the central district are working on a comprehensive strategy.

"Not just preachers, but people who have backgrounds in business and economics, etc," he said. "The idea is to bring the best minds together to figure out how can we make an impact without losing our churches?"

In 1958 the Northwest Baptist Credit Union started in the basement of Mount Zion. Williams said one of the reasons was because at that time, blacks were not able to open up bank accounts in some of the white banks.

"The community came together and said, 'Why not open a credit union?' Now there are churches in this area with accounts in our credit union," he said. "We have to start to think like entrepreneurs so they we won't be beholden to Bank of America, Chase and so forth."

Williams said he does not think things are going to get any better anytime soon.

"It has become a fiasco and we have to think long term," he said. "We have to think about the future of the black community, the black church and the black family. We have not taught our people to be financially literate. We do not invest; we do not save money well. We have a number of credit cards and all of those things affect us futuristically in the long run. Those are the things we need to be thinking about."

At the end of the day, Williams said the church is going to have to rethink how they do business and how they do ministry. He said Black churches cannot go back to "business as usual." He is reminded of the impact of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He asks the question, "What would King do in this day and age as we face this economic crisis and economic disaster?" He believes the same strategies of that time can work today, adding that King understood the issues of that time were economic issues. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was an economic boycott also.

"Ministry as we knew it does not exist anymore. We can't compartmentalize ministry and say we can't touch these issues. We come from a social conscious, social gospel, prophetic tradition," he said. "If there is ever a time to speak out and mobilize our people, the time is now." 

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