DENVER // The Rev Timothy Tyler knew he had to do something when members of his church began coming to him about their economic woes and asking for his prayers. "They kind of scoot up to me and say: 'Pastor, don't tell anybody, but I'm in trouble'," he said. Many had lost jobs, were struggling to buy groceries or could not make rent or mortgage payments. A lot of people in his congregation seemed to be affected, he said, "but they were embarrassed to tell anyone".
So Mr Tyler decided to launch his own economic stimulus package, modelled after the $787 billion package (Dh2.9 trillion) signed by the US president in Denver in February. Church leaders wanted to design a fund-raiser that would both help members of the Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and also inject money into the predominantly black, middle-class neighbourhood where the church is located.
"I want people to know that the church has a concrete role to play in this economic downturn," Mr Tyler said. "The African-American community has been hit hard by the housing crisis." The United States may have its first black president in Barack Obama, but overall the African-American community has suffered disproportionately since the US economy went into a tailspin. According to data made public in February, unemployment among African-Americans stood at 13.4 per cent, about one and a half times the national average of 8.1 per cent and exceeding that of such other ethnic minorities as Asians and Latinos. In May, the Economic Policy Institute predicted that 52.3 per cent of black children would be living in poverty by 2010 as a result of continued job losses.
Torrence Brown, a single father who attends the Shorter AME Church, is a case in point. He got laid off in February from his job as an IT specialist at Richmond Homes, a residential development firm, but his unemployment benefits have not kicked in yet. "I don't know how I am going to pay the rent this month," he said. The African-American community has also suffered higher rates of home foreclosures, with some urban black neighbourhoods posting as much as 50 per cent more foreclosures than the national average.
Studies by state governments and activist groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn) have blamed the extent of the problem on predatory loan practices, including adjustable rate subprime mortgage schemes that were made in disproportionate numbers in Latino and black communities. Economic woes have sent hundreds of black families to payday loan offices, which hand out small pay cheque advances at extortionist rates. State officials in Colorado are mulling proposals to regulate or shut down the state's 573 payday lenders.
"Payday loans are nothing but loan-sharking," said Rene Bullock, a former candidate for mayor who volunteers at the Shorter AME Church. "We are trying to teach people there are alternatives." Mr Tyler said his church wanted to take action that could be felt immediately. When he called on members of the congregation to contribute if they could, he was astounded by their response. "We passed the plate," he said, smiling widely. The original goal was to raise $20,000, but the Shorter congregation far surpassed that mark, giving almost $30,000 to help community members in need.
With that sudden windfall, church leaders made a trip to the local supermarket, spent $5,000 on groceries which they divvied up into 50 bags worth $100 each. Then they sold the bags back to needy members of the congregation for just $10 each. The church also hired 10 barbers from the neighbourhood, paying them each $300 to give out haircuts to as many members of the community as turned up. "It's been a year and a half since I had my hair cut," said 95-year-old William Coker as barber Stan Stewart snipped at his grey locks last Saturday. "I am feeling good."
The church also paid a month of mortgage, rent or utility payments for almost two dozen members of the congregation, whose names were announced at an emotional Sunday service. "This is not about the haves giving to the have-nots. This is about the have-nots coming together to say, 'The Lord will find a way'," said Mr Tyler to a teary-eyed audience that shouted "Hallelujah" and "Praise the Lord." Charlene Porter, a self-published author of historical fiction about Denver's African-American community, was one of the lucky ones to win a month's rent payment.
"I know it sounds silly, but I walk on faith," she said, adding that hearing her name called was like "the most huge sign of relief ever". Mr Tyler told members of the congregation who did not get chosen in the first round of handouts to sit tight and have faith. "We will be reaching out to all of you this week," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org