Dozens of local ministers and parishioners joined yesterday in celebrating the renewal - and expansion - of a church-bank partnership designed to enhance economic development and improve banking resources in the African-American community.
In its first three years, the Baltimore-area collective has more than doubled in size - a church that joined the group yesterday brought the number of congregations to 110, ministers said. Together, the churches account for assets of more than $1 billion, and deposit about $1 million a week at four participating banks.
The unusual partnership has allowed more than 40 area churches to complete construction projects, made it possible for 61 small businesses to open or expand, and helped an unknown number of church members to obtain home or car loans, the ministers said.
"We're no longer infants and children in our economic development. We are moving out of our adolescence," said Bishop Vashti McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church and president of the Collective Banking Group of Baltimore and Vicinity. "We are coming of age ... and in sight of God, the community comes together today to celebrate this great steppingstone."
The banking partnership is the brainchild of McKenzie, who this month became the first female bishop in the 213-year history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Tired of going to banks, only to be rejected or confronted with obstacles in their efforts to obtain loans, about 50 local African-American churches joined in 1997 in hopes of getting better treatment for their congregations. The coalition was modeled after a successful collective in Prince George's County that generated $80 million in loans and new deposits for four banks in its first year of operation.
The goal of the Baltimore-area collective was to give the community greater power to monitor and influence banking practices. Church representatives would meet quarterly with member banks to review denials of loans requested by member churches and individuals. In return, banks expected the churches and their members to move accounts to the four banks.
Yesterday, the collective - which includes faith-based and civic organizations - re-signed its agreement with the four participating financial institutions: Bank of America, First Union Corp., and two black-owned institutions, Harbor Bank of Maryland and Advance Federal Savings and Loan.
"Every time we had a problem, it was not a bank manager, not a bank teller, but the bank president who was present to work things out, because that's how important this covenant is to them," the Rev. Durant Harvin of Emanuel Christian Community Church in West Baltimore told those gathered yesterday afternoon for the celebratory service at Pikesville's Rock International Family Church. "I am here to suggest to you that the best has been behind us, but better is before us."
The covenant was woven into the morning sermon of the Rev. Marvis P. May when he stepped up to the pulpit of West Baltimore's Macedonia Baptist Church to deliver what he affectionately refers to as his "Heavenly Banking Sermon."
He later recalled the words of the sermon: "God makes a commandment, so make a deposit. God makes a covenant, and that's interest."
Testimonials to the partnership's successes elicited standing ovations and a chorus of "amens" and "hallelujahs" from the audience at Rock International Family Church yesterday.
Mount Hebron Memorial Church of God in Christ was able to open a restaurant at North Avenue and Smallwood Street - a business known for down-home cooking and for giving the neighborhood a much-needed economic boost.
Rock International Family Church was able to move from a Randallstown storefront to the 1,000-seat church, adorned with chandeliers, mirrored walls and a flower-laden altar, where yesterday's service was held.
And Payne Memorial was able to buy a $900,000 building two blocks from its West Baltimore church to house a dozen community service and educational programs. The programs had previously been crammed into a building one-quarter the size and a 1 1/2 -hour bus ride away in East Baltimore.
The Rev. Leah White of Greater Faith Baptist Church told how a loan from Advance Federal allowed her small congregation of 35 - "and that included 20 kids," she quipped - to move from a storefront operation to a 350-seat church in Baltimore's Remington neighborhood, where 120 parishioners now regularly gather.
"To take collection, we had to go out the side door and come in the back," she said. "We went to the bank and ... they trusted us, and now we thank them for putting their trust in the church."
The cooperative was a welcome change for churches that had struggled to acquire financing to build and expand.
"Financial institutions tend to judge churches and businesses by the same criteria, not realizing that the failure rate of small businesses is much greater than the failure rate of churches," said Payne Memorial's McKenzie. "When a church has a loan, it will do everything it can to make that mortgage payment, even if it means other things need to go by the wayside."