Loans forgiven as gifts of faith

Jubilee: In a special year, local groups heed pope's call to cancel debts they are owed.

September 12, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Jelili Ogundele was a bit worried when members of the Marianists, an order of Catholic brothers and priests, visited his organization several months ago -- and began asking detailed questions of every member of the staff.

The Marianist Sharing Fund had lent $50,000 to the Harlem Park Revitalization Corp., which renovates housing for low-income residents, and had extended the loan twice. But now Ogundele, president and CEO of the revitalization group, wondered whether the Marianists planned to call in their loan.

Instead, they handed him a letter that said: Paid in full.

"I was shocked," he said. "I usually don't have trouble saying things, but I was speechless for about five minutes."

The Marianists were making a gift -- forgiveness of principal and interest on the loan -- in honor of the 2000 Jubilee year. Today, the Marianists will celebrate with Harlem Park -- the beneficiary of its biggest chunk of forgiveness -- with a party at a home the organization is renovating with Marianist money, in the 600 block of N. Schroeder St.

Jubilee, held every 50 years, refers to the Biblical tradition in which slaves are freed, those in debt are forgiven their obligations, and the balance of wealth in society generally is restored. In declaring 2000 a Jubilee year, Pope John Paul II called upon nations and institutions to cancel debts owed to them. A number of groups of different faiths have joined the movement.

Locally, other religious groups are forgiving debts in honor of the Jubilee year. Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church's anti-poverty program, forgave last year $71,775 owed by South Baltimore Learning Center. The School Sisters of Notre Dame province based in Baltimore has waived $7,000 in interest this year on loans to seven low-income housing groups from its Jeremiah 29 loan fund, which comes from an annual tithe from the nuns.

For this year, the Marianists forgave about $80,000 in loans and interest, with the Harlem Park gift by far the largest. It forgave $15,000 lent to a Marianist development project in Veracruz, Mexico, and interest on 15 other loans.

Forgiveness doesn't come without costs -- or without intense discussion at times. In the Marianists' case, this year's forgiveness means that next year, the fund likely won't have money to approve new loans.

"We struggled with it for a while," said Brother Steven P. O'Neil, chairman of the 25-year-old Marianist Sharing Fund, which is based at the Marianist Province of New York in Roland Park. "But the Jubilee is about helping those who are in debt at the moment. We felt in that spirit, we would rather focus on the organizations we have some relationship with."

School Sisters of Notre Dame decided the opposite -- that to forgive whole loans, instead of just interest, would jeopardize the organization's ability to fund future worthy projects, said Sister Joan Hart, convenor of the committee that administers the loan fund.

Ogundele said the forgiven loan will allow the Harlem Park group to develop more projects in the future -- as well as pay its bills now. "That's $200 [in interest] I don't have to find every month," Ogundele said.

In the Jubilee spirit, the Marianist fund has encouraged organizations whose debt has been forgiven to in turn forgive loans they've issued. Some groups already have returned that favor.

The Leviticus 25:23 Alternative Fund in Yonkers, N.Y., used its forgiven interest payment to forgo two months interest on a loan to a couple who borrowed to improve their mobile food van.

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