Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Financial literacy effort builds relationships, bridges to better life

I’m kind of new in the country, just two years,” says Rose (whose last name
was withheld by request), a Liberian immigrant who works in St. Paul as a
healthcare aide. “I don’t know how to manage my money, what to put aside,
what to spend or which bills to pay first. If you don’t know it, you just work
for nothing.”
Those sentiments typify the experiences and frustrations of many West
African immigrants living in the Twin Cities. It’s not unusual for them to work
two or more jobs and still have problems with credit, debt, taxes, and basic
money management.
Unscrupulous payday lenders, the desire to send money to family members
back home, and the ever present allure of consumer products compound the
group’s financial struggles.
Once stuck in a financial quagmire, it is near impossible to escape. Fortunate
for Brewer and other Liberians, one St. Paul congregation learned of their
plight and decided they would do something about it. They would provide a
bridge to a better life in the form of Friday night financial literacy classes.
Divine guidance
Luisienie Fofana, a Liberian immigrant and deacon with Bethel Lutheran
Church in St. Paul’s North End–Como Neighborhood, informed the Reverend
David Seabaugh of the financial challenges that his Liberian cohorts were
encountering. Seabaugh’s heart went out to the group, but neither he nor
members of his congregation were sure how to help.
Still, the obvious need weighed on the pastor. Then, in what can only be
considered divine timing, Seabaugh was introduced to two organizations that
would provide the answers to his prayers.
A member of the congregation arranged a meeting between Seabaugh and
May Xiong, executive director of the Eastside Financial Center. This
community-based, not-for-profit center offers financial services, counseling
and education services in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Further
discussions ensued and the center agreed to provide a financial literacy
instructor to the congregation for a series of eight weekly money
management classes.
Seabaugh also became aware of a grant being offered by the Lutheran
Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and Wheat Ridge Ministries that
appeared tailor-made for supporting a financial literacy initiative to the
Liberian community. A member of the congregation volunteered to write a
grant proposal, and soon after the congregation was awarded a Good
Samaritan Fund grant from LIRS and Wheat Ridge. This funding enabled the
congregation to develop a holistic approach to the literacy classes in which
congregational volunteers prepare and serve meals, serve as mentors,
provide childcare, and build relationships with class participants.
“This financial literacy initiative has given individual Christians a chance to do
something that is bigger than just themselves,” says Seabaugh. “Some help
prepare and serve food and some assist with clean up. Some join class
participants around the class table as mentors to ensure communication
happens; others spend time with participants’ children, teach them Bible
stories, and play games.
“Through these relationships, the gospel is being presented. If you don’t
have relationships, there is no opportunity for that. This allows Bethel
members to live out their Christianity in ways that are very visible.”
Sharing stories
Geoff Bullock, the class instructor and financial educator with Lutheran Social
Service of Minnesota Financial Counseling, says the structure of the classes
has made them unique. “This is one of the most exciting groups that I’ve ever
taught,” says Bullock. “This feels like a family event. It’s great to have kids
here, to eat and fellowship together, and to come together and not
necessarily be part of a lecture, but be part of a time where we can all share
stories. Even I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the experiences and stories that
are shared here.”
“The classes are fun and inviting,” says Benjamin Woto, a Liberian who serves
in the U.S. Naval Reserve. “We share many ideas and views about the things
affecting our lives, whether the issue is retirement, investments, college
savings, or what to buy and what to spend.”
Harry and Isetinner Kiyee, a Liberian couple who have been in the United
States for 11 years and who work respectively as a registered nurse and car
rental agent, agree that the best financial lessons they’ve learned have been
connected to managing credit. “I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know,”
says Isetinner. “I’ve learned to control my spending.”
Jodi Ruis, a Bethel member who serves as a class mentor, says the lessons
learned are equally applicable to her as to the class participants.
“I’m learning something every night, along with everybody else,” says Ruis.
“All of the participants are ready, willing and able to ask questions, from how
to get a mortgage, to how to fix their credit history, to how to pay off
delinquent taxes.”
“We live chaotic financial lives,” Bullock notes. “People become happier and
more whole when they gain a foundational understanding of their finances
and how they affect their lives.”
“This is what the church should be about, reaching out to people in our
community,” says Pastor Dick Goebel, a class mentor and member of Bethel
Lutheran Church. “It’s not just doing things for others, but partnering with
them to do things together.”
Classes for all
“We’ve found that it isn’t just immigrant groups that are in need of learning
financial basics,” says Seabaugh. “We all need to look at how we can use the
gifts God has given us — including money — and how to make them go as far
as possible. We want to expand this initiative to include anyone who would
want to come and be part of this.”
Bethel Lutheran Church will host a second series of eight-week classes
covering budgeting, debt reduction, asset building, credit ratings, consumer
production, employment issues and individual development accounts
beginning February 27, 2009. For more information, call 651/488-6681 or
—Dave Rustad