Churches team up for financial literacy

By Lilly Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 05--Pastors are turning to Jesus for advice on money.

It starts Sunday, when churches throughout the area will preach a unified message that pushes financial responsibility.

"Out of all the things that Jesus talks about he talks about money most," said the Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ. Blackmon is one of roughly 50 pastors who will be participating in the financially focused sermons Sunday.

The effort is part of Money Smart Week, a national initiative developed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago that begins today. Along with about 100 partners, United Way of Greater St. Louis is sponsoring more than 200 free classes and events about finance in the St. Louis area through April 12.

One of the partners, the St. Louis Regional Unbanked Task Force, serves those who struggle to maintain checking accounts. On Sunday, they are relying on pastors like Blackmon to preach the virtues of financial responsibility and motivate those sitting in the pews to turn to the task force for help.

Alex Fennoy, vice president of community development at Midwest BankCentre and co-chairman of the St. Louis Regional Unbanked Task Force, says the initiative is particularly important for the city of St. Louis.

More than 100,000 households in the St. Louis area lack access to a checking account and are instead forced to rely on costly alternative check-cashing businesses. And more than 200,000 are considered underbanked, turning to payday loans, pawn shop loans, and other expensive services for help, according to a 2011 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

A majority of the unbanked households in the St. Louis area -- 70,000 out of the 111,000 -- are African-American, making the region the third highest in the nation in the number of African-Americans without a checking account.

Through their Bank-On-Save-Up initiative, the St. Louis Regional Unbanked Task Force aims to equip 20,000 in the region with low-cost checking and savings accounts by April 2015.

For her part, Blackmon said she will use the Gospel of Mark as the basis for Sunday's sermon. In that gospel, a poor widow who donates everything she has to her temple is praised above the rich who are able to give more.

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Blackmon said the passage serves as a lesson in social responsibility where ensuring everyone has access to the resources they need is paramount.

But having the ability to give to others, Blackmon said, requires taking care of one's own finances first.

So in July, as part of the church's continued focus on finance, instead of Bible study, Blackmon will offer money management classes that focus on topics such as credit scores and debt. Anyone from middle school children to adults can take advantage of the two-hour, weekly sessions.

Blackmon's sermons in July will also be tied to money matters.

Fennoy said he plans to continue to plug into pastors like Blackmon and their emphasis on money throughout the year to reach more with their program.

Since the launch of the Bank-On-Save-Up initiative about a year ago, approximately 2,000 have gained access to checking accounts that offer perks such as reduced overdraft fees and lower minimum balances. Banks that are part of the initiative also only require $25 or less to open an account. And in an effort to compete with payday loans, a couple of the banks offer short-term, low-interest loans.

Doug Petty, senior pastor at Fresh Start Bible Church, said addressing money management helps pastors minister to the development of the entire person.

"The faith walk is about being whole or well in general," Petty said. "An individual's self-confidence and inner security is often compromised because of financial insecurity. Substance abuse, gambling, the use of pawn shops and payday loans increase dramatically as a result."

But James Halteman, emeritus professor of economics at Wheaton College, said pastors should leave detailed discussions about money to the experts. Ministers can talk in general terms about simple living and serving the poor, but topics such as fidelity investments or mutual funds could be out of their league, Halteman warned.

City Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones, who is drafting legislation to establish an Office of Financial Empowerment, said she hopes to bring the Bank-On-Save-Up initiative under the wings of the city's new office.

"I see this as an epidemic," Jones said, referring to the unbanked. But, Jones added, pastors can play an important role in bringing some relief to those financially strapped.

Lilly Fowler is the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @LillyAFowler


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