Un­for­giv­ing bank leaves church with­out a prayer

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY MARK A. KELL­NER

In a dis­pute that some are call­ing a mod­ern-day up­dat­ing of the bib­li­cal Para­ble of the Un­for­giv­ing Ser­vant, a mi­nor­ity-owned bank that ben­e­fited from fed­eral bailout funds is threat­en­ing to fore­close on one of the na­tion’s old­est black churches.

The 194-year-old Charles Street African Methodist Epis­co­pal (AME) Church in Bos­ton’s Roxbury neigh­bor­hood could have its sanc­tu­ary forcibly auc­tioned off as early as this week un­less a last-minute deal is reached.

The ac­tion could be taken by OneUnited Bank, which re­ceived $12 mil­lion from the Trou­bled As­sets Re­lief Pro­gram (TARP) and whose board of di­rec­tors once in­cluded the hus­band of Rep. Max­ine Wa­ters, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat.

Hav­ing the auc­tion take place on the church’s front steps “is as mean-

spir­ited and as god­less as you can get,” the church’s pas­tor, the Rev. Gre­gory G. Groover Sr., told the Bos­ton Her­ald.

Mr. Groover did not re­turn calls from The Washington Times seek­ing com­ment, and a sec­re­tary at the church said Fri­day that “there’s no way I could com­ment” when asked about any new de­vel­op­ments.

Rep. Michael E. Ca­puano, the Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat whose dis­trict in­cludes Charles Street AME, said he has sought to per­suade Oneunited not to fore­close.

“Charles Street AME is an his­toric and im­por­tant com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tion and means so much to so many peo­ple. I have asked One United to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble to try and re­solve this mat­ter with­out re­sort­ing to fore­clo­sure. I re­main hopeful that a sat­is­fac­tory res­o­lu­tion will be found,” he said in a state­ment.

Bib­li­cal par­al­lels

Charles Street AME sup­port­ers claim the pend­ing fore­clo­sure is a real-life re­flec­tion of the Un­for­giv­ing Ser­vant Para­ble from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-35).

In the story, a ser­vant for­given a great debt turned around and choked a col­league who owed a small amount. The para­ble about divine mercy ends with the king send­ing the first ser­vant to be tor­tured un­til he pays off his own debt.

Ac­cord­ing to the Rev. Ryan Bell, pas­tor of the Hol­ly­wood, Calif., Sev­enth- day Ad­ven­tist Church, Oneunited Bank is be­hav­ing like the first ser­vant, show­ing the black church lit­tle mercy af­ter re­ceiv­ing its mil­lions of dol­lars from lan­guage de­signed to help mi­nor­ity-owned banks that Rep. Bar­ney Frank, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, in­serted into Tarp-re­lated leg­is­la­tion in De­cem­ber 2008.

“To fore­close on this his­toric African-amer­i­can church is dis­ap­point­ing, to say the least. We for­gave the banks and bailed them out, and now they’re com­ing af­ter the lit­tle bor­rower,” said Mr. Bell, who also is a leader of LAVOICE/PICO (Peo­ple Im­prov­ing Com­mu­ni­ties through Or­ga­niz­ing).

News re­ports in­di­cate that the Charles Street con­gre­ga­tion bor­rowed $3.6 mil­lion from OneUnited to con­struct a com­mu­nity cen­ter ad­ja­cent to the sanc­tu­ary, which the con­gre­ga­tion ac­quired in 1939. Fundrais­ing and rentals from the new build­ing would have helped pay off the loan, but con­struc­tion was halted when, Charles Street says, Oneunited cut off fund­ing.

The loan’s his­tory

On Feb. 17, six mem­bers of the House ethics com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing its chair­man, re­cused them­selves from any in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Ms. Wa­ters, in­clud­ing the 2-year-old probe of her role on be­half of Oneunited Bank, where hus­band Sid­ney Wil­liams was a di­rec­tor and share­holder.

Ms. Wa­ters has been ac­cused of im­prop­erly ap­ply­ing pres­sure to get re­lief for Oneunited Bank, sav­ing the value of her hus­band’s stock hold­ings. At the time of Mr. Frank’s leg­is­la­tion, Mr. Wil­liams had stepped down from the bank’s board but still held stock.

Oneunited is not speak­ing to re­porters about specifics of the Charles Street AME Church case.

An out­side public re­la­tions firm — which said it is not rep­re­sent­ing the bank on the fore­clo­sure mat­ter — for­warded a state­ment at­trib­uted only to the com­pany in gen­eral, and not to any bank of­fi­cial.

“It is not the prac­tice of this bank to take steps to ex­er­cise col­lec­tion reme­dies in­clud­ing fore­clo­sure, in the ab­sence of good cause,” the Oneunited Bank state­ment said.

“The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of our com­mu­nity lives up to their fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and Oneunited works in good faith with bor­row­ers who ex­pe­ri­ence fi­nan­cial set­backs. We are flex­i­ble in our ef­forts to as­sist bor­row­ers, while re­main­ing con­sis­tent with safe and sound bank­ing prac­tices. We con­tinue to be hopeful that our ef­forts will re­sult in a stronger com­mu­nity.”

Bank­ing val­ues

One spe­cial­ist in church ethics said that mat­ters be­sides fi­nance should en­ter into the church fore­clo­sure equa­tion.

“I know that banks are in the busi­ness of lend­ing money and they make money by their loans,” said Ch­eryl J. San­ders, pro­fes­sor of Chris­tian Ethics at the Howard Univer­sity School of Divin­ity and se­nior pas­tor of the Dis­trict’s Third Street Church of God. “There’s a cer­tain cal­lous­ness that comes across when there’s a church in­volved” in a fore­clo­sure, she added.

Ms. San­ders said that “un­reg­u­lated banks that went amok caused the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis” and that in fore­clos­ing on those try­ing to pay their bills, banks are show­ing a “cal­lous dis­re­gard for peo­ple’s lives and liveli­hood.”

Asked about the Charles Street sit­u­a­tion and other fore­clo­sures, Ms. San­ders said, “The word that I’ve been us­ing is com­pas­sion; it means you give peo­ple a break. Take into con­sid­er­a­tion the fac­tors that ac­count for their in­abil­ity to pay.”

Ms. San­ders said her Third Street con­gre­ga­tion was in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion a few years ago. She said M&T Bank tried to fore­close on a loan on which the church was mak­ing on-time pay­ments.

What she called “a tech­ni­cal­ity” led M&T to re­quest Third Street to add col­lat­eral to a loan al­ready granted. Ms. San­ders said the church found a bridge loan from an­other lender to pay off M&T. “It was a very dif­fi­cult time,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to its web­site, Charles Street AME Church’s his­tory is wo­ven into that of the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment. Or­ga­nized by free blacks in 1818, the con­gre­ga­tion “served as a ma­jor gath­er­ing place for abo­li­tion meet­ings and ral­lies led by such in­di­vid­u­als as Wil­liam Lloyd Gar­ri­son, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, So­journer Truth, Wen­dell Phillips, Charles Sum­mer and David Walker (a Charles Street mem­ber).”

The church “was a haven for for­mer slaves and a tran­sit point on the free­dom trail for run­away slaves flee­ing to Canada,” as well as a leader in the fight against the 1850 Fugi­tive Slave Act, which im­posed a $1,000-per-in­ci­dent fine on fed­eral and other law-en­force­ment per­son­nel who did not re­turn run­away slaves.

The church has since re­mained a leader in Bos­ton’s black com­mu­nity. Mr. Groover, its cur­rent pas­tor, has served since 2007 on the Bos­ton School Com­mit­tee, or board of ed­u­ca­tion, and is cur­rently its chair­man.

Oth­ers in same boat

Ac­cord­ing to Reuters news agency, church fore­clo­sures have risen dra­mat­i­cally since the re­ces­sion.

“Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold af­ter de­fault­ing on their loans, with 90 per­cent of those sales com­ing af­ter a lender-trig­gered fore­clo­sure, ac­cord­ing to the real es­tate in­for­ma­tion com­pany Costar Group,” the news agency re­ported on March 9.

Reuters re­ported, “In 2011, 138 churches were sold by banks, an an­nual record, with no sign that these re­li­gious fore­clo­sures are abat­ing, ac­cord­ing to Costar. That com­pares to just 24 sales in 2008 and only a hand­ful in the decade be­fore.”

Mr. Bell re­cently “dis­in­vested” his con­gre­ga­tion’s money from Bank of Amer­ica in protest of that bank’s home fore­clo­sure prac­tices. Hav­ing a bank auc­tion off a church prop­erty is equally trou­bling, Mr. Bell said.

“This is like fore­clos­ing on 300 fam­i­lies all at once, or how­ever many fam­i­lies are in this church,” Mr. Bell said of the pend­ing Charles Street fore­clo­sure. “With this his­toric church, it has been a guardian of this public trust. It’s more than just a fi­nan­cial con­tract, it’s a cul­tural con­tract.”

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