Blessed are the poor

almsFor some reason, this collection of stories currently running on the Washington Post's religion page remind me of that old saw, I believe coined by Tom Lehrer, about how the New York Times would cover the end of the world: "World Ends: Women, Minorities Hardest Hit." The first is a thoroughly reported piece that says that lower and middle class folks are increasingly turning to the clergy for financial and spiritual help:

The number of people in crisis calling and showing up at the doors of the area's churches, synagogues, mosques and temples is escalating. Parishioners are bringing their pastors important questions about faith in difficult times, and some ministers are seeing their own budgets straining.

"More people are coming to the church because there is no other place for them to come," said Leah Tenorio, director of the Hispanic ministry at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in the Alexandria part of Fairfax County. Requests for help have spiked there in the past month: The church is receiving 15 calls a week, compared with one or two a week last year.

The story is chock full of such anecdotes, some which show quite dramatic increases in requests for help, and it's really interesting to see the different ways that houses of worship are helping out parishioners and folks in the community. One thing that confused me as a resident of Washington, D.C., is that this particular area is not exactly noteworthy for being hard hit by any economic crisis. A quick survey of the skyline would lead you to believe we're competing with Dubai for the largest crane population per capita. Unemployment in DC proper is up over last year, but over a point lower than it was in 2004. Maryland unemployment is up, but well below the national average. The latest report from the National Association of Realtors shows that home sales in the greater Washington area skyrocketed some 40 percent over last year at this time, although prices declined a bit. Washington is, in general, remarkably resistant to economic recessions. Government is almost always -- if not always -- a growth industry. Not all the economic indicators are great, certainly, but we're not Michigan or Rhode Island here. (Of course, as someone who would like to buy a home big enough and safe enough for my family within, you know, three hours of DC, I am kind of rooting for housing prices to plummet.)

I mention it just because it would help to know a little bit about why people are flooding religious groups for help. Either way, the groups included in the article all say that things are incredibly dire. Here was one interesting anecdote:

Some houses of worship are expanding programs that help people in crises and cutting back on less-crucial ones. New Life Anointed Ministries, for example, has reduced broadcasts of its worship services on local TV stations and dropped its financial support for international missions while doubling, to six, the number of marriage counselors after requests for counseling rose 300 percent.

"The moment that finances become unbearable, the marriage is the next thing to break," Reeves said.

The story says that many congregations are offering financial workshops and classes on foreclosures. One great thing about the article -- and proof it was written by actual religion reporters -- was the nod toward spiritual issues:

Pastors are also grappling with the hard, spiritual issues of their congregants, comforting them about their genuine anxieties while guiding them to put money into the proper spiritual perspective. Some are addressing parishioners' anger over what they see as the greed of Wall Street. Others are encouraging parishioners to look inward and to Scripture.

"God is not surprised by plunging economic activity," the Rev. Rod Stafford of Fairfax Community Church told his congregation on a recent Sunday, quoting from Deuteronomy: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you."

It's such a simple thing to include actual religion in religion stories, but frequently lacking. Other great things about the story are the discussion of how area houses of worship are worried about their own finances and the inclusion of Buddhists, Muslims and other groups. Ramadan giving was down, for instance, at one area mosque. A Lutheran church in Washington held a meeting to tell members contributions are down and utility bills have soared. Other churches are pausing renovation projects.

And if you're curious how the end of the world is hitting the opposite end of the financial spectrum, the Post also ran a story on how things are going in Greenwich, Conn, the hedge fund capital. The reporter looks at the issue by, among other things, speaking with area clergy about how their flocks are coping.

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