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News From the Frontlines

Banks: Prayer and Pressure

 Byline: Susan LaTempa

"We told Secretary Geithner, 'Know that we're going to apply direct pressure to banks,' " says  Pastor Ryan Bell, co-chair of the Clergy Caucus at L.A. Voice Pico (a Liberty Hill grantee) about the conversation at last's week's meeting between a coalition of social justice organizations and the Secretary of the Treasury.Ryan-bell-headshot-2

The coalition group was in Washington to push the Administration for new strategies to reduce home foreclosures and increase home-loan modifications in the face of the ever-starker contrast between rising bank-industry profits and struggling families whose neighborhoods are blighted by neglected bank-owned homes.

"We were there to speak to him about how the federal program Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) isn't working as well as it should be," says Pastor Bell, who is senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church, "and to speak to him about ways HAMP could be more adequatately addressed in the communities."

But, says Pastor Bell, "We're not waiting for Geithner to do something."

The pressure Pastor Bell's talking about is the work by L.A. Voice Pico and other grassroots organizations to improve local economies by holding banks accountable for the impact of their policies and practices on neighborhoods and businesses. One initiative is Los Angeles City Councilmember Richard Alarcon's proposed Responsible Banking Ordinance (this detailed analysis is by Richard Santiago on Huffington Post). Last night, LA Voice members rallied in support of the ordinance.

"We'd like to reward banks that are extending small business loans, that are working with homeowners to modify their loans and that fund loans for affordable housing projects, which are often hard to get," says Pastor Bell. "We're not just rallying around the ordinance itself. We want to have a broader conversation about responsible investment of our city's money."

If the words "bank accountability" may make you think about ledger sheets and audits, consider Pastor Ryan Bell's Biblical perspective.

"We talk about how the banks got these huge bailouts and then went out to choke the little homeowners who are struggling,"  he says, citing Matthew 18: 13-26, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The story is about an servant who pleads on his knees to his master not to be sold off for his debts. Once forgiven, he viciously assaults a fellow servant who owes him a pittance (here's a vivid telling).

Although the 300-or-so member Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church's bank account balances are miniscule compared to those of the City of Los Angeles, the church's  Board of Directors is discussing how to make its own banking business part of the responsible banking effort. The congregation, which has been part of L.A. Voice for about five years, has had members directly impacted by the mortgage crisis.

Since each congregation in L.A. Voice chooses its own issues to work on, Hollywood Seventh Day Adventists is not only working on hyper-local concerns in Hollywood, but is also participating in this national campaign by Pico National Network  the federation of faith-based community organizations. The church's  Peace and Justice Team faciliates the congregation's community-organizing work and helps direct the members' commitment to put faith into action.

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