December 19, 2007 / 12:04 AM / 10 years ago

Clergy take on U.S. mortgage mess

<p>A foreclosure sign is seen in Antioch, California, Nov. 27, 2007. Many houses of worship around the United States are seeing the impact of the deepening crisis, particularly in urban areas hard hit by homeowner defaults. Clergy are speaking out on the topic at religious services and trying to coordinate assistance for their members and the community at large. REUTERS/Erin Siegal/Files</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At the Quail Lakes Baptist Church in Stockton, California, the parishioners at weekly prayer group meetings seek spiritual support for everything from health issues to marital problems to job losses.

These days, many people also are praying about their mortgages.

“There are many people in this community who are losing their homes or in danger of losing their homes, and there are some who have just seen their mortgage payments go through the roof,” said the Rev. Marc Maffucci, the church’s pastor.

Stockton, a city about 80 miles east of San Francisco that was founded as a gateway for gold miners in the mid-1800s, has one of the highest foreclosure rates of any large U.S. metropolitan area as its once-hot housing market has gone cold. Maffucci said his congregants have sought help through group prayer as well as his private counsel on how to cope.

Many houses of worship around the United States are seeing the impact of the deepening crisis, particularly in urban areas hard hit by homeowner defaults. Clergy are speaking out on the topic at religious services and trying to coordinate assistance for their members and the community at large.

While the financial fallout of the mortgage meltdown has been well documented, the moral dimensions have not been widely discussed, religion experts say. They say they are particularly troubled on a moral level by the explosion of subprime mortgages, which allowed lower-income people with weak credit to buy homes based on attractive teaser interest rates that now are resetting to levels they cannot afford.

Subprime lending is not unethical under Judeo-Christian tradition -- and it can serve a good societal purpose by allowing those who have been down on their luck to get access to capital, said David Miller, executive director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School.

He and others, though, said that subprime lenders have a duty to charge fair interest and that they also have a moral responsibility not to extend credit to those they know cannot pay it back.

“One of the interesting questions that should be asked of subprime mortgage lenders, is, ‘would you take this loan out on your own home?” said Gary Moore, a financial adviser in Sarasota, Florida, who writes about religion and investing.

“That’s the Golden Rule. But I bet there’s not 1 in 100 that did. If more of them just thought about that for a minute, it would have prevented a lot of this.”

At the same time, religion experts say that many homebuyers may have acted immorally by living beyond their means and that borrowers are required to try to make good on their debts. They cite a verse in the Book of Psalms that says: “The wicked borrows and does not pay back.”

The housing crisis has deeply troubled the Rev. Michael Surufka, of the Catholic Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland, Ohio’s Slavic Village neighborhood, another area hurt by high foreclosures.

He said the neighborhood drew numerous property “flippers” in recent years who bought dirt-cheap homes, made cosmetic improvements, then inflated prices well above market value based on rigged appraisals. Homes then were sold to unwitting buyers who could not afford the mortgages.

“If Dante were to rewrite ‘The Inferno,’ I think there would be another ring in his hell for unscrupulous property flippers,” said Surufka, who has discussed the housing crisis frequently in his weekend homilies.

“It is not only a social and economic crisis, it’s evil,” he said. “Not to sound too pedantic about it, but people elsewhere in the country are making huge amounts of money by destroying neighborhoods like ours.”

IMMORALITY OF EXCESS

On Chicago’s South Side, the Rev. Reginald Williams Jr. at the Trinity United Church of Christ says he has been dismayed by what he sees as the immorality of the housing market’s excesses. The church, a primarily black congregation, has a long-standing housing ministry that provides education and advocacy for people at risk of foreclosure,

Lenders who preyed on low-income minorities for high-interest mortgages came up with “a slick way to make money and to really enslave people,” said Williams, an associate pastor. “The immorality is further magnified when it’s particularly geared at a certain race.”

Lessons about debt and financial struggles are found throughout the Bible. There is a biblical prohibition on charging interest on loans -- the making money by lending money -- although today most Jews and Christians view the charging of some interest as acceptable. In Christianity, Martin Luther in the 1500s and other Protestant reformers played a big role in liberalizing views on the charging of interest.

In Islamic finance, there is an official prohibition on interest-based borrowing and lending. That has helped investment funds that adhere to Islamic principles to largely avoid the subprime meltdown because they do not hold traditional banking stocks.

The subprime crisis is likely interpreted differently across the spectrum of Muslim thought, said John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. He said some conservative Muslims might argue that the mess shows that an “interest-based system is not only immoral but doesn’t work.”

He said though that more liberal Muslim thinkers might say that the situation shows that interest-based lending can lead to abuses, but is not necessarily immoral.

In the Bible, there is also mention of loan forgiveness, something particularly timely as the government has brokered a plan with mortgage lenders to give relief to struggling homeowners who took out adjustable rate subprime loans that are set to go up sharply.

In biblical times “every seventh year, you were supposed to forgive any money that hasn’t been repaid to you,” said Moore, the financial adviser, referring to a passage in Deuteronomy.

There is also a biblical concept of the Jubilee year, in which every 50 years all property should be returned to its original owners. The idea, he said, is to give those who have struggled a fresh start and not be bound forever by their debts.

Back at Quail Lakes church in Stockton, Maffucci said that the housing crisis continues to reverberate. Some in his community are in danger of default, and others who worked in the housing industry and now are jobless. He said that at almost every Wednesday morning prayer session he attends there are requests for prayers for someone struggling with issues such as how to scrape together a loan payment.

He has provided counsel to some of his better-off congregants who got overextended in real estate and now are working to pare back their lifestyles. For others who have gotten behind on their mortgage bills, though, there is little that can be done.

“I think they understand their options are somewhat limited. They are going to make the payments or they are not,” he said. “They are really praying for wisdom at that point.”

Reporting by Martha Graybow; Editing by Eddie Evans

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