Fighting credit card devils

Religion: At Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., "debt revivals" help rid members of consumer debt.

January 16, 2002|By Katrice Franklin | Katrice Franklin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - Toddlers clapped for Christ. Churchgoers stood and shouted for the Lord. Choir members swayed to piano and drum-driven melodies. And Leetra Bogues just sat in her pew, dazed.

In the midst of holy commotion at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Norfolk, her life was about to be transformed.

Then she heard the voice:

"Are we ready to bless the bowl?" asked Bishop C. Bernie Russell Jr.

Bogues' leg started shaking.

She couldn't take her eyes off Russell. Couldn't focus on the faces of the people who flocked to the front carrying checks and cash.

"This debt is a curse," Russell shouted. "It's a burden."

People kept giving.

`The Bogues are free'

A few minutes later, Russell said it: "The Bogues are free."

Tears oozed from Bogues' eyes. Her husband pulled her from her seat.

Then her feet started dancing.

Up the center aisle of the church, around the pews and back up again. Dozens of toddlers, teen-agers, mothers and fathers toting babies followed.

"Ain't no party like a Holy Ghost party, because a Holy Ghost party don't stop," sang the choir.

Bogues, 31, screamed the words with them.

She and her husband, Linwood, had just become the 43rd Mount Carmel family to be rid of credit card debt. The church had collected $10,800 to help them.

The "debt revival" started in April.

A message from Acts

Russell was reading the Bible in his home one evening when his eyes stumbled across a Scripture in the book of Acts.

Before social services agencies and welfare, the church took care of its flock, it read. Church members gave each other food and other items when they saw need.

Russell couldn't turn the page.

For years, he had talked about building a new church. After reading the Scriptures, how could he ask his members to help pay for that when some of them struggled to pay their own bills?

So the next Sunday, April 22, Russell started debt revival.

He told his congregation, some 5,000 members strong, what he wanted to do. Looking like a slender black Santa Claus with a gray-spotted beard hanging to his chest, he preached about the scriptures in Acts.

God would give him the names of the families who needed help, he told them.

That day, an elderly lady in the congregation got $5,100.

It took the church four nights to raise $17,000 to pay off another family's debt.

Russell carries a pocket-size notebook to keep track of the families who've been wiped free of about $300,000 in credit card balances or medical expenses.

He doesn't need the notebook to see how the revival has changed his church.

More members have gotten to know one another.

Two gave used cars to families who needed them.

A new church fixture

Some nights, women wear formal gowns and men sport shirts with butterfly collars under their suits - whatever they find in their closets. No one's buying anything new.

The church pulpit has a new fixture: a large glass vase full of cut-up credit cards.

Russell isn't sure how long debt revival will last. At least until this month.

"You can't serve two masters if Visa is your master and MasterCard is your master," Russell said. "You sure can't serve God."

The Bogueses were swimming in debt. Bill collectors called their home in Chesapeake, Va., every week.

Leetra Bogues had been fired from her job as a negotiator for a local retailer in August, leaving them to make ends meet on her husband's Navy salary.

She had no clue about the future.

None of it mattered the minute she heard Russell talk about debt revival.

At the services, she gave away the money she had set aside for a Nags Head, N.C., vacation to celebrate her husband's return from a six-month deployment on the carrier Harry S. Truman.

Her husband understood. He'd been converted by debt revival, too, after getting ashore.

Leetra Bogues gave because every night she felt closer to God.

During the sermons, she writes down the Scriptures and critiques her life.

"I've been in church all my life," she said. "I've learned so much since I've been at Mount Carmel. I actually let God lead me. Before, I was doing everything myself."

It was on a recent Thursday night when Russell told the Bogueses they would be the next to get out of debt. Linwood Bogues had just written a check when Russell asked if everybody was done giving for the night.

Leetra Bogues decided to give the $10 bill in her wallet.

Before sitting down, Russell touched her.

"Wait a minute, baby. Because you're next."

On the way home, she and her husband called her sister in Mississippi and then his sister in North Carolina.

Leetra Bogues kept yelling: "I'm next. I'm next."

The Bogueses showed up early, before the parking lot filled and security guards motioned for drivers to park on the street.

They were in time to watch children in black T-shirts practice the victory dance they hoped to perform later. The dance is done anytime a family gets out of debt.

It was a clue that the church would raise enough money that night, after three nights of trying, to help the Bogueses.

At 7:30 sharp, the choir started singing. About 200 people sat in the pews.

`Don't be caught up'

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