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Historic black church faces foreclosure from minority-owned bank

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In a dispute that some are calling a modern-day updating of the biblical Parable of the Ungrateful Servant, a minority-owned bank that benefited from federal bailout funds is threatening to foreclose on one of the nation’s oldest black churches.

The 194-year-old Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood could have its sanctuary forcibly auctioned off as early as this week unless a last-minute deal is reached.

The action could be taken by OneUnited Bank, which received $12 million from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and whose board of directors once included the husband of Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat.

Having the auction take place on the church’s front steps "is as mean-spirited and as godless as you can get," the church's pastor, the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr., told the Boston Herald.

Mr. Groover did not return calls from The Washington Times seeking comment, and a secretary at the church said Friday "there's no way I could comment" when asked whether there were any new developments.

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, the Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes Charles Street AME, said he has sought to persuade OneUnited not to foreclose.

"Charles Street AME is an historic and important community institution and means so much to so many people. I have asked One United to come to the negotiating table to try and resolve this matter without resorting to foreclosure. I remain hopeful that a satisfactory resolution will be found," he said in a statement.

Biblical parallels

Charles Street AME supporters claim the pending foreclosure is a real-life reflection of the Unforgiving Servant Parable from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-35).

In the story as Jesus tells it, a servant forgiven a great debt turned around and choked a colleague who owed a small amount. The parable about divine mercy ends with the king sending the first servant to be tortured until he pays off his own debt.

According to Ryan Bell, pastor of the Hollywood, Calif., Seventh-day Adventist Church, OneUnited Bank is behaving like the first servant, showing the black church little mercy after receiving its millions from language designed to help black banks that Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, inserted into TARP-related legislation in December 2008.

"To foreclose on this historic African-American church, is disappointing to say the least. We forgave the banks and bailed them out, and now they're coming after the little borrower," said Mr. Bell, who also is a leader of LAVoice/PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing).

News reports indicate the Charles Street congregation had borrowed $3.6 million from OneUnited to construct a community center adjacent to the sanctuary, which the congregation had acquired in 1939. Fundraising and rentals from the new building would have helped pay off the loan, but construction was halted when, Charles Street says, OneUnited cut off funding.

The loan's history

On Feb. 17, six members of the House Ethics Committee, including its chairman, recused themselves from any ethics investigation of Mrs. Waters, including the two-year-old probe of her role on behalf of OneUnited Bank, where husband Sidney Williams was a director and shareholder.

Mrs. Waters has been accused of improperly applying pressure to get relief for OneUnited Bank, saving the value of her husband's stock holdings. At the time of Mr. Frank's legislation, Mr. Williams had stepped down from the bank's board but still held stock.

OneUnited is not speaking to reporters about the specifics of the Charles Street AME Church case.

An outside public relations firm — which said it is not representing the bank on the foreclosure matter — forwarded a statement attributed only to the company in general, and not any bank official.

"It is not the practice of this bank to take steps to exercise collection remedies including foreclosure, in the absence of good cause," the OneUnited Bank statement said.

"The overwhelming majority of our community lives up to their financial responsibilities and OneUnited works in good faith with borrowers who experience financial setbacks. We are flexible in our efforts to assist borrowers, while remaining consistent with safe and sound banking practices. We continue to be hopeful that our efforts will result in a stronger community."

Banking values

One specialist in church ethics said that matters besides finance should enter into the church foreclosure equation.

"I know that banks are in the business of lending money and they make money by their loans," said Cheryl J. Sanders, professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity and senior pastor of the District's Third Street Church of God. "There's a certain callousness that comes across when there's a church is involved" in a foreclosure, she added.

Saying that “unregulated banks that went amok caused the 2008 financial crisis," Ms. Sanders said that in foreclosing on those trying to pay their bills, she said, banks are showing a "callous disregard for people's lives and livelihood."

Asked about the Charles Street situation and other foreclosures, Ms. Sanders said, "The word that I've been using is compassion; it means you give people a break. Take into consideration the factors that account for their inability to pay."

Ms.. Sanders said her Third Street congregation was in a similar position "a few years ago," when, she said, M&T Bank tried to foreclose on a loan on which the church was making on-time payments.

What she called "a technicality" led M&T to request Third Street to add collateral to a loan already granted; Ms. Sanders said the church found a bridge loan from another lender to pay off M&T. "It was a very difficult time," she said.

According to its Website, Charles Street AME Church’s history is woven into that of the abolitionist movement. Organized by free blacks in 1818, the congregation “served as a major gathering place for abolition meetings and rallies led by such individuals as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Charles Summer and David Walker (a Charles Street member).”

The church “was a haven for former slaves and a transit point on the freedom trail for runaway slaves fleeing to Canada,” as well as a leader in the fight against the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which imposed a $1,000 per incident fine on federal and other law-enforcement personnel who did not return runaway slaves.

The church has since remained a leader in Boston’s black community. Mr. Groover, its current pastor, has served since 2007 on the Boston School Committee, or board of education, and is currently its chairman.

Others in same boat

According to Reuters news agency, church foreclosures have risen dramatically during the recession.

"Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold after defaulting on their loans, with 90 percent of those sales coming after a lender-triggered foreclosure, according to the real estate information company CoStar Group," the news agency reported on March 9.

Reuters reported, "In 2011, 138 churches were sold by banks, an annual record, with no sign that these religious foreclosures are abating, according to CoStar. That compares to just 24 sales in 2008 and only a handful in the decade before."

Mr. Bell recently "disinvested" his congregation's money from the Bank of America in protest of that bank's home foreclosure practices. Having a bank auction off a church property is equally troubling, Mr. Bell said.

"This is like foreclosing on 300 families all at once, or however many families are in this church," Mr. Bell said of the pending Charles Street foreclosure. "With this historic church, it has been a guardian of this public trust. It's more than just a financial contract, it's a cultural contract."

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