This Cleveland-based credit union with church roots now leverages volunteer and grant support to serve the larger community.
In June 1952, what’s now $19 million Faith Community United Credit Union formed as Second Mt. Sinai Baptist Church Credit Union to serve the members of the Cleveland-based church by the same name. Later, the credit union expanded to add family members of church members to its field of membership.
By the late 1980s, large financial institutions in the area were closing, and the only remaining local financial services businesses were check cashers and payday lenders, says Jacqueline Moore, who first started working at the credit union in 1985 when it started to computerize and has served as its CEO/president since 2017. Community members who didn’t want to use check cashers and payday lenders were having to take the bus to downtown Cleveland to go to large banks that weren’t fully serving their needs either.
For example, the banks wouldn’t issue ATM cards that could be used in the community, so community members would need to take the bus back downtown to make a withdrawal, Moore says. Plus, depositing a paycheck “downtown” meant that those funds weren’t part of the community.
Not surprisingly, people from the community started knocking on the credit union’s door and asking about its offerings. But they couldn’t use the credit union because they weren’t yet eligible to join.
The church members on the board of the credit union decided to “go community.”
Moore identifies risks on both sides of the decision.
“When we were in the church, we knew everybody,” she says. While in the early days of the credit union, the pastor could talk with church members and ask them to bring their loans current, going community meant serving new people who could be harder to find.
On the other hand, there’s a clear risk in not going community, Moore emphasizes. And that could be that the “community crumbles around you,” she says. “Our church sits inside of a community. We have to look at the greater good of the community.”
Volunteers and the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, now Inclusiv, helped the credit union apply for its community development financial institution status. (It’s now also a minority depository institution and has a low-income designation.)
“We had a lot of payday loans” in the community, Moore says. “The members were being gouged. With Inclusiv, we came up with a grant to fight against that, help members pay off their payday loans.” The credit union also used grant funding to underwrite its Wheels to Work and Mercy Mortgages programs.
In 1991, Mt. Sinai Baptist Church Credit Union (renamed when the church had changed its name) brought several small church credit unions together and became Faith Community United CU.
Serving Community Businesses
It wasn’t just individuals in Faith Community United CU’s area that were underserved. Initially, local financial institutions didn’t want to make loans the church needed. Similarly, most local FIs didn’t want to make small-dollar business loans to community-based businesses.
One of the early activities of the credit union was to serve the financial needs of its sponsor church, including helping it maintain its building. Over time, including as it grew to serve the larger community, the credit union expanded its business services program.
Moore says volunteers and special grant programs have been key to this.
For example, the credit union first learned about Small Business Administration loan programs from a volunteer. While SBA loans were available at the credit union for 15 or 20 years before the pandemic hit, the program up until then was somewhat slow, Moore says.
“Then PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) made it fast,” she notes, emphasizing that the businesses within the credit union’s community might need to borrow $70,000, not $500,000 or a million dollars, the size of loans the bigger banks were looking to make.
The credit union helped such small businesses as hair stylists, bakers, daycares, tree-cutting services and restaurants through both SBA’s PPP and the CDFI Fund’s Rapid Response Program. Only one of the loans the credit union made during this time hasn’t been paid back, and the government backed the loan.
Changing With the Times
Many churches, including Mt. Sinai, have had to change with the times, including figuring out how to stay vibrant as their membership ages.
“My mother is 91,” Moore notes. “She demands I’m going there (to Faith CU). When the credit union started, the church was the community. When the Civil Rights movement was happening, urban communities came together and said this CU thing” is good for us.
Moore recalls that over the course of history, African American men had to go through many hoops to borrow money. And women had to be married and have their husbands do any borrowing for them.
“It’s a whole different day, a whole different community,” she emphasizes. She notes that some church members who have done well for themselves are now looking at a new generation of people coming up in the community.
“You made it out” is the sentiment, she says, and now there’s “another group of people here that deserve lending, deserve housing. People can connect with people that understand where they’ve been.”
Those same people with shared experiences are also learning that there’s a totally different population in the community now. At the credit union, “you’re serving everyone,” she says, “black, white, gay, trans. You have to have a heart for people to work in a CDFI. To do it, you see the need of the community.”
She says the credit union does special things to take good care of its four full-time, six part-time staff members and volunteers, such as lunch on Fridays, Christmas parties and celebrating birthdays.
This is important because “Faith is not just your financial institution,” she says. “We’re truly community. We’re your counselor, advocate, minister and friend. We get invitations to weddings, graduation, cotillions and more. We are a family within the community.”
Members thank staff for things like helping their children get their finances together, preparing them for college and other opportunities. “These are the things that keep us going,” Moore says.
Lisa Hochgraf is senior editor for CUES.