Religion

Manna from Heaven

UPDATED 08/05/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/05/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

Tyler Sharpe is a man of faith. Even his answering machine proclaims it, with its triumphant greeting: "Praise the Lord!" But that didn't make much of an impression on his creditors. "Collection agents called hundreds of times," Sharpe, 50, says. "One woman called and said, 'You can praise the Lord anytime, but you better pay up your money now.' "

Like many other members of the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., Sharpe and his wife, Donna, were drowning in credit card debt—$8,021 of it in their case. But this June their pastor, Bishop C. Vernie Russell Jr., called them forward at a revival meeting and urged his flock, "Give offerings as we get the Sharpes out of debt." Wallets opened, checks poured out, and by the end of the evening, the Sharpes were debt-free. Says Russell: "You can't serve the Master and MasterCard."

With his booming preacher's voice and his flowing prophet's beard, Bishop Russell, 49, seems like a man who could lead his people out of captivity into a promised land—and, once a month for 14 months, he has done just that. Russell has persuaded his congregants to donate $340,000 to rescue 59 of the church's families from debt, and he vows not to stop until every church member is debt-free. At the end of each session, the lucky recipients of the money must ceremoniously snip up their credit cards.

The idea came to Russell a few years back, when he was fretting over the problem of building a new sanctuary for his growing congregation. His people, he knew, could not afford the cost. He prayed, and he says that he was led to a verse in the Bible in which Jesus made sure that his disciples shared their resources. "The Lord spoke to me and said, 'Build the people—that's the real church—and they will build the building.' "

In the lobby of his church, a jar of cut-up credit cards bears silent witness to the success of his gospel of fiscal responsibility. Carla and Shedrick McLaurin, who are only 24, had racked up $19,000 in high-interest debt. "We're young," she says. "We didn't know any better." Now that the church has paid their debts and they have closed their credit lines, the McLaurins will begin a required money-management counseling course designed by Bishop Russell. "We've been taught right by the bishop. He is truly a pastor after God's heart," Carla says.

With its 5,000 members, Mount Carmel's diverse congregation embraces blue-collar workers, enlisted personnel from the Norfolk Naval Base and a healthy number of doctors and lawyers. Bishop Russell, who has one credit card, American Express, which he pays in full each month, understands their economic pain. "When we first got married, we had a lot of credit cards," his wife, Ronda, 46, says. "We were able to pay our debt off, but we went through a period where we knew the bondage and the stress on a family of being in debt."

The Russells paid their bills the old-fashioned way. After a hitch in the Army, Vernie Russell worked as an electronics technician at two different shipyards at the same time, while he and his wife also ran a fish market and raised three now grown children. "He's always had four jobs," Ronda says. Heeding a call he first heard as a child, Russell left the shipyard and earned a doctorate in divinity from Richmond Seminary and was called to the pulpit at Mount Carmel in 1984. It had 35 members then, and Russell was determined to see it grow. "He's always been like a pit bull," his friend, the Reverend Ronnie Joyner, says. "When he felt the commission to do something, he wouldn't let it go."

Now, once a month, Russell calls his flock together for what he calls a "debt revival." He sees it as a natural extension of his ministry. "The Lord was a people person," he says. "We were designed to make a difference in the hurting of humanity." Russell says he never knows until he gets to church which family he will select to benefit from the church's largesse, but shouts of praise ring out and tears flow when he names the recipients. The lucky family comes forward to watch as their neighbors pitch in any amount from $1 to $1,000 to pay their bills; in the future, they will return the generosity.

The next morning the lucky family will bring their bills to Bishop Russell for approval; then a church elder will write checks to their creditors. Surprisingly, word of this program has not attracted more than the usual numbers of new congregants, although the church continues to attract 30 or so converts each week—and Russell stands ready to help them. "We have to do more than get people converted," he says. "You can't have a new Christian saying, 'I'm on my way to heaven, but the road looks like hell.' "

Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C., and Laurie Meyers in Norfolk

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