In God's debt

  01As noted before, some stories get religion completely or almost. They show the importance and impact of religion from beginning to end. Take this Washington Post story by reporter Ovetta Wiggins. Wiggins wrote about Christian churches that help their flocks to get and stay out of financial debt. As a Catholic, I had never heard of such a thing; our programs, such as they are, tend to deal with prayer, social activities, and various causes. So I think that, as Mollie noted about an article on high gas prices, this was a good story idea.

Wiggins' lede certainly caught my attention:

Following the advice of their pastor, the men and women shuffled to the altar, cut up their credit cards and placed them near his feet.

"If we want to have victory, we have to come out of financial bondage," the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden shouted during a recent sermon.

Ordinarily Jenkins's sermons are about spiritual freedom and ridding one's self of sin. But his message has taken a different turn lately -- one that preaches the dangers of overspending and debt.

Wiggins' story was also fairly diverse. Although she did not mention how synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions deal with debt, she included a representative sampling in the Washington region, including a response from a Catholic parish:

Churches are going a step further by providing financial counseling and pointing people to local and state programs that help with finances.

McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia offers classes on how to handle money according to Biblical principles. And last month, St. Martin's Catholic Church in Gaithersburg hosted a foreclosure prevention workshop to help those in danger of losing their homes.

Wiggins' story also cast her story in wider relief. Not content to focus solely on the broader economic or national picture, she put her angle in theological context:

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said the problem for some church members is that "Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with money."

On the one hand, Wolfe said, believers are told that the love of money is the root of all evil. Then there are those who preach a prosperity gospel, which promotes that God wants believers to have an abundant life with extraordinary financial blessings.

Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most renowned preachers of the prosperity gospel, has not tailored his messages to address the changes in the economy or how people should manage their money. But his Dallas-based church, the Potter's House, offers a program that provides tips on financial literacy, budgeting and credit restoration.

An arresting lede, a (fairly) diverse sample of local denominations, and theological context -- any story with those three elements is excellent. Wiggins' story, however, was not perfect. Read this passage below, and see if it raises a question in your mind:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has encouraged ministers to discuss the foreclosure crisis, saying that religious leaders built their churches "on the middle-class bubble of success." If churches do not address the foreclosure crisis, he said in a December visit to Prince George's, parishioners will not only suffer, but "your churches will suffer" as well.

That part about churches suffering struck me as opaque. Did Jackson mean that pastors should be concerned not only about their flocks' bottom line, but theirs too? After all, if the people in the pews can't pay their bills, it stands to reason that they will give less money to the church? (Given their decentralized nature, Protestant churches would be more attuned to their congregationists' financial woes.) Wiggins' attitude toward the churches in this respect should have been more critical.

Yet her story ended on an appropriate note. She quoted a woman giving herself, or at least her finances, to the Lord:

"I could not lean to my own understanding," Clements said, paraphrasing a scripture. "It wasn't for me to figure out, it was me turning it totally over to God to figure out."

That was a memorable ending for a memorable story.

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