Forgive Us Our Debts

Mount Carmel Baptist Church is teaching its congregation how to manage credit

There’s something extraordinary going on at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia. Sure, there’s praying, clapping of hands, and singing of hymns. But upon the pulpit sits a jar filled with cut-up credit cards — a testament to what makes this church unique. Because along with paying their tithes, members of this congregation are quite faithful when it comes to a far more secular ritual — paying off their debts.

“You can’t serve both MasterCard and the Master” is Bishop C. Vernie Russell Jr.’s mantra. Once a month, Russell, 49, leads the congregation in a “debt liquidation revival.” He selects a family to be delivered (the decision is made through divine inspiration) and the congregation contributes money to pay their arrears. The average gift from a church member is from $25 to $100, though some have given as much as $1,000. From June 2001 to August 2002, members donated $367,000 to pay the debts of 61 families.

“In June, we raised $18,044 in 10 minutes,” says Russell. “We got two families completely out of debt and raised $6,000 toward helping the third.” The revivals will continue until every family that attends is debt-free.

While this idea might appear novel, Russell says he was motivated by a biblical passage from the book of Acts that describes how the early Christians shared what they had.

“No man lacked anything,” says Russell. “Those who had possessions sold them, and the money was distributed as needed.” Mount Carmel’s 5,000 parishioners — a mix of blue-collar workers, military personnel, and professionals — span the economic spectrum and similarly share their wealth, as described in DOFE principle No. 7: to use a portion of my personal wealth to strengthen my community. They contribute money to pay the debts of others, despite their own bills, and donate their old cars to deserving families rather than trading them in.

Russell’s mission is as much about helping people help themselves as it is about assisting others. He teaches parishioners basic financial planning, urging them to close credit card accounts and pay off their smallest bills first so they can see their accomplishments. He also focuses on DOFE principle No. 3: to be a disciplined and knowledgeable consumer.

His words have inspired church members to tackle bill paying more aggressively. “Before Bishop began preaching about being debt-free, we were just sending the minimum payments,” says Rita Robichaux, 52. She and her husband, Mariano, 55, worked overtime and paid off about $2,000 on two credit cards before the church gave them the remaining $6,000 in October 2001. “I used to spend a whole lot on things I didn’t really need,” says Rita. “Now, my whole concept of spending has changed.”

Every three months, each family that is delivered must attend a seminar on staying solvent, and there is an informal obligation to contribute at least $300 at subsequent revivals. No major purchases can be made for seven months, and even then, items should be bought with cash — not credit. To date, all of the families that have been “delivered”

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