Purchasing a home is one of the biggest decisions a person will make. The process can be exciting, and equally daunting. But ultimately it’s a step toward fulfilling the American Dream.
In the wake of the current economic downturn, however, the notion of homeownership seems less attainable than before. And for many current homeowners, the threat of foreclosure has turned the American Dream into a nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of families each year are now faced with the reality of losing their homes due to high interest rates and subprime lending, and the crisis has hit the African American community especially hard.
Last year, a Pew Research Center study revealed that wealth among black Americans dropped 53 percent during the current recession as the result of falling home prices. What’s more, black homeownership rates fell to the lowest level in 16 years.
One company working to reverse these trends is HomeFree-USA, which has been a leader in bringing awareness to the foreclosure discussion in the black community.
Marcia J. Griffin
“Our mission is to provide both information and inspiration,” says HomeFree-USA president and founder Marcia J. Griffin. “We try to teach families and individuals that there are things they can do to improve their situations and avoid foreclosures.”
As a HUD-approved non-profit organization, Griffin’s organization has been aiding families across America in securing and maintaining their dreams of homeownership. According to Griffin, HomeFree-USA has helped more than 7,000 families since 1995, and not one of them has gone into foreclosure.
On Saturday July 21 in Chicago, HomeFree-USA will host “Homeownership for All,” a free community seminar designed to educate and encourage people interested in gaining more insight about buying or keeping a home, all while living debt free.
Joining Griffin and her team of experts will be the Rev. DeForest Soaries, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and the author of dfree: Breaking Free of Financial Slavery. Soaries, who will share spiritual principles for successful money management, brings years of practical experience on issues related to the black family. He formerly served as New Jersey’s Secretary of State and was featured in the CNN documentary Almighty Debt
“We think it’s imperative that churches and faith-based organizations be leaders in teaching their communities about financial literacy,” says Griffin. “No one has been giving us wise advice on these matters, so faith-based organizations have an opportunity to make a difference.”
Griffin, who as one of 19 HUD intermediaries in the nation is able to bring both informational and financial assistance to local communities, plans to take the “Homeownership for All” seminar to other cities as well. Following the Chicago event, HomeFree-USA plans to make stops in Detroit, Washington D.C., Miami, and Atlanta.
With high expectations for the Chicago meeting, Griffin says that her hopes are to have a full house. “We certainly want a packed house, with about 200 people determined to make their financial situation better,” she says.
For more information about HomeFree-USA and its upcoming events, call 301-891-8400 or go to HomeFreeUSA.org.
“I disagree with his decision, but not enough to make me vote for the alternative.”
“Obama is too calculating to have made this view known apart from some political strategy. I need to let this marinate.”
Those are just a few of the comments we overheard from different Christians following President Barack Obama’s announcement that he now supports same-sex marriage. His “evolution” on the issue dominated the news last week, and his explanation about how his personal faith informed the decision opened up a wide-ranging discussion on gay rights, the Bible, and the proper Christian response.
For the record, UrbanFaith maintains a traditional view of Christian marriage as an institution ordained by God to be a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. However, we recognize there is a diversity of Christian opinion on the subject of homosexuality and gay rights, especially within the African American community. So, we asked a spectrum of Black Christian leaders to share their perspectives on President Obama’s announcement and the subject of same-sex marriage. The opinions that follow belong to the respondents and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of UrbanFaith.
Not a Central Issue for the Black Community
Dr. Vincent Bacote
The president’s public affirmation of the legalization of same-sex marriage will not be a surprise to many people, because his “evolving views” have trended in this direction for quite a while. It could be problematic in November with some demographics, but most likely he will still have the great majority of the African American vote because this isn’t one of the central issues for the community; even though same-sex marriage is strongly resisted by the community, other commitments will likely lead to a share of the vote similar to what he received four years ago…. But I could be wrong. It is certainly possible that this was a great political miscalculation.
President Obama’s position on gay marriage is not only offensive to God, it should also be offensive to all Christians. With one insidious statement, he threw another piece of dynamite at the institution of marriage that God designed and always intended (i.e. one man married to one woman). But as we rightfully criticize the president, we should also pray for him. May God send someone to help him rethink and even retract this hellish statement in the light of Scripture.
Those of us who want to see the president reclaim a position of truth should let him know. Here’s the letter that I sent to the White House following Mr. Obama’s announcement:
Because of your recent statement in support of gay marriage, you will not get my vote in November for a second term unless you retract.
Truthfully, I’m very disappointed in you. You profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you form and endorse opinions that contradict the words of Jesus. I love you, Mr. President, but I love Jesus more. What Jesus says has more authority than what you say and how your friends choose to live.
I will be glad to write you or speak with you about what Jesus teaches on this subject. Just let me know.
President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality will alienate some of his constituents who are Bible-believing Christians, including some African Americans. However, I hope that the voters will take note of his positions on weightier matters such as unemployment, education, and foreign policy and not allow the same-sex issue to overshadow them, as occurred in 2004 when evangelical voters helped to re-elect President George Bush on the basis of his opposition to same-sex marriage without regard to his miscalculated policies in Iraq and at home. I think this is an opportune time for religious leaders to assess President Obama’s accountability to African American congregations and denominations on our most pressing social and political concerns, and then apply the same measure to Republican contender Governor Mitt Romney.
Obama’s announcement reveals an inconsistency in African American biblical interpretation at the congregational and denominational levels. Black clergy routinely contextualize scriptural passages on slavery and women while simultaneously insisting on a plain, non-contextualized reading of Scripture in regards to sexuality and gay marriage. This diversity of interpretative strategies is rarely acknowledged. Regardless of where we stand, it’s time we eradicate the fiction that our moral conclusions are strictly and exclusively reached by reasoning from Scripture. Once we deconstruct the notion that any of our positions are “Biblical” with a capital B, we can then charitably discuss our respective visions of how to faithfully interpret the canon of Scripture on matters of sexuality. Such discussion can help us accomplish the positive good of Christians modeling charitable dialogue to a corrosive political culture and the negative good of ceasing to bear false witness — theologically conservative black churches/denominations in regards to theologically liberal ones and vice versa.
President Obama has supported gay marriage since his first run for public office in 1996. What has evolved, therefore, is not Obama’s position but public opinion. Some speculate that the White House tested the political waters by rolling out the support of Vice President Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan prior to Obama’s announcement. I’m not sure if that’s the case—we’ll find out when Obama releases his presidential memoirs. In terms of reelection, I doubt that Obama’s support will decrease the voter turnout or the likely scenario that African Americans predominantly vote for him in 2012. Black folks know Obama is not a theologian-in-chief, but our commander-in-chief. Secondly, President Obama is generally regarded as stronger than Gov. Romney on issues of greatest import to college-educated African-Americans (his most reliable voting bloc) — jobs, supporting small business, expanding educational opportunity, and so on. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic once tweeted, “No one gets everything they want in a candidate.” Since the Voting Rights Act, black voters, whether Republican or Democrat, have never seen — and will never see — a fully satisfying candidate for President of the United States. Believing that such a candidate exists, or that Obama was that candidate, is an understandable but lamentable sign of political immaturity. I hope that we grow up civically, prioritize the issues according to our respective metrics, and then see how the votes aggregate once it’s all over.
Andrew Wilkes, an UrbanFaith columnist, works at Habitat for Humanity-NYC as the Faith and Community Relations associate and serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. He is an alumnus of the Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Hampton University. You can follow him on Twitter at:@andrewjwilkes.
Dr. DeForest Soaries
Not So Fast
“I didn’t hear the president propose a government program or policy. He expressed a personal opinion, which he has the right to do.”
Will President Obama lose some of the Christian Right in this year’s electorate? Sure, but he lost most of them already, and he’ll win a few back after the poor discover how out of touch “Daddy Warbucks” Romney really is. And if you think the Black Church (not a monolith) won’t vote for Obama over this: wrong again. The Latino vote (again, not a monolith) is overwhelmingly conservative theologically, and this may stir the pot. Overall, though, I have to believe there are more civil rights sympathizers (who want equal rights period, regardless of the issue) than ideologues. The media gives the microphone to the dogmatists, but I suspect the levelheaded have been listening to The Who (or at least watching CSI: Miami) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That is, if they remember George W. Bush.
The issue itself needs to be considered on civil and religious grounds — and not at the same time. The Bible should not dictate policy or how rights are distributed; God and Caesar make “strange bedfellows,” as Leo Tolstoy once remarked, and ironically, as Jesus agreed (Matt. 22:21). Yet as we render unto Caesar, we church leaders must affirm our prophetic DNA — to name when Caesar is denying basic human dignity. It happened with slavery. It happened with abortion. It is happening now with health-care rights for women, and with the issue of same-sex marriage. You may assess the decision itself on biblical grounds (as unsound an argument as that is), but Caesar cannot deny the ability to decide. This is a putrid yet common discrimination — to deny choice because of our displeasure at how one may choose — and it is an offense to God. Every citizen is also a child of God.
What the Bible says about homosexuality is fairly clear: not much, and almost never in the context we intend. But should theology shape policy? Should the office of the President also be a seat of moral authority? I worry that the trajectory of human history, including (mostly) politics, has been in search of a more perfect Christianity, and it has proven a crash course. But if we can use our worldview in search of Truth, instead of assuming these are the same, then the kingdom may be closer than we think.
Rev. Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier regularly provides social commentary surrounding youth, ethics, and culture. A graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Julian is the senior pastor of University Christian Church in Chicago, his hometown. To build with this scholar, activist, and artist, hit him up at www.jkwest.com.
Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, so we asked three urban leaders who will be participating in memorial events how the attacks impacted urban ministry.
Here’s what they said:
Jeremy Del Rio, Esq., New York
Jeremy Del Rio is executive director of Community Solutions, Inc. a faith based youth and community development agency in New York City. On September 10, Del Rio will participate in Reaching Out, A Sacred Assembly, a prayer and worship service in New York City.
September 11, 2001 exposed gaps in urban ministry in ways that could not be ignored any longer. The church’s response to those gaps demonstrated grace and hope and provided a glimpse of what might be one day. For me, here are three lessons learned over the last decade:
1) The magnitude of the attack and the scope of its impact required a Jesus who was far bigger than any one ministry or personality to heal. It forced the Church to confront the sad reality that we were too disconnected from each other to be a useful partner to our city during a crisis. It’s impossible to mobilize 7,000 churches quickly when they aren’t already connected and coordinated, so the city didn’t call us initially for help. Pastors and church leaders had to repent for being lone rangers and intentionally link arms during the common crisis in order to respond effectively and be Christ to a city that was collectively grieving in unprecedented ways.
2) September 11 also exposed fear and bigotry among many Christians towards our Muslim cousins. Suddenly, many who professed a love for Christ and people were parroting suspicions about our immigrant neighbors and perceiving threats where none existed. The Church had to embrace that Jesus’ imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves includes those individuals and communities we might otherwise fear, and wrestle with how to build bridges during and beyond the crisis.
3) The inertia of normalcy has obscured the need to remain vigilant in nurturing the kind of relationships that build trust across denominations and congregations, and with neighbors regardless of their faith and cultural traditions. My prayer for the Church on this tenth anniversary is that we would recapture what it means to love each other in such a way that the world will know we are His disciples.
To read more about how Jeremy and his father Rev. Richard Del Rio ministered in lower Manhattan post-9/11, go here.
Rev. Dr. DeForest Soaries, Somerset, New Jersey
DeForest “Buster” Soaries is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and a pioneer of faith-based community development who has also served as New Jersey Secretary of State and chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission. On September 11, Rev. Soaries will speak at the September 11th Remembrance Service in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.
I’m not sure the impact was greater in urban areas or not. The short term impact was to motivate people to think more about God, faith, and church. But long term, we have seen a return to a preoccupation with materialism versus a focus on God. The major ministry need that I’ve experienced and seen around the country is a greater need for focus on mental health ministry. We’ve added a full time therapist to our staff.
Black America has historically been the most optimistic and today all of the data describe African Americans as being more optimistic than the general population on the one hand. On the other hand, in terms of concrete expectations, we’re finding that there’s a greater sense of hopelessness and despair. The way that’s related to 9/11 is that prior to 9/11 our culture perceived itself as being almost invulnerable. What 9/11 did was begin a process of perceived vulnerability. After 10 years of being constantly reminded how vulnerable we are, it has begun to affect us emotionally and psychologically. The church has to create the connection for people between our emotional, psychological, and spiritual status.
While 9/11 was a terrorist attack, we’ve also been victims of a global economic meltdown and I would argue that our sense of helplessness in response to the economic meltdown is directly related to the decline in our sense of national self confidence. Prior to 9/11 we had this sense of “we can make it if we try.” In post-9/11 America, we have a sense of “there’s no way out.”
The economic crisis that we’re experiencing is probably more difficult to climb out of emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually then it perhaps would have been before 9/11. In 1987 we had a tremendous stock crash, but the general sense of the country was “we can make it through this.” Then in 2001, we had another traumatic decline in the stock market, but now what we’re finding is that the kind of optimism that would normally accompany economic decline seems to be accompanied by a general sense of pessimistic projection. I think 9/11 was the singular date when we began to question our ability to really manage our circumstances. The challenge of the church is to make the case that our psychological, emotional, and therefore poltical status, hinges on our spiritual strength.
Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia
Shane Claiborne is co-founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, a best-selling author, and a social justice/peace activist. On September 10, he will co-host Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream, a 90 minute variety show, with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen in Philadelphia.
My initial thoughts about the impact of 9/11 on urban ministry relate to the increases in military spending where we’re spending like $250,000 a minute. As the country goes bankrupt, it raises all kinds of questions. In our neighborhood, we can really see what Dr. King meant when he said, “Every time a bomb goes off overseas, we can feel the second impact of it right here.” We’ve got thousands and thousands of abandoned houses, a bankrupt school system, folks needing healthcare. The interconnectedness of that is really evident.
In addition, I think that what one veteran from Iraq called the “economic draft” has become a really urgent reality for our kids in the urban neighborhood here, where they’re selectively recruited. The fliers that they give out say, “Everybody told you to go to college. They just didn’t tell you how to get there. Join the Army.”
We have a drop out rate over 40 percent in Philadelphia. At a graduation I attended this year, they said more kids will be going into the military than will be going to college. That really struck me. The post-September 11 military ethos has grown and affected things dramatically.
This year we’ve got a mentoring program called Team Timotheo, where young men are mentored and discipled by older men. It’s a football league that was started by guys in our neighborhood. Part of what we’re trying to do is to teach young people non-violence and out of it, deeply rooted faith in Jesus and the non-violence of the cross. We’ve got a homicide rate that is almost one a day in Philadelphia right now. All of that is very interconnected because we’re trying to teach kids not to hit each other and then they see this mess of redemptive violence kind of perpetuated all over the world after September 11.
There’s a kind of spiritual dimension to it. There’s an economic dimension to it. So those are all things that we’ll be talking about on Saturday. Particularly the testimony of the Iraq veteran, Logan. He’ll be sharing about his collision with the cross and the gun. Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was killed on 9/11, has said there was never a moment when she thought violence would be the answer or would solve the tragedy of September 11. Those are credible, important voices. We planned Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream before we realized it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but then when we realized it was, we decided that there’s no better way to honor those who died on September 11 and those who are continuing to die now than to try to celebrate the possibilities of another, better world.
*DeForest Soaries’ and Shane Claiborne’s comments were edited for length and clarity. Jeremy DelRio submitted his via email and those were not edited.
Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery. He served as New Jersey Secretary of State under Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman and twice served as a political appointee of President George W. Bush. UrbanFaith last talked to Soaries in December 2010 about his book and the personal debt crisis among African Americans. As President Obama and Congress moved closer to resolving the federal budget debate, we asked Rev. Soaries to share his thoughts on the debt-ceiling controversy, the role of race and class in the debate, and reasons for the bitter polarization in Washington. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: What are your thoughts on the federal budget debate?
REV. SOARIES: Having worked in Washington, it did not surprise me that Congress would have such difficulty coming to an agreement. Most of the legislation that’s passed in Washington goes through similar trauma and drama. It’s just that this one, like few others, was under the spotlight and we were able to see all of the challenges. It didn’t surprise me that it came down to the wire. It didn’t surprise me that there was division on both sides of the aisle. The process is not unusual. This is the way Congress operates.
I’ve read critiques saying there is a lot of unnecessary hype surrounding this debate. What do you think is the cause?
The Tea Party has made the national debt a very serious issue and their success in the mid-term elections put them front and center. When you have single issue type zealotry in the legislative process, the word compromise is a bad word and the legislative processes require compromise. No one ever gets all of what they want. That wouldn’t be democracy; that would be a dictatorship.
The national debt is a very serious issue, but the underlying issue in Washington is not so much how much money we owe. It’s more: what is the proper role of government? The Democrats generally feel that it is appropriate for government to sponsor programs that address human needs and the Republicans generally assume that the primary role of the federal government is defense, to protect the country, and that most other activities should be left to the market and private sector. Conservatism and Liberalism have two very different views of the role of government. Once you establish what your view is on the role of government, you then have a perspective on how government should spend money.
When President Bush borrowed over $6 trillion mainly to subsidize and pay for war, the Republicans did not mind that because they believe that war, defense, and security are appropriate roles and responsibilities for federal government. Over the last 40 to 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised twice as often under Republicans as it has been raised under Democrats. Republicans don’t mind debt as long as the debt is paying for something that they deem appropriate, and Democrats don’t mind debt as long as it’s paying for something they deem appropriate.
You were an appointee of the Bush administration, but it sounds like you don’t share Republican opinions on this issue.
I’ve never shared most of the opinions of George W. Bush. I was appointed twice by President Bush. The first time I was appointed was to serve on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. That bank is a part of a system that provides more money for affordable housing than any other source in the country. That’s why I agreed to serve. My second appointment was to chair the Election Assistance Commission that was supposed to correct the voting problems that were revealed in the 2000 election. I was appointed by Bush to chair a bipartisan commission of two Democrats and two Republicans. From the time I was there, every decision was unanimous. I went to Washington for a very specific task, and that was to help states repair their voting systems so that when people vote, we know that the voting has integrity.
You were also New Jersey’s Secretary of State under Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
I was, and compared to the Tea Party, Gov. Whitman was a Democrat. I had no philosophical or ideological conflict working with the Republicans in New Jersey because, prior to Chris Christie, the Republicans in New Jersey were very moderate.
African Americans are in a very difficult situation. Pew Research just revealed last week that 35 percent of blacks have no net worth or negative net worth. That’s one-out-of-three. The FDIC reported last year that 54 percent of blacks either have no bank account or they don’t use their bank account regularly. That’s half. Our unemployment rate is sky high; it’s over 20 percent in most black neighborhoods. Our savings rate is just about zero. The majority of our people are living marginal lives economically.
Couple that with the fact that over the last two decades, the majority of us who have had good jobs have had them in the public sector. This is what’s so devastating. The majority of blacks work in the public sector and the majority of whites work in the private sector.
When you talk about reducing the size of government, you’re really talking about a disproportionate impact on African Americans. If you talk about reducing and changing the pension construct, you’re talking about a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans whose pensions come from the public sector. Even when you talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, a disproportionate number of African Americans use those resources to survive.
Philosophically, I don’t think anyone would disagree that government should not be big and taxes should not be high just for the purpose of big government and high taxes, but there is a very explicit racial impact from the fact that, historically, African Americans were denied access to the private sector. Good jobs for black people when I was coming up were teachers and post office employees, or the military. When you consider Washington, D.C., the federal government is basically run by black people. I’m sure that the fiscal conservatives are not all racists, but I’m also sure that they have not sat down and really considered the racial implications of what they say.
Is the reason so many African Americans have public sector jobs because of racism in the private sector, especially in hiring?
Yes, but it’s not just racist acts, it’s the legacy of racism. It’s the private sector basically being owned, controlled, and operated by whites. As government laws to protect the civil rights of blacks were passed, the government held itself more accountable than the private sector. It was easier to document and monitor the behavior of institutions in the public sector than it was in the private sector. So in the military, in the postal system, and in education, government was able to hold its own employees more accountable to equal opportunity and civil rights.
It became culturally accepted among African Americans that a good job, a stable job, is in the public sector where you are protected by civil service laws. If you could get a good job at the post office, you didn’t need much education, you could work there for 40 years and retire and live a comfortable life. That’s the old model. Now that the public sector is incapable of sustaining the level of activity it once had, and it has a devastating impact on African Americans.
Because we have such a shallow political leadership, what happens is if you say that, the first thing the Tea Party types and fiscal conservatives do is back up and say, “I’m not a racist.” That’s a knee-jerk reaction. If I preached a sermon at my church and the majority of the women got together after service and said, “That was a sexist sermon,” I can’t simply say, “I love my wife. I love my mother. I’m not a sexist.” I would have to take seriously their critique. What happens is fiscal conservatism refuses to listen to our critique because, in most of their minds, they are not personally racist. So they’re not willing to step back and analyze the racial implications of their philosophy and their policies, and therefore the discussion goes nowhere.
As the author of a book about debt-free living, you’re clearly not saying that people should abdicate personal responsibility. Are people even able to adopt a debt-free living message in the midst of this economic crisis?
Yes. The first line of defense is to control whatever resources you do have. It requires making some very important decisions. In Texas, black people spend $1.1 billion a year on lottery tickets. The University of Texas did research and discovered 58 percent of the blacks in Texas spend $57 a month on lottery tickets. There’s 1.6 million black people in Texas who are spending $57 a month on lottery tickets. So while I am concerned about the macro-economic issues, my question to them is this: Is that the best use of $57 a month? Fifty-seven dollars a month put into a mutual fund over 20 years will yield some real cash, and it’s more likely that investing or saving $57 a month will yield benefits than it is that you’ll hit the lottery when the odds of hitting the big lottery are 195 million to 1.
Has there been an increased interest in the personal finance courses your church offers given the economic situation?
Oh, sure. I started this ministry in 2005 and things were pretty rosy. People were taking out second mortgages on their houses, refinancing and pulling cash out, and getting approved for new loans in 24 hours. That was then, but this is now. The economic condition of the country and the world has motivated many more people to want to know more about how to handle their money.
Some Christian leaders signed a Circle of Protection document to defend programs that help the less fortunate, and they met with the president to urge him not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.” What do you think is the appropriate Christian response to this crisis?
I agree with that. However, having been in government, I understand the challenge that Mr. Obama has. The Congress has much more power over the budget than most people realize. The president doesn’t have a whole lot of power over the budget in terms of what’s authorized.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. There ought to be a balanced, gradual strategy to repair the federal budget. It has to be balanced in that you can’t simply go to programs that support the most vulnerable, even if you agree that it’s inappropriate. On the other hand, it has to be gradual. You can’t do it quickly.
The Tea Party people made commitments last year when they ran for office, and what they have to take into account is that you cannot eliminate $14 trillion in debt in three months. You have to do it gradually because … there is a human story behind every item in the federal budget, and if you don’t balance your fiscal prudence with humane values, then you’ll do what my grandmother used to say: you’ll cut off your nose to spite your face.