Special Report:Holy bubble! Churches struck down by foreclosures
By Tom Hals
FORT WASHINGTON, Md (Reuters) - By the time thousands of parishioners stream into the 3,000-seat Ebenezer AME Church on Easter Sunday, church leaders hope to have something else to celebrate: financial revival.
The congregation, one of America's largest, has been scrambling to raise funds to save the arena-sized sanctuary from potential foreclosure. To that end, it has enlisted national leaders, such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Harvard Law School's Charles Ogletree, who was President Barack Obama's law professor.
Thanks to its 10,000-member congregation and connections with business and civic leaders, Ebenezer expects to avoid the fate of a growing number of U.S. churches, which are defaulting on loans, facing foreclosure and even declaring bankruptcy at an unprecedented pace.
"It's happening to virtually every church," said the Rev. Grainger Browning, senior pastor of Ebenezer. "At a recent meeting with the 100 top pastors in the country, it was amazing how all of us were facing some sort of challenge with the banks."
Supercheap, few-questions-asked loans were a temptation even churches could not resist, but now they are paying for their sins as the debt crisis enters the house of God.
Long considered among the safest of borrowers, churches gambled on real estate at a time when credit copiously flowed and lenders were startlingly lax.
But places of worship have since been battered by the economic downturn. Donations have dipped, investment returns have plunged and bank credit is still hard to come by.
"You build it and they will come. It really was true through the years," said Brad Hampton, executive pastor at the Faith Center of Rockford, Illinois. "They like newness," he says of younger churchgoers. Continued...