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As bills pile up, churches step in

Some houses of God are helping to pay overdue mortgages, not just a light bill.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007


In recent months, some area pastors have noticed a disturbing trend: Seemingly financially stable church members have been turning to them for assistance, not simply to put food on the table or pay the electric bill, but to keep a roof over their heads.

"Just the economy, the high cost of insurance, property taxes, gasoline prices, people are just falling short," said the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

"We've had to bail out numerous people, and many times, when they come to us, it's the absolute last resort, and then when they come, they are two, three months behind," he said, adding that people are embarrassed to ask for help.

Older congregants are particularly affected, said the Rev. Gustave Victor, a St. Petersburg pastor whose ministry takes him to the Wachula Church of God in Hardee County.

"I have some 75- and 80-year-olds talking about going back to work," Victor said.

Pastor Carlos Senior of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church says some members of his congregation who have given faithfully to the church's charitable fund now find themselves needing its help.

"It's like your nurses and your teachers, folks that are professional," Senior said.

Eric and Tonya Lucas are examples. A little more than a year ago, they bought their $479,000, five-bedroom dream home on the edge of Lakewood Estates with no money down. In June, he fell ill. Now the parents of four face foreclosure, have bad credit and are worried about finding a new place to live.

Eric Lucas, 35, was making $2,700 a week as a self-employed health care provider when he and his wife decided to buy their home. The day before Father's Day, he had a seizure and doctors discovered a cyst in his brain. Surgery to remove it was performed a few weeks later.

"During this time, I'm falling behind on my bills. I started getting collection calls," said Eric Lucas, who last week was back in the hospital with an infection and facing the prospect of additional surgery.

The couple, whose monthly mortgage payment is $3,400, said social service agencies refused to help because of their recent income.

Others stepped in to help the couple, who have a 1-year-old daughter together and three other children from her previous marriage and his previous relationship.

Eric Lucas' mother borrowed from her 401k to help them keep up with their electric, cable, cell phone and car payments and his child support. Their church, New Hope Missionary Baptist, collected about $1,200. Individual members dropped by with diapers, milk and other supplies.

"We basically know that we're going to have to go through the foreclosure," said Eric Lucas. "It basically means starting all over again. ... This type of situation really humbles you."

Sheila Lopez, chief operating officer at Catholic Charities, said the organization is seeing more people with similar troubles.

One who stands out is the 67-year-old woman who recently sought help to save her home. Lopez said the woman was behind in her mortgage by about $10,000. The agency succeeded in renegotiating her loan and is trying to raise the $3,000 the woman now owes, Lopez said.

Like other organizations, Catholic Charities works with limited funding. Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist and New Hope Missionary Baptist have funds set aside for those in need.

"Most times, it's normally for people whose lights are off or need food, or someone who just got laid off from their job," said Murphy, Mount Zion's pastor.

"We've stopped several foreclosures. I don't know how much of that we can do."

Murphy's church also is offering biblically centered classes on how to manage money. The 12-week program, led by lay people, is based on a course offered internationally by Crown Financial Ministries in Gainesville, Ga.

"We also on occasion bring in lending institutions, mortgage brokers, insurance folk," Murphy said. "But even with all of that, when people have limited income and expenses are constantly on the rise, it makes it difficult to keep their finances in balance."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.

If you go

Money management

Crown Financial Ministries classes, Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 955 20th St. S, St. Petersburg. Study materials cost $55 for couples and $50 for individuals. Call (727) 894-4311 or go to www.mzprogressive.org.