For all the rebuilding since Hurricane Sandy, damaged houses of worship have been left out in the cold due to federal prohibitions on direct aid to religious institutions. An attempt to amend the law and allow for such assistance in the case of natural disasters passed the House but died in the Senate, and now one Congressman is asking local financial institutions to step up to the plate instead.
“Over the last two years, businesses and homeowners have received direct assistance from either the city, the state, or the federal government to help get back up on their feet. But houses of worship–churches, synagogues, mosques–remain in many instances in the same condition they were in the day after the storm struck,” said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. “At the Federal level, unfortunately, we are prohibited from providing direct financial assistance to houses of worship because of the separation of church and state doctrine.”
In 2013, Jeffries co-sponsored legislation that would have authorized the federal government to provide disaster relief (in the form of grants) to houses of worship.
“I don’t believe the separation of church and state should apply a prohibition on providing direct grant assistance to houses of worship when disaster strikes,” Jeffries said. “That’s a flawed interpretation of the concept, in my view. When the storm hit Coney Island, it didn’t skip over the church, the mosque, the temple, the synagogue. It struck everybody. So the local, state, and federal government should be able to step in and help.”
Though the bill passed the house, the Senate declined to act on the measure. Accordingly, the Congressman has now sent a letter to the heads of major financial institutions, many of whom were bailed out of the recent financial crisis, asking them to step in where the federal government currently cannot and provide assistance through the Communiuty Reinvestment Act (CRA).
“I write to urge you to develop a low-interest rate loan program to assist with rebuilding the houses of worship located in areas such as Coney Island that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” read the letter from Congressman Jeffries to the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citibank. “Absent substantial engagement from the banking and financial services industry in a manner consistent with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), many houses of worship in New York City badly damaged by the storm will remain uninhabitable.”
To emphasize the dire impact this lack of assistance has caused, a press conference was convened Wednesday morning at Coney Island’s United Community Baptist Church, which was flooded by Hurricane Sandy but where Pastor Connis Mobley hasn’t received a penny in financial support, and repair work hasn’t even begun.
“We have a church without walls,” Mobley said. “I’ve lost a total of 90 families since Hurricane Sandy–that’s huge. And I’m still losing, because I don’t have a place for them to gather.”
Mobley recounted how the church has owned its building since 1984 and operated debt-free since 2005, but still found itself ineligible to receive assistance for its $221,000 in real property damage. To comply with updated codes, the lowest estimate for repairs came in at $2.2 million dollars. Though the church has no plans to sell the property, the church has spent $71,000 just to maintain its activities, usually by hosting events elsewhere.
“This is a shame,” Jeffries said. “This was a church that was a center of religious and non-religious activity in the Coney Island Community.”
Joining the Congressman and Pastor at the press conference were Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, the Rev. Frank Mason, senior pastor of Christ Temple United Baptist Church and president of the Coney Island Ministerial Alliance, Steve Frohlich, President of Young Israel of Brighton Beach, and other concerned community leaders. But Mobley said other than Congressman Jeffries, elected officials have paid scant attention to him and his congregation in the last two years. Many did make their presecne after Hurrican Irene, but were unable to offer financial assistance, then or now.
“All of the officials must be held accountable,” Mobley said. “They say there’s separation of church and state, but when the elections come around, all the politicians will ask, ‘can I speak to your congregation?'”
The Congressman’s letter claims the banking and financial industry in New York City would collectively benefit by serving as depository institutions for government funds and as managers of pension fund investments. The Community Reinvestment Act, enacted in 1977, was designed to encourage financial institutions and banks to invest in underserved communities such as Coney Island. When a bank awards CRA-compliant loans to qualifying houses of worship in designated disaster areas, the financial institution will then be eligible for credit in subsequent charter, merger or acquisition proceedings before federal bank regulators.
“The CRA is specifically designed, among other things, to encourage investment in underserved communities like Coney Island by providing benefits to banking institutions that assist revitalizing designated disaster areas,” the letter explained.
Congressman Jeffries also emphasized how the banks have benefits from the public’s good will, and that now it was time to return the favor.
“The banks of this city and all across the country were bailed out by the taxpayers in the aftermath of the collapse of the economy in 2008,” Jeffries said. “It was irresponsible behavior on Wall Street that led to the economy collapsing. The taxpayers of this great country stepped in to bail them out, but now we need these banks to step up and do their job and help bail out our houses of worship, starting right here on Mermaid Avenue.”
For Pastor Mosley, any assistance would be welcome. Two years of inaction have shaken his trust and faith in local officials.
“I get invited to an event, but I’m only there as a picture, a face to say ‘you’ve helped us,’ but in reality most have done nothing for us,” Mobley said. “I think that’s very unfair. I have a problem with that. My heart bleeds for this church, for my congregation, and I can’t even trust anyone anymore.”
The Pastor noted the 17th anniversary of serving in as Pastor had just passed, but that he had nowhere to celebrate. There was no event commemorating the occasion.
“These elected officials are going to show up all over town today, big time, because they’re looking for the spotlight on television, to give the imagery that they’re here helping to assist our community at large,” Mobley said. “And they know it’s best that I say nothing, because I’m going to speak up, and tell the truth.”
Two years after Sandy devastated Coney Island, many houses of worship remain uninhabitable. Time for banks to step up pic.twitter.com/YrFzxAsDtI
— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) October 29, 2014