When Credit Unions Aligned with Communities of Faith for Social Progress

Catholic Energies is a non-profit, five-person organization that helps churches and schools convert to solar energy. Based in the District, the key capability they offer is collaboration with church owned properties, solar companies and investors seeking solar tax credits

In D.C. the group worked with the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to build a solar array on a church owned field that will light 260 homes by feeding into the local power grid. The energy credits will offset the costs of electricity across twelve of the charities’ properties in the district.

Catholic Energies is a subgroup of the non-profit Catholic Climate Covenant. This national initiative was launched to educate and engage US Catholics in caring for the environment. The sub group, Catholic Energies, was also responding to Pope Francis’ release in 2015 of Laudate Si, which argued for partnerships between religion and science to respond to climate change.

A Credit Union Social Action Precedent

The Catholic church’s involvement in issues of social progress embraced the credit union movement in the past. According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press from December 20, 1926, the National Catholic Welfare Conference intends to establish “a nationwide system of credit unions to lend money to wage earners. These short term loans will be extended to the 36 states with credit union laws.”

The article described the “parish credit union as a cooperative savings and loan society. Depositors buy shares at the par value, usually $5, and get a 6% a year interest. The capital thus obtained is loaned out at 8%.”

To understand the importance of this organizational effort, one need scan an alphabetical listing in any state in the following 50 years to see all the credit unions starting with “St.” followed by the parish name. In Massachusetts today there are still nine credit unions listed by parish names.

And like solar energy today, this effort had formal church support. Fr. Otto Thiel wrote an article in the December 1941 issue of Franciscan Studies explaining the church’s involvement.

It begins: “The religious and economic are the two predominant influences which have moulded man’s character and the world’s history. Religious motives are more intense than economic, but their direct actions seldom extends over so large a part of life (as do the economic ones).” After surveying the history of pawnbrokers or usurers to meet the economic needs of people of small means, he continues, “a way was discovered by which honest and responsible working people could supply themselves credit from within their own ranks. That discovery properly marked the origins of the movement which has produced the credit union of our day. . . It is neither a purely charitable nor a mere business organization, but one of self-help or co-operation. Its origins might be traced back to the Mons Pietatis of the later Middle ages, an organization to provide credit facilities for poor borrowers.”

More Than Catholics

Even prior to this national effort, other faiths promoted the credit union solution. In the January 1920 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an article described multiple efforts to create new thrift organizations to serve the needs of both rural and urban borrowers.

As reported in the article The New American Thrift Loan: “According to the latest report of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, several of the rural credit unions in New York have been obliged to wind up their affairs. In place of the eight credit unions among farmers reported in 1916, only three now exist. . . and no mention is made regarding the present status of credit unions among Jewish farmers in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts. “

A Current Day Example

In June I met Greg Truex, the manager of the two year old, $16 million ELCA FCU. It is remarkably successful as a new startup relying on a largely virtual operating model. The credit union is sponsored by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The mission statement : God’s Work. Our Hands.

To succeed credit unions need more than capital. The hundreds if not thousands of credit unions sponsored by religious organizations, show the importance of both purpose and collaboration. And that heritage is still an invaluable coop advantage in today’s ever more crowded financial arena.

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