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Church leaders seek help with congregants' financial struggles

Confronted with parishioners losing homes and jobs, about 100 priests and others from Orange County attend a two-hour session to get practical advice from financial and housing experts.

February 01, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

At a church in Fullerton, a prayer group went from 40 people to nearly 600 in the last year. And in Anaheim, the pews are so packed on Sundays that one priest wants to add a ninth Mass to meet demand.

Parishioners arrive disheartened, some at wit's end, to ask God, priests, nuns and office staff to help them find work and save their homes. But although prayer soothes the soul, it doesn't pay the mortgage. And though most churches are accustomed to fielding life's worst troubles -- death and divorce -- many have been caught unprepared by the urgent money woes striking so many families.

On Saturday, about 100 parish leaders from across Orange County gathered to get practical advice from financial and housing experts in a panel organized by the Justice and Peace Task Force of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. They were joined by leaders of other churches from Pacoima to Antioch in Northern California that have mobilized to help congregants save their homes, some by appealing directly to lenders.

"I have people call me and ask for rent money, but we don't have any," said Father James Ries of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fullerton. "We don't know what to tell them. All we have is food."

While some people are flocking to churches, Ries and other priests have seen entire families vanish from services in recent months. He wonders if they were forced to move away because of the economy.

Orange County has fared well compared with hard-hit counties such as Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles. Still, the picture is grimmer than it was a year ago. At the end of 2008, nearly 4,500 homes in the county had received a notice of default, the first stage of foreclosure. The median price of homes has fallen 30% in value, to $397,000.

More and more, families are fighting to save their homes, competing for rentals, sharing a house with multiple families or, far worse, becoming homeless.

Even parish leaders from well-off cities such as Dana Point and Huntington Beach took notes to help their congregants. The two-hour panel included a banker and representatives of organizations that help with affordable housing and self-improvement. They talked about what caused the housing turmoil and how to reach out to people and enable families to learn more. A tip sheet of resources was handed out.

The panel encouraged parishes to organize listening sessions to hear from parishioners and to dedicate prayers to struggling families.

Among the suggestions: Post a job board in the parish hall; assign someone to track city council meetings to learn about local housing plans; communicate with legislators to see how federal stimulus dollars might help congregants; and link knowledgeable churchgoers, such as brokers, with needy families.

"Some of our parishioners might be suffering in silence," said Georgeann Lovett, director of the diocese's office of Respect Life, Justice and Peace. "They might feel embarrassed. This could be a comfort to them."

Father Rudolph Preciado of St. Anthony Claret in Anaheim said he planned to start the listening sessions as soon as possible at his church. The priest was trained to be the middleman between his 5,500 parishioners and God when it comes to usual trials and tribulations, but a mortgage crisis? Not so much.

He reaches for his cheat sheet of aid organizations whenever desperate families approach him. But even that doesn't seem to be enough.

"They come every day to ask for help," he said. "I need to network more."

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esmeralda.bermudez@ latimes.com

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