(Appeared on front page of Bridgeport News 11/25)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
What began as a seed of an idea several years ago has blossomed into a fruitful collaboration between interfaith leaders and their congregation members who seek to find solutions and help for families facing foreclosure on their homes and other financial difficulties.
Organized under a “Tent of Abraham” umbrella, clerical representatives from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths that have already fostered interaction and understanding between their respective congregants are now building upon that foundation to address serious challenges that are affecting people of all faiths.
In a recent sit-down with her clerical “partners” at the Park Avenue-situated Congregation B’Nai Israel in Bridgeport, the temple’s Associate Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz said, “Given the state of the world and economy, we began to wonder how faith can play a role and help.”
Pooling Interfaith Resources
This is when John Harmon, a congregant at Fairfield’s First Church Congregational and the Principal of Adulant Consulting Services LLC, entered the picture. “I came to the group relatively late, in April 2010. To the table, I brought a background of experiences at Pitney Bowes and teaching history (focused on the Renaissance Reformation period) at the University of Rochester. This gave me a solid background on finance and history, and a broad perspective on several religions.”
Historically, said Harmon, “Each faith posed challenges to the commercial world in terms of how to structure financing with regard to religious ethics and rules. For example, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam each had restrictions about the amount of interest you could charge. Very clear guidelines. These faiths have the same principles today but we haven’t heard from them with regard to current financial difficulties and how we get out of this mess.”
Harmon spoke with the group about this and each member realized they had contacts within their own circles with expertise in financial areas. A Christian representative was a former bank CEO in the Bronx. There was a rabbi who was a former investment banker. An attorney that does Islamic banking who advises people on investing within Islamic guidelines. The group realized it could offer real help to struggling families.
Dedicated Financial-Oriented Programs
On Oct. 27th, a first panel-style program was held, with presentations by each faith leader. At a subsequent Nov.3rd session, feedback and discussion was encouraged. These sessions were held at the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University, under the direction of Father Rick Ryscavage.
“These programs were very relevant to what people are experiencing,” said Rev. Bryan Leone, a pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Monroe but representing a Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport (CCGB) viewpoint. “Economic hardship knows no boundaries. All people are suffering. There should be a moral ethic in which lending is conducted. If this had been applied, we wouldn’t be in this mess. In many cases, people have been the victims of questionable ethics. Business deals should be conducted as if the customer is a family member.”
“At our recent session, the speakers made the point that transparency and trust between two sides is also good business. This has been absent within transactions over the past years. No one knows who owns what,” said Harmon.
Gurevitz suggested that the fault is not necessarily with individual counselors but with processes in general. “It’s not that there’s a lot of bad people out there. It’s more the systems that are set up that violate morals,” said Gurevitz.
Leone thought one recent attendee’s remark highlighted one key part of the problem. “He made the point that there’s a disconnect between stockholders and people working in the banks. Corporations are so big that they lose humanity and the person-to-person contact. They lose sight that they’re affecting human lives and have become heartless entities.”
Dolores Paoli, a lay person who serves as Youth Activity Coordinator for the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies, concurred. “We don’t have the small community connection anymore like in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
Harmon noted how some loan payers are being taking advantage of and how families have had to rally to assist each other. “Customers that are least able to pay are the most profitable customers for the corporations due to interest charges. We are seeing extended families trying to help each other out.”
Harmon suggested, “There needs to be greater oversight of commercial activity, by government or faith-based councils. We have an ethical responsibility to behave in a fair, ethical way. Without the ethical energy that religion provides, this fairness will continue to be absent.”
The Pitching of the Tent
This type of dialogue and constructive interaction between different faiths on these serious issues may not have been possible if Gurevitz had not been spurred to action. She explained how the “Tent of Abraham” collaboration, which initially began simply as a sharing of interfaith traditions, came about and how it has evolved over time.
Gurevitz reflected, “I came to this community five years ago and got an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who runs the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. He’s a very prophetic voice and raises consciousness on many ideas. Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) had reached a point on the calendar where it coincided with Jewish high holidays in September. He thought it would be wonderfully appropriate for people of different faiths to share each other’s holy times and learn from each other. People of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths were encouraged to collaborate, under a Tent of Abraham umbrella.”
The overarching umbrella name seemed appropriate given that Abraham was one of the first great Biblical patriarchs and is a common ancestor of the three monotheistic faiths. Abraham also had a tent that was open on all four sides, so that he could see people as they approached and welcome them in. It was symbolic of the open exchange of ideas that the group hoped to foster.
“I had done some work with Waskow in the past, made a connection with the Jewish Federation and they reached out to the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, which has a bridge building ministry,” continued Gurevitz. “We liked the idea of specifically working on something three-faith oriented. A steering committee got together and we organized an initial program that was held at Sacred Heart University.”
The first program had about 120 attendees that were a mix of congregants from each of the faiths. The format featured a panel of religious leaders from the local community addressing the gathering. The theme was Abraham as a spiritual ancestor and how the faiths draw inspiration from the story.
“Instead of focusing on the differences between the faiths, the concentration was on the 99% that we all had in common,” said Gurevitz.
Paoli added, “That was the glue that created a foundation for meeting going forward. The emphasis was placed on understanding and sharing.”
While the first program was very encouraging, it fell short of fostering the interaction the group wished to achieve. “Going forward, small interfaith groups were organized at each program so people could have discussions and share stories amongst themselves,” said Gurevitz. “And we began to have different presenters and varying themes, which included lifecycle, pilgrimage, repentance and fasting. These themes were the obvious religious topics.”
While continuing to encourage collaboration at all levels, the group is now focused on providing real support to people of all faiths. To this regard, feedback forms that were distributed at the group’s last session are currently being digested and analyzed and the group plans to reconvene in late spring. In the meantime, for those congregants most in need, churches are ready to help with discretionary funds and fundraising efforts. Several also plan holiday food drives and to help people in need with their fuel bills. Others have established job banks and are using online services like Linked In to connect congregants.
Clearly, the interfaith collaboration has promise. “We love each other. We’re like family,” said Paoli. Summed up Gurevitz, “Our relationship makes it possible to spur dialogues.”
Divine Mortgage Solutions Helps Homeowners in Crisis
Aligned with the objectives of the Tent of Abraham interfaith initiative, Divine Mortgage Solutions, a non-profit service operated by Rev. Marjorie Nunes, pastor at Summerfield United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, helps homeowners in foreclosure crisis.
As stated on its website, the role of the “ministry” is to function as an advocate for homeowners who are in foreclosure, at risk of foreclosure/loss of home and who are in need of post-foreclosure counseling and services. It is comprised of a group of dedicated individuals with the knowledge to negotiate with lenders to obtain modifications, loan restructuring plans, forbearance agreements and other tools to keep homeowners in their homes.
“We reach out to folks regardless of their religious beliefs, even though we are Methodist-based. We charge no fee and operate through grants,” said Nunes. “The first problem, from one family, came at the end of 2007. I never thought it would grow to the extent it has. I have a business background and began seeking more knowledge as the crisis grew. We have probably helped over 75 families in one way or another.”
The problem has evolved according to Nunes. “In 2008, there was a lot of sub-prime. People got into loans they shouldn’t have. When these reset to high adjustable rates, they were overwhelmed. Now with unemployment increasing, people can no longer afford even the fixed rate. It’s tricky when there’s no money coming in. I’m not a bank sympathizer, but I understand they can’t modify a loan if there’s no income.”
Often people just need help understanding the paperwork. “Some think that when they get a foreclosure notice, that’s the end. But that’s just the beginning and there are many remedy options,” added Nunes.
“We try to offer some peace and let people know that someone cares enough to help,” offered Nunes, a message that’s particularly appropriate and welcome during the holidays.
For more information about Divine Mortgage Solutions, please visit http://www.sumconthehill.com/divine.html