- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Rev. Carl Walker can tend to the spiritual needs of his congregation. But he is overwhelmed by the needs of their everyday lives - debt, evictions, dead-end job hunts, criminal records and homelessness.

“When someone calls the church and says ‘I can’t pay my rent,’ what do I do? Or someone says, ‘I gotta see the judge next week and I’m faced with the possibility of going to jail,’ how do I help them?” says Walker, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in St. Paul. “These are the issues we’re facing.”

And so, this January, his small black congregation in the Summit-University neighborhood started swapping out one of its weekly Wednesday night Bible studies each month for sessions on financial and legal advice. After only two meetings, the informal sessions have chalked up small successes: A church member dogged for a decade by a gross misdemeanor on his record is getting free legal help to get it expunged; a homeless couple is repairing bad credit; a deacon was inspired to cut expenses so he and his wife can save for retirement.

“We’re finding people are being helped by it, that’s for sure,” said Walker, who has seen members struggle in the wake of the recession and slide deeper into poverty. “The church needs to offer hope and better way. Jobs are not available and people don’t have the means to make it.”

The St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/22dfxeU ) reports the monthly “Power Up” sessions are less of a formal program and more of a spontaneous response to a need. The idea emerged from conversations that Walker had in December with several nonprofit organizations and Randi Ilyse Roth, executive director of Interfaith Action, formerly St. Paul Area Council of Churches.

“There are people in distress who come to their house of worship and tell their clergyperson what their situation is. Clergy try to help, but they’re not aware of the services that are out there,” said Roth, who through her connections was able to bring Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services into the project. “People are just distraught about disparities and poverty and jumped at the chance to be involved. This isn’t a ‘capital S solution,’ but it’s making a small difference.”

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Morning Star’s outgoing phone message proclaims, “When praises go up, blessings come down.” In January’s Wednesday night session, blessings arrived in the form of a banker, debt counselors, legal aid attorneys and a couple dozen people ready to hear advice. They shared lasagna served in the church basement, where a small above-ground swimming pool stands against the wall under a tarp, ready for baptisms. Saxophonist Walter Chancellor Jr. and keyboardist Brian Nielsen played jazz in a corner.

Walker is a pianist and co-founder of Walker West Music Academy, a thriving African-American centered music school on Selby Avenue, kitty-corner from the church. He and Roth decided financial advice would go down easier with music, so top-notch musicians involved with the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project play each month. “It’s the secret sauce,” Roth said.

That first session focused on saving money, debt and credit repair. Geoff Bullock, a financial educator at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, took people through a mock budget exercise and urged them to start tracking everything they spent.

“You will spend less,” he said. “I guarantee it.”

Terri Banaszewski, a vice president of Sunrise Banks, warned against payday loan operations and expensive storefront check-cashing services. She explained Sunrise’s reloadable Visa debit card and how to rebuild bad credit.

Among those listening were Chris and Bonita Carruthers, a married couple separated by homelessness. Bonita is staying at the Dorothy Day Center, and Chris stays at the Union Gospel Mission. Chris has a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and worked off and on in construction and as a substitute teacher in public schools before losing his apartment. Bonita cared for adults with developmental disabilities, but health problems and precarious housing has made steady work a challenge for both of them. Now, they said they felt some hope they haven’t felt in a while.

“Not only have we received a spiritual healing, we’re receiving a healing from bad credit,” is how Bonita put it.

After the January “Power Up” session, Chris took out a credit repair loan through Sunrise for $1,500. The principal stays in the bank, and as long as he makes monthly payments on time, at the end of 12 months, he’ll get back the $1,500 in principal plus half of the total $79 in interest he will end up paying.

“I had no credit,” he said. He hopes regular payments on the loan will boost his credit score and help him establish a nest egg for rent or to start a business teaching piano. “They’re scooping me up and saying, ‘OK, we’ll help you get started.’ “

Rev. Walker said people in his congregation often don’t know where to turn for help. They’re vulnerable to high-fee financial services because they don’t know about other options.

“The bank is a scary place for a lot of our people, because they’ve been turned down so many times from financial institutions,” said Walker. “So if a banker is willing to come to a church like Morning Star to say, ‘folks, this is how you can do it,’ well, that means a lot.”

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In 2007, the median net worth for a black family in the United States was $19,200, almost entirely in housing stock. By 2010, the median had fallen to $16,600. By 2013 - when the rest of the nation was starting to recover - it was down to $11,000, according to an analysis by Pew Research Center.

From the pulpit, Walker has witnessed that slide.

“Twenty-five years ago, we had people who were doing alright for themselves,” said Walker. “But those people left, and the jobs left. Then people started losing their homes. Now, people are just trying to survive.”

After the first Power Up session, a church member asked Walker for $30 to pay a cellphone bill. The Sunday before, the congregation took up a collection for a woman who had no money to send the body of a relative who died here back to his home in Indianapolis.

“When the community is suffering, everybody is suffering,” said Curtis Strother, a deacon at Morning Star. “I don’t even tell Rev. Walker how many people catch me at church and they need a little money. It happened yesterday! A guy came, and I shook his hand and passed his money on. He’s a good guy, a beautiful person. But he ran into a difficult situation. I see people like that every day.”

Like a number of the church elders, Strother is doing OK for himself. His wife is a school social worker and he’s winding down his business as a hairdresser. One daughter went to Harvard and is doing well, and two others are flourishing in the music business in Los Angeles. At first he had no interest in coming to the Power Up sessions, but now he’s a believer.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Strother, who said the budget session inspired him to cut several expenses to save for retirement, including satellite television. “I got a boat-load of knowledge and I want to share it with people.”

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Legal problems also dog members of the congregation. At the second session in February, two legal aid attorneys talked about tenants’ rights. And nearly everyone at church knows someone with a criminal record.

After talking informally to one of the legal aid attorneys, Chris Henry was elated to discover he could get a charge from more than 10 years ago sealed from public view.

“I just found out I can get that gross misdemeanor expunged. This is awesome!” said the clearly delighted Henry, who started attending the church last fall. He explained that the conviction, which stemmed from an illegal gun possession, had made it difficult for him to find housing, though he finally landed an apartment a few blocks from church.

“With that charge gone, I can work anywhere. I think that’s why I can’t get a job. When I found out, I wanted to fall on my knees and thank God. I feel so good.”

“That’s just beautiful,” said Walker. “I think we’re onto something.”

Future sessions may address domestic violence, mental health, disability rights and job training programs. At the next session on March 24, attorneys will talk about wills and health care directives with a follow up clinic in April. Roth, of Interfaith Action, acknowledges that at this point, it is a very small effort at a one small church, but she said it could be a model other churches could adopt.

“Prayer is excellent,” said Walker. “But this is about learning to help yourself in your everyday life. Really, this is what is needed in all our churches. The struggles we’re going through, some of the other black churches are going through the same thing.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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