Churches hit by the mortgage crisis, too

ATLANTA, GA (CNN) - It's not just businesses and individuals who have been impacted by the faltering economy. The place many people go to seek comfort - their church - also has been hit hard in the pocketbook.

With church members out of work, making cuts and giving less, many churches are now going into foreclosure. That doesn't sit well with Dexter Johnson, pastor of Higher Ground Empowerment Center in Atlanta, GA. The church, which overcame physical and financial adversity in 2008 after being hit by a tornado, has struggled recently with paying the note on the church.

"I believe the banks are in the business to make money, understandably so, but when it comes down to a church, I think they have to look at it and work with them to ensure that that church stays in that community," he said.

The bank that holds Higher Ground's property said it has worked closely with the church for more than two years "to reach a resolution that would allow the church to continue to occupy the property."

With 38 percent of churches having reported a decline in giving, according to a recent report, the 107-year-old church may not be alone. Hundreds of churches have gone into foreclosure in the last two years.

Johnson said he has taken a pay cut to help keep the doors open.

"The tithes and offerings, that is how we're able to do the ministry that we do. And when people don't have, they can't give like they normally would," Johnson said.

Jonathan Walton, professor at Harvard Divinity School, said the foreclosures may be one more blow to a congregants' shaky sense of security in this economy.

"When congregations then have to come to grips with the fact that their sincere investments in the faith and God are now being seized by banks, that can become a point of spiritual crisis for many," Walton said.

Banks that are surviving the downturn say there's enough blame to go around and that banks, not just churches, held a "bigger is better" mindset.

"There was a 'build it and they will come' mentality that kind of set in in the industry and the reality is that a lot of these churches, perhaps due to the economic downturn, did not grow into their debt as they anticipated that they would," Dan Mikes of Bank of the West, a large lender to religious institutions, said.

Johnson believes his church will remain a rock for his community to lean on during the recession and beyond.

"I consider this a hospital," Johnson said. "There are no hospitals that I know that are closed. The church is supposed to be a spiritual hospital. We are here every day making some kind of impact on this community."

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