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Putting their faith into the foreclosure fight

Religious groups lobby government, lenders

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / January 11, 2010

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For Nylton Andrade, preventing home foreclosures is not just a personal priority. It’s a matter of religious faith.

Andrade, who was laid off from a teaching job at Boston’s Madison Park High School in June, is hoping to save his family’s house in Brockton after falling behind on mortgage payments. But the evangelical Christian is also part of a faith-based effort to prevent foreclosures for millions of others across the United States.

“Refresh others and you will be refreshed,’’ said Andrade, 32, citing Proverbs 11:25.

Members of religious organizations have rallied in front of the Treasury Department and met with government regulators, White House officials, and lawmakers to talk about reforming lending.

Tomorrow, Andrade plans to join a group of religious leaders from around the country in Antioch, Calif., where they are scheduled to talk with Bank of America Corp. officials about modifying more home loans. Hundreds of families are expected to gather nearby for a prayer rally.

Many faith-based groups say that, in the mire of the nation’s financial malaise, they have been galvanized by religious themes such as forgiveness (for homeowners unable to keep up with mortgage payments) and the sin of usury (lending money at exorbitant interest rates).

“The economic crisis revealed a moral crisis as well,’’ said Rachel Anderson, director of faith-based outreach for the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, a secular group in Durham, N.C. The center has worked with People Improving Communities through Organizing, or PICO, a California-based group mounting a nationwide campaign for changes in mortgage lending, which includes tomorrow’s meeting with Bank of America.

“There’s a call for change,’’ Anderson said.

Religious organizations’ foreclosure activism may be built on a moral foundation, but it is buoyed by a federal government that appears receptive to taking their opinions seriously, said Richard L. Wood, a sociology professor and former director of religious studies at the University of New Mexico.

“The Obama administration has signaled they want to work with these kinds of groups,’’ Wood said. “The faith-based organizing world has gotten more and more sophisticated.’’

In Massachusetts, a web of groups with religious affiliations have signed on to the cause, including the Brockton Interfaith Community, which is made up of religious institutions and other groups in a city battered by foreclosures. The group - of which Andrade is a member - is one of six organizations in the interfaith Massachusetts Communities Action Network, also part of PICO.

Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said that over the past few decades it has concentrated on state and local issues, such as youth violence and affordable housing. But as the foreclosure crisis mushroomed, he said, the network realized it needed to get involved on a wider level because lending and credit issues cross state borders.

Over the last year, members have met with officials from the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and with US Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Finfer said the talks have helped put key housing issues on the national agenda. For instance, in November the Massachusetts group organized a meeting attended by hundreds of people in Brockton at which Frank made a commitment to push the Treasury to use profits from the bank bailout program to assist unemployed homeowners. The plan is to provide mortgage holders with short-term loans to help them make payments. It also is pressuring lenders to rewrite more homeowners’ mortgages to lower the payments.

“It was new ground for people to work at the national level, to work in Congress and Treasury, because research showed us much of the decision-making was lodged there,’’ Finfer said.

Local religious groups also are participating in a national effort to curb high interest rates on credit cards.

The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, based in Dorchester, recently launched a campaign to lower rates, which can exceed 30 percent and have been devastating in low-income communities. The organization, made up of 50 faith-based and community groups, is coordinating efforts with its parent organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation, based in Chicago, in calling for a 10 percent cap on credit card interest rates.

“The three major traditions, Christian, Judaism, and Islam, all of them carry major prohibitions against usury, exacting interest in the kind of way that causes people harm and forces people into debt,’’ said the Reverend Hurman Hamilton, president of the Boston-area group.

The seeds of the local antiforeclosure effort by religious groups began in the Brockton home of Carol Delorey, a part-time cleaning woman and community activist. Delorey said she headed a city task force on housing and foreclosure prevention four years ago, when the group launched an emergency phone line for struggling homeowners. Initially, calls were directed to her home.

“There were plenty of nights I couldn’t sleep thinking about the pain of it,’’ said Delorey, a Catholic. “It’s very important that in the Christian faith we realize we are called to do what Jesus told us to do, to feed and clothe and care for people less fortunate than ourselves.’’

Delorey related the stories of her callers to members of the Brockton Interfaith Community, who contacted homeowners. Many said they were too embarrassed to reveal their financial problems to clergy. In late 2008, the group decided to start educating the city’s religious leaders about the housing crisis and how to advocate for lending reform.

“A lot of the ministers didn’t know this was affecting their congregations,’’ said Janine Carreiro, lead organizer for Brockton Interfaith Community. “The whole issue is hard to get your mind wrapped around: What does it mean to have a subprime loan, what are the terms?’’

Rabbi Arye Berk, of Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton, said he was awed by the number of government agencies and federal programs involved in the machinations of mortgages. He said he remembers turning to a colleague at a meeting and saying, “This is nothing they teach you in seminary.’’ The briefing he received from the interfaith group was “like a crash course’’ on the mortgage crisis, Berk said.

It had an impact, too. Last year, Brockton religious groups lobbied the city to impose a moratorium on foreclosures and do more to protect tenant rights. The home rule petition is pending in the Legislature.

“We are not supposed to leave people outside,’’ Berk said. “We know what it is like to be without a home.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.

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