Where Are Our Religious Leaders?

So, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re having quite the economic crisis in this country.

Close to 7 million people have already lost their homes to foreclosure, and there are most assuredly many millions more to come… some say 9 million, other say 14 million… but I don’t know why anyone think it would stop there, assuming it’s actually allowed to go that far.

As if, like on VE or VJ Day, the days on which WWII ended in Europe or Japan, respectively, a bell will ring and some news announcer will say:

“Today at 3:00 PM Eastern Standard Time the last foreclosure took place in Berwyn Heights, Maryland.  Yes, the foreclosure crisis, which started in the latter part of 2007, has finally come to an end.  The last irresponsible sub-prime borrower family to be thrown from their home was the Wasnicki family.  Mr. Wasnicki told news reporters on the scene that he was sad to have to finally move from the family home of the last 25 years, but that having not made a mortgage payment for the last seven years, he feels sure that he’ll get over it.”

“I just don’t know what we could have done differently,” Mr. Wasnicki told Channel 7 News.  “All we ever wanted was a loan modification so we could get down off that 11 percent interest rate they stuck us in when we weren’t looking, but our bank just kept jerking us around, losing the paperwork… it was surreal.”

“But it worked out,” Wasniki continued, “and we saved up $212,000 while we watched Bank of America go under and now that the house across the street is selling for $39,500, we went ahead and bought two… one for us and one for our daughter and her new family.  Funny to think that when this whole thing started she was in the tenth grade.  I just don’t see how the banks came out ahead, but you know that Geithner fellow over at Treasury must know stuff we don’t know.”

Asked by Channel 7 where he banks today, Wasnicki replied: “Well, not at Bank of America, Chase, or… what was the name of that other bank that used to be around?  The one with that little stagecoach logo… I can’t remember, it’s been so many years since they been around.  We’re like most folks in this country today… we joined the credit union, but keep most of our money in Royal Bank of Canada.  I wouldn’t bank with a U.S. bank if it was the last one on Earth.  Rather bury the silver and gold coins we put our long-term savings in, in our damn backyard.”

No, if we lose another 10 million homes to foreclosure in this country, I’m fairly confident that none of us is going to recognize the place.  And, unemployment?  Fuggetaboutit.  I know I’m not going to be living here, that’s for damn sure.

Already, according to ABC News,

“Forty-two million people currently receive monthly benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.  That’s up by 10 million from a year ago.”

That’s 42 MILLION AMERICAN CITIZENS ON FOOD STAMPS, did you get that right?  There were 11 million Americans on food stamps in 2005. So, 42 million five years later would look like a trend line that could only be tracking Wall Street’s executive bonuses.

The ABC News story went on to say that:

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2009, nearly 50 million Americans — 15 percent of U.S. families — were ‘food insecure,’ meaning they were ‘uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their family members’ — either they didn’t have enough money or lacked other resources to buy food. One in 10 families with children worried about food at some point in the year. Between 500,000 and 1 million families were so strapped the children had to go without eating at some point.”

Yeah, we’re doing great in this country, aren’t we?  And we’re worried about how we place in education compared to other countries in the world.  If you ask me, we better start worrying about how we’re going to stop fathers from committing crimes to get money for food.  But wait, as they say… there’s more.

In addition, taxpayer-funded programs pay for breakfast and lunch for 30 million U.S. children, and more than 9 million mothers receive federal help feeding infants and children under the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.

Oh this is great… I used to live in the country with the highest standard of living in the world, and now I live in one of them save-the-children-in-Bangladesh-ads that used to air all the time on late night T.V.

And here’s a real special paragraph from the ABC News story:

“This extended recession has placed people in circumstances where they need to rely on programs like this,” said Mark Nord, a researcher with the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the lead author of the food insecurity report. “I know meeting with, whether it’s government offices across the country or with food pantries and food banks — in all of those instances people have reflected the fact, to me, anecdotally that they are serving people who never envisioned in their lifetimes needing to turn to either a state or a county for federal assistance or to a food bank for assistance.”

Pardon me, but we’ve got someone in this country in charge of something called a “FOOD INSECURITY REPORT?”  And Dick Fuld got $500,000,000 for bankrupting Lehman Bros.  Holy Mother of God.

And that brings me to the point I’m trying to get to in this article… where the heck are our religious leaders during all this?  I mean, after Hurricane Katrina, there were churches popping up all over the place offering support and assistance to displaced families.  So, where are they now?

I decided I had to know… so first I interviewed a pastor, then a rabbi, and then went I went looking around using Goggle… and truth be told, I didn’t find much.

Faith in Public Life, an organization that refers to itself as “A Strategy Center for the Faith Community,” issued a Press Release on November 4, 2010.  In that release, Rev. Jennifer Butler, the organization’s Executive Director, was quoted as saying:

“The faith community knows firsthand how hard families have been hit by our economic crisis, and we know that this election reflected voters’ frustration with a still-stagnant economy.  The fact that an overwhelming percentage of voters ranked the economy as their top concern speaks not only to individual anxieties, but also to our concerns about our nation and its values. Economic injustices are moral injustices, and people of faith are outraged by the role of greed and materialism in our society, as banks take advantage of families to further their profits and the gap between the rich and the poor grows more pronounced by the day.”

Okay, so that sounds good, right.  At least the Rev Butler is saying all the right things.

That same release quoted Steve Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington who said:

“The economy is clearly driving the electorate now, and political leaders looking for a message that resonates with those struggling in these difficult days would do well to remember that we’re fundamentally talking about a values issue.  Our nation’s diverse faith traditions, especially Catholic social teaching, emphasize the common good and the essential role government has in building a just economy that works for all. This tradition and powerful message is not heard enough today and is urgently needed at a time of economic anxiety, growing ideological polarization and voter anger.”

A couple of things about that: One… it doesn’t seem to me like the politicians care much about that line of thinking, to me anyway.  It looks to me like our elected representatives are all more interested in praying at the Church of Latter Day Bankers.  And two… If Mr. Schneck is right about Catholic “social teaching,” then one might wonder what Catholic voters are learning.

In this last election, according to Faith in Public Life’s release, Catholic voters moved to the right in fairly significant number, with 54% supporting Republicans running for seats in the House of Representatives, compared with 42% in 2008, and the right is hardly the place to go for foreclosure crisis support.  But that move, from frying pan to fire, likely just reflects the general dissatisfaction with Democrats who controlled the House over the last two years, as opposed to any sort of ideological change in the Catholic electorate.

One of the key groups that seems to be trying to bring religious leaders to the foreclosure crisis issue is People Improving Communities through Organizing, or PICO, a California-based group that says it’s mounting a nationwide campaign for changes in mortgage lending.

In January of 2010, the website boston.com, an online site owned by the Boston Globe, published a story about religious groups getting involved in the foreclosure crisis, writing:

“In Massachusetts, a web of groups with religious affiliations have signed on to the cause, including the Brockton Interfaith Community, which is made up of religious institutions and other groups in a city battered by foreclosures. The group is one of six organizations in the interfaith Massachusetts Communities Action Network, also part of PICO.”

The same story also reported that:

“Local religious groups also are participating in a national effort to curb high interest rates on credit cards.”

Well, praise the Lord for that… but it’s not working.

The story went on to report that:

“The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, based in Dorchester, recently launched a campaign to lower rates, which can exceed 30 percent and have been devastating in low-income communities. The organization, made up of 50 faith-based and community groups, is coordinating efforts with its parent organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, based in Chicago, in calling for a 10 percent cap on credit card interest rates.”

Clearly, the top three religions practiced in this country, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all speak of prohibitions against “usury,” defined as lending at exorbitant interest, a point made by the Reverend Hurman Hamilton, president of the Boston-area group.  But all of that and $1.95 is going to get you a tall coffee at your local Starbucks, as long as you don’t pay for it with a credit card, in which case it’s likely to cost you 30% more.

Janine Carreiro, lead organizer for Brockton Interfaith Community, was quoted in the boston.com story as providing the following explanation for the late entry of religious groups to the crisis:

“A lot of the ministers didn’t know this was affecting their congregations.  The whole issue is hard to get your mind wrapped around: What does it mean to have a subprime loan, what are the terms?’’

And my response to that is… nonsense.  In fact, the very first pastor I interviewed when I started writing this story roughly six weeks ago, after maybe ten minutes talking with me over the phone, admitted that he had lost a home to foreclosure more than a year ago.  And he, it’s interesting to note, didn’t tell anyone at his church about it.  They know what’s happening, our religious leaders… everyone knows… no one is immune and no one is getting out of this unscathed.

The boston.com story also quoted Rabbi Arye Berk, of Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton, Massachusetts, who said

“… he was awed by the number of government agencies and federal programs involved in the machinations of mortgages. He said he remembers turning to a colleague at a meeting and saying, ‘This is nothing they teach you in seminary.’ The briefing he received from the interfaith group was ‘like a crash course’ on the mortgage crisis, Berk said.”

According to Rabbi Berk:

“We are not supposed to leave people outside.  We know what it is like to be without a home.’’

Okay, I’ll have to take the rabbi at his word, but to be entirely candid I wish I was more sure that he’s right about that.  Oh, I’m sure that religious leaders, most anyway, can empathize with the plight of the homeless, but I’m not at all sure that they think or feel the same way about people losing homes to foreclosure.  I know our president sure doesn’t give a darn, and if he doesn’t know any better, why should we expect our religious leaders to know better?

The story reported that Carol Delorey, a part-time cleaning woman and community activist who headed a city task force on housing and foreclosure prevention four years ago, was behind the launch of an emergency phone line for struggling homeowners, and in fact, initially calls were routed to her home, according to boston.com.

Yep, why am I not surprised?  Leave it to a part-time cleaning lady to save the day when all the Harvard grads on the planet can’t seem to put the facts together… no surprise there.  Jesus was a carpenter, right?

Delorey told members of the Brockton Interfaith Community about the stories she’d been told by homeowners, but just like the pastor I interviewed, many said they were too embarrassed to reveal their financial problems to members of the clergy, which is what led the group to start educating the city’s religious leaders about the housing crisis in late 2008.

And therein lies the rub.  I believe that our religious leaders know of the problem, how could they not?  But I also believe that too many lack the formal education necessary to understand the problem at a deeper level, and therefore likely struggle with how they should think about what’s going on in America’s communities today.

The Huffington Post recently reported that:

“A national network of faith-based organizations, homeowners and community organizers met with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Wednesday (Nov. 3), urging him to tackle problems with fraudulent foreclosures.  Organizers from the group People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) and other activists said a program designed to modify mortgages, enacted soon after President Obama took office, is leaving too many cash-strapped families behind.”

But the story went on to say:

“The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) allows homeowners to modify or refinance mortgages; officials say it could provide relief for as many as 3 million families on the verge of foreclosure.

’Only one half of the families have been given relief,’ said the Rev. Tommy Pierce, a board member of Illinois People’s Action.”

And none of what that guy said is even close to being factually correct.  First of all, the HAMP program was supposed to help four million homeowners, not three million, and secondly, less than 10% of that number have allegedly been helped by HAMP, and the question of how many have received meaningful help remains unanswered.

The HuffPo story went on to say things like:

“PICO wants permanent loan modifications for these families.  The organizations also want banks that do not comply with the terms of the program to be fined, as well as aggressive enforcement against lenders recently caught up in hundreds of thousands of faulty foreclosures.”

But the story also reported that Jennifer Murphy, who is the Director of Lender Service Relations for the Center of New York City Neighborhoods, said that in her view Geithner “heard the message, but she was skeptical the meeting would result in many changes.”

According to the story Murphy said:

“They expressed that there is nothing more that they can do to compel the banks.  I would hope they would look harder to see if there is some way. The American people saved the banks. Now it’s time for the banks to save the American people.”

And to all of that I can only say… is that it?  Is that all these groups have got?  They went to Washington, met with Tim Geithner, told them of their concerns… and then he said something to the equivalent of “there’s nothing I can do,” and so they went home.

Wow, well this isn’t exactly the abortion issue, now is it?  Seven million people lose homes and go hungry as a result of the acts of corrupt bankers and politicians and it’s barely worth a few trips on the train from New York to D.C.

I’m not saying that anything can or should replace prayer, nor would I ever suggest such a thing.  But God helps those that helps themselves… and we’re all going to need to help each other if we’re going to make it through… and bring the real and positive change that’s needed to put this nation back on track.

So, I’m calling on our religious leaders to do more… to speak out on behalf of the people. And if there are some that feel they need to know more in order to do more, I’m offering to help.  I’ll do anything I can to help bring knowledge to those that lead churches, synagogues and mosques about our economic meltdown so they can do more to help their followers get through these very difficult times…. and the even more difficult times that are most certainly ahead.

Think of it like Hurricane Katrina, only the entire country is underwater and millions are drowning… afraid, ashamed and alone.  And it’s wrong.

So, where are out religious leaders?

Mandelman out.

P.S. The pastor that I interviewed got back in touch with me and I’ll be providing a seminar for the members of his church after the first of the year.  Not only that, but he tells me that they are now considering buying a trailer park near by to be able to provide temporary housing to those that lose homes.

So, I have faith that our religious leaders will be there eventually, I just want to see them do more… now, and I pray that they will hear this call to arms, because there are so many that need them now.


Page Rank