Faith in the Service of Justice: Mortgage Lending as Mission

Mortgage lending as mission? Call it a sign of the times, but Jesuit Father James Walsh, a practicing attorney and veteran social activist, has made foreclosure relief for struggling families in Boston’s economically distressed neighborhoods his latest foray into social ministry.

“About three years ago we realized the banks had been bailed out, but they weren’t doing anything,” explains Fr. Walsh, who serves on the board of Boston Community Capital, a community development finance institution — what Walsh calls a “non-bank bank” — chartered to invest and lend in poor communities.

“Traditional banks weren’t making mortgage loans in low-income neighborhoods. There were few alternatives for the poor. And Boston Community Capital strives to be a hedge fund for the poor. So we realized BCC needed to become a mortgage company — to stabilize communities and help families stay in their homes.”

BCC, which also makes small-business and community-development loans, as well as venture investments through its equity funds, became a licensed mortgage lender in 2009 and, through its Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN) program, began buying properties facing foreclosure at deeply discounted prices. Reselling the properties back to their residents on more amenable terms, SUN also underwrites new mortgages at affordable rates. More than $15 million has been lent so far and about 135 families have been spared foreclosure and eviction. Families repurchasing their homes through BCC typically reduce their monthly mortgage payments by almost half. “There have been no defaults,” adds Fr. Walsh.

It’s not teaching or preaching, but the plain-spoken Jesuit priest sees this work as wholly within the charisms of the Society of Jesus. “It’s about faith in the service of justice,” says Walsh.

In the quarter-century Walsh has served as a director, BCC has grown its assets from $30 million to more than $600 million and won recognition as a national model.

Fr. Walsh continues to pray that more people of good will and more resources will be dedicated to the Jesuit work of social justice, at age 68, he has few regrets. “It’s been a good trip for me because I’ve learned so many things that I never would have learned,” says the ever-inquisitive Fr. Walsh. “I’m an introvert by nature. I’m a Jesuit who’s never even had a checkbook. Yet I’ve had a chance to learn about finance, and to learn about the law and real estate, and so much more. It’s like a whole new world was opened up for me. Because I took some chances,” he said. “I can’t imagine how nerdy I’d be if I’d played it safe and gotten a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science, like I’d planned.”

[New England, New York and Maryland Jesuits Magazine]

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