Money, Sex and Power | Memories

by Elouise

Federal Court House, Savannah

~~Federal Court House, Savannah, Georgia

In 1963, before my senior year at Bible college, I worked on a project I’ll never forget. I was in Savannah, back for the summer to work at the bankruptcy court, my first job when I was just out of high school. Our offices were on the second floor of the building in the photo.

Two years earlier, a well-known church in Savannah filed for bankruptcy. Their pastor, a popular radio evangelist, had left town with a (married) church staff member and hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’d been raising money from church members and radio fans for a church building fund.

His radio evangelism came to a screeching halt. The newspapers were full of it. The now former pastor was charged with a crime, and the church was besieged by creditors.

The church quickly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That meant the church (including all buildings and other assets) came under court protection. This gave them time to negotiate a plan to deal with creditors, pay current bills, and settle on a longer-term plan for recovery.

Bankruptcy doesn’t wipe the slate clean. This is especially true of Chapter 11 bankruptcies that give relief to businesses and organizations such as this church.The amount received in a settlement depends on the status of your claim.

Top priority creditors include federal, state and local government fees and taxes. Next come secured creditors who negotiate a fair payment and/or return of property (such as buildings, automobiles or equipment). At the bottom of the heap are unsecured creditors. The little people who have nothing to lose but money.

In this case, most of the unsecured creditors had ‘invested’ in the building fund by purchasing shares in a dream. The promise was that they would eventually receive their money back, plus interest. All ‘secured,’ of course, by faith and a certificate that proved they now owned ‘shares’ in the plan.

Now there would be no interest paid to them; nor would they get all their money back, if any. Their allotments would be determined after everyone else got paid. This took time. Some might not live that long. All they could do was show proof they’d made a contribution, and then wait.

Two years later, on my summer break, I spent most of my time working on the last step of the process: dealing with unsecured creditors who lost money in this great misadventure. Some lost their life savings. Most weren’t wealthy; many were poor.

From the beginning, they called the office to ask when they would get their money back. They needed it. The awful truth: they didn’t get their money back. They got 20 cents for every dollar they donated to the building fund. Not in a lump sum, but parceled out over a three-year period.

I focused on this group of creditors. We set up files and materials in the bankruptcy Judge’s office when he was away, and I met with people one on one, or two by two. Some were angry. Other were disbelieving. some wept in despair.

As they came in, I sat down with them, reviewed the plan, and answered their questions.  They signed a statement saying they understood the plan and accepted it, and that they had received their first checks. The first of three annual checks. A pittance.

The stories I heard were heartbreaking. These folks hadn’t just lost money. Some had lost faith and confidence in the church, even though the pastor betrayed the church as well. Most were still in shock. For them this was a disaster and, even more difficult, a humiliating betrayal.

There was another wrinkle to this event. My father had been a supply pastor at this church. Not recently, but not that many years earlier. Some remembered him and seemed comforted a bit that they were now dealing with me instead of a total stranger (as they put it).

Within a few years the now former pastor had left town, become the pastor of another church, and had a growing radio evangelism ministry.

I still wonder whether he and those he abused ever found the help they needed and deserved.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 May 2015
Photo from http://www.tmg-ce.com