MIAMI — A group of 70 black South Florida churches that partners with banks to increase the financial strength of parishioners announced last week that the J. P. Morgan Chase bank, formerly Washington Mutual bank, has discontinued its relationship with the church group.
A Chase spokeswoman said the bank has not severed its ties with the church coalition, but has decided instead not to honor agreements that Washington Mutual forged with community groups.
In a carefully worded June 19 news release titled the “Juneteenth Press Statement” that implied more than it stated, the Collective Banking Group of Miami-Dade and Vicinity, Inc. (CBG) thanked Washington Mutual for its “relationship of professional respect for the bank and our community.”
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The celebration began in 1865, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis, pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City, is chairman and president of the CBG. He made it clear that the group is not calling for any action against J. P. Morgan Chase.
“The message to the membership is support the banks that are in partnership with us,’’ Willis told the South Florida Times. “[J. P. Morgan Chase is] not in partnership with us.’’
The Church of the Open Door has withdrawn its money from the bank. The church estimates that it was depositing about $500,000 a year into the bank.
Willis said he has not yet determined whether the 15 to 20 other CBG churches that bank with Chase have followed suit.
“We are asking people not to protest JP Morgan Chase. What we’re really asking them to do is to support the direction of the CBG and that means invest money in these five other partner banks,” Willis said of the group’s formal partnership agreements with CitiBank, Bank of America, Great Florida Bank, OneUnited Bank and Wachovia.
THE NATIONAL CBG
The local CBG is a branch of the national, Prince George’s County, Maryland-based CBG. The local group comprises churches throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The exact amount of deposits made by this group annually was unavailable, but Willis suggested that a very conservative estimate is $105 million.
The national group was formed in 1993 after Greater Mt. Nebo AME, one of Maryland’s most prominent black churches, could not get a $50,000 loan despite having repaid, in good standing, $200,000 to the very bank from which it sought assistance. The bank reconsidered after the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of the church, informed the bank that the 750-member congregation would consider banking elsewhere.
Weaver, 58, is the founding president of the Prince George’s branch of the CBG, and is now president of the national Collective Banking Group. In addition to Miami and Prince George’s County, the organization has chapters in Baltimore; Cincinnati, Oh.; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Tx. and Newark, N.J.
During a telephone interview from New Orleans, Weaver told the South Florida Times that the organization is now 550 churches strong, and talks of international expansion are underway. He estimated that the U. S. churches deposit $320 million annually, an estimate he calls conservative.
Weaver visited London, England last year to share his group’s expertise with a group of churches there that has spent the past year working toward establishing a CBG.
Nationally, the CBG’s relationship with its affiliates involves a monthly conference call where the groups share resources and information, and compare notes.
Because none of the CBG chapters nationwide have partnership agreements with J. P. Morgan Chase, Weaver said the bank’s recent decision to discontinue its relationship with the Miami CBG will have no national implications, except for learning purposes.
“It begs the question, ‘Why did they pull out?’ We want to make sure that we’re continuing the dialogue, to continue to feel the pulse of the relationship [between the CBG and all of its banking partners],’’ Weaver said. “Particularly if there seems to be some anxiety, on the part of banks, that may be somewhat similar to what took place in Florida.”
Amid the nation’s massive banking catastrophe, Washington Mutual’s failure is considered the largest in the country’s history. After it was seized by federal regulators last fall, it was sold to J. P. Morgan Chase for $1.9 billion.
With new ownership apparently comes new policy.
According to Chase spokeswoman Nancy Norris, the CBG decision rests on the bank’s policy that forbids the signing of community agreements.
Norris told the South Florida Times that the New York-based bank has not cut its ties with the CBG.
“We did not sever ties. That’s kind of a strong way of doing it. We understand that Washington Mutual had signed some kind of an agreement with the CBG. Chase doesn’t sign those [kinds] of agreements with community groups,” the spokeswoman said.
Norris said Chase expects to continue working with the CBG, but on its own terms.
“We’ve met with them several times, and we’ve told them about Chase’s priorities, we’ve educated them about the kind of services we offer. On what our grant process is and how to apply for a grant,” she explained.
FORMAL AGREEMENT REQUIRED
Willis, however, said the relationship between the CBG and its banking partners begins with a formal agreement.
“One of our requirements is that you enter into a partnership agreement,’’ Willis said. “They didn’t want to enter into that agreement. Those that are partnering with us are working in the spirit of the partnership. And that’s community reinvestment. We do economic empowerment seminars. They (Chase) are not necessarily of the belief that they should support those types of seminars.”
Of their participation in economic empowerment seminars, Norris said, “I’m not ruling anything out; it doesn’t mean we won’t be involved in the future.”
Willis said the Miami CBG doesn’t rule out a future partnership with Chase, recalling a similar experience with the national CBG.
“There was a little bank called Nations Bank [that] decided they didn’t want to work with [the national CBG]. Two and a half years later they became Bank of America, they looked at the decision and said we made the wrong decision here and they came back and got on board and nationally, they’ve been on board ever since,” he explained.
Whether Chase reconsiders or not, the group plans no protest and is moving forward without the bank, Willis said.
“This is a body of Christ. We’re a forgiving people. We’re a loving people. All we’re trying to do now is make sure that God’s people are not taken advantage of. That’s why our position is collaboration.
Not protesting. We’re not here to protest. We’re here to empower and we are not going to let anybody disempower us.”
Stating that he views the experience with Chase as a valuable lesson, Willis said the group’s focus is to become self-sufficient.
“We’re going to continue as a group to reinvent ourselves gradually. We’re going to be investing in other properties and other things to generate our own income. We’re not going to depend on the banks. We’ve got to depend on ourselves,” he said.
Photo: The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis