By Amy Dockser Marcus

(MONEY Magazine) – All along the hallways of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church, down the narrow corridors, past classrooms of children in Sunday school, hang pictures of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Words from his famous speeches, in bold block type, sweep me along into the inner sanctum of the Rev. James Meeks, the pastor of Salem.

It is Sunday afternoon, and Rev. Meeks sits in his chair, exhausted after preaching three sermons. If Rev. King spoke about standing on the mountaintop and seeing the promised land but not knowing whether he would enter, a quick look around Rev. Meeks' office--hung with plaques that testify to the good works and political clout of Salem--suggests that he and his flock have arrived.

But from the mountaintop that is Salem Baptist Church, Rev. Meeks sees things differently. In terms of economic clout, he says, the promised land is still far away. During the past decade, African Americans did not invest in stocks at anything near the rates that whites did (64% vs. 82%, according to a study by Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab) and largely missed out on the amazing bull market that boosted the wealth of so many others. What's more, in the Salem community unemployment soared in the 1990s as businesses like a Sherwin-Williams paint factory and a Gately's department store closed. "Political power without economic power is not enough," Rev. Meeks says.

So for almost two years now, he has been giving sermons about the importance of investing. The church's new economic ministry runs a series of seven-week economic-literacy courses that have attracted thousands. The morning I visit, dozens show up at Salem's bookstore by 7:30 a.m., eager to be swayed by the powers of God and compounding. We stand in a circle, holding hands and praying. People share problems they've encountered in the past week and blessings they believe have touched them. Then everyone sits down, pulls out calculators and sets to work figuring out the standard deviation of an investment portfolio.

It is a powerful combination, faith and finance--one that Rev. Meeks and other pastors, working through the advocacy organization Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, hope to share with 1,000 churches across the country. Several church members who have been able to work themselves out of debt and start investing contributed their experiences to It's About the Money, a personal-finance book written by Jesse Jackson Jr., a congressman and member of the congregation, and his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. It is one of a spate of recent volumes dealing with investing and wealth building directed at African Americans.

But this drive for economic empowerment does not belong to any single leader or organization. The seminars and programs have gained popularity mainly through word of mouth, crossing denominational lines and spreading outside the churches to traditional civil rights groups like the National Urban League and businesses like Black Enterprise magazine. And although the trend is strongest in the African-American community, whites and Hispanics are interested too. "These are principles that transcend race," says Bishop T.D. Jakes, the pastor at Potter's House, a 26,000-member interracial church outside Dallas. One economic fair for women run by his church drew more than 10,000 people.

Rev. Meeks calls what is happening a movement, harking back to the language of the civil rights years. It is evocative language, and it sent me back to reread Rev. King's last speech to see whether what is happening here really has its roots in that vision from the mountaintop. When I read the speech now, it is clear that Rev. King's message was grounded in economics. He was in Memphis that day to support sanitation workers striking for better wages. He talked about using economic boycotts to achieve political goals, and of the economic power of African Americans if they banded together and patronized black-owned businesses.

But his was a vision of economic tools in the service of a larger, moral crusade. The battle is different now, the rallying cry one of personal financial gain. "What is wrong with having Jesus and money?" Rev. Meeks shouted in one sermon. The promised land that Salem Baptist is heading for is filled not just with milk and honey, but stock options, mutual funds and a hefty 401(k) plan.


For Rev. Meeks, all of this was once uncharted terrain. He had never invested in the stock market; he kept his savings in CDs. He'd given sermons mentioning the Chicago Bulls, his personal trainer and the hit song "Who Let the Dogs Out,'' but he'd avoided talking finances from the pulpit. Like the scout who came back from the promised land and told Moses that it was too difficult to conquer, "I was scared," Rev. Meeks says. "You are always scared of what you don't understand."

That started to change in the late '90s. Salem had always been active in the neighborhood, a patchwork of abandoned buildings and vacant lots and social problems linked to poverty. But by 1998, Rev. Meeks was getting more and more requests inside the walls of his church from people asking him to pray for them to get out of debt--middle-class people with good jobs and 401(k)s who were nonetheless burdened by their finances. "Something wasn't working," Rev. Meeks told me that Sunday in his office. "We started looking at ourselves more. We weren't partnering with God when it came to our money."

The minister was convinced that the church was the best place to start talking about the issue. "There is no other place where this many African Americans gather--not at the NAACP or at the Urban League," he says. "But if we only discuss heaven in church and not how to prosper on earth, then the church will become irrelevant to our lives." He knew that many Christians view buying stocks as a form of gambling, that they feel there is something sinful about the pursuit of material gains. But after studying the Bible, he came to the conclusion that the sin was mishandling one's money. "I realized that Jesus talks more about money in the Bible than about heaven," he said. (In one sermon, Rev. Meeks reported that he had counted 700 direct references to money in the Bible, and that two-thirds of the parables of Jesus deal with the correct and incorrect use of material possessions.)

His favorite story, one he has often told from the pulpit, is the parable of the talents, a kind of ancient coin. A man going on a journey entrusts his property to his servants. One was given five talents, another servant got two, and the third, just one. The first servant traded his coins and doubled his money. The second did the same. But the third servant, fearing he would lose the money, hid it in the ground. "He didn't even get passbook interest on that talent," Rev. Meeks noted. "And he was the one whom the master scorned."

So one day in 1998, Rev. Meeks asked a group of church members involved in the financial industry to come up with a way to teach the congregation how to get out of debt. Based on what he learned, Rev. Meeks developed a series of sermons with an overarching theme: Become debt-free by 2003. Standing at the pulpit, holding up charts of the interest rates that various credit-card companies charge, Rev. Meeks exhorted the worshipers to take $250 a month that they were spending on frivolous items and use their savings to pay off their debts.

The next step was learning how to invest. By last year, Salem had an economic ministry that included two Merrill Lynch executives, a trader at the Chicago Stock Exchange and a former high-ranking executive at Northern Trust, plus a series of classes on investing and setting up investment clubs. Practicing what he preached, Rev. Meeks started taking his money out of CDs and putting it into mutual funds.

Listening to tapes of the minister's first financial-literacy sermons, now for sale in the church bookstore, you can chart his transformation. A traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents is that Jesus was exhorting his followers to use all of God's gifts and blessings. "I grew up preaching this passage," Rev. Meeks told the congregation, acknowledging that he had always thought that Jesus was referring to gifts like singing, praying or teaching. But no longer: "This is one of the greatest New Testament teachings on what to do with money, and it comes directly from the lips of Jesus."

So Rev. Meeks started preaching a different gospel: "Repeat after me," he said. "Investments are spiritual!" A roar rose up in the church in response: "Investments are spiritual!"


Marilyn Posley heard that first sermon and thought Rev. Meeks was talking right to her. She'd been praying for help getting out of debt. She and her husband were pulling in more than $132,000 a year as insurance agents, but they had no savings. She couldn't seem to stay away from the mall, even though her closet was jammed with clothes she didn't wear. Everything the couple earned, they spent.

After church, Posley went straight home, took out all the unpaid bills and entered them in a blue notebook. She was stunned when she realized that the family had 23 charge accounts. There was the Movado watch her husband had charged, the $300 suit that she was still paying off even though she no longer wore it, over $2,000 worth of jewelry, $900 remaining on a computer, two car payments and a loan to pay for the windows she had just had installed in the house. The list went on and on. When she called each credit-card company, she was shocked to learn she was paying as much as 28% annual interest on her overdue bills. She looked at the columns in the blue notebook and told her husband that evening, "Rev. Meeks is right. We are in bondage."

Posley began carrying that blue book with her everywhere. It was right next to her in the car as she drove to work, listening to a tape of Rev. Meeks' sermons about debt. It was on her desk at work, a reminder of why she was eating leftovers at her desk for lunch instead of going out. She even took it to her son's basketball practices, looking for ways to make new cuts as she waited for the game to finish. "I called that blue book my bible, the voice of my conscience," she says, laughing. She had the zeal of a convert to a new religion.

The entire family started making cuts. She and her husband canceled their annual family vacation and their credit cards. She told her two sons that they weren't going to be able to buy new clothes. "I spent $40 a week getting my hair done. So I started going to my niece, who charged me only $15,'' she recalls. "I figured we could come up with at least $500 a month that we had been wasting."

With the money they saved, they started paying off their debts. They also hired a Merrill Lynch financial planner they knew from church and began putting money every month into mutual funds for retirement. Every time they paid off a debt, Mrs. Posley crossed it off in the blue ledger.

One day, she got a call from a writer who said she was collaborating with fellow church member Jesse Jackson Jr. and his father on a book about personal finance. Would Posley be willing to share her experiences? She hesitated a moment, but then said yes. Other people stood up in church and offered testimony about meeting a spiritual test; her testimony would be about meeting a financial test.


For Jesse Jackson Jr., the road to economic empowerment at Salem went through the ballroom of the local Holiday Inn in Champaign, Ill. Then a law student at the University of Illinois, Jackson was at home with his wife Sandra, flipping channels, when he happened on an infomercial advertising a seminar by self-help guru Charles Givens on how to get rich without risk. The Jacksons drove to Champaign and joined the crowd packed into the ballroom of the Holiday Inn. "There were over 800 people in that ballroom that day," he recalls, "and we were the only two African Americans there."

Givens' message was simple: If you put as little as $20 a month into a no-load mutual fund and keep increasing the amount as your salary goes up, you will be rich by the time you retire. Back at home, surrounded by $300 worth of tapes and books they had bought ("Givens convinced us that it was tax deductible," Jackson says, laughing), Jackson and his wife cut back on movies and dinners out and started to put $50 a month into mutual funds. After he got elected to Congress and they had a child, they began saving another $100 a month for daughter Jessica's college tuition and increased the principal-only payment on their mortgage, as well as making the maximum contributions to their 401(k) plans.

But Jackson never stopped thinking about Givens in that ballroom, proclaiming that all you need is $20 a month to start out on the path to riches. "Twenty dollars a month is not a huge sum," Jackson says. "So I kept asking myself, if that's the case, then why were we the only African Americans at that seminar? Where was everyone else?"

He and his wife speculated about the possible reasons. He talked with his father and friends and, after he joined Salem in 1994, with Rev. Meeks. Perhaps it was African Americans' lack of familiarity with the stock market, some people suggested, or the fact that so much energy had been devoted to fighting political battles.

Eventually, Jackson decided that, whatever the reason, something needed to be done. One evening in 1998, he and his father and about 40 friends and colleagues were sitting in Rev. Jackson's hotel room following the second Wall Street Project conference, which had been launched to help minorities get venture capital and community-development money. Discussing where to go next, they focused on getting minorities involved in investing in the market. That conversation was the genesis of the Jacksons' book and of the plan, announced by Rev. Jackson the following year, to build a national network of 1,000 churches to sponsor economic-literacy programs. Salem, where Rev. Meeks was already preaching the gospel of money and where financial courses were up and running, would be one of the five churches in the pilot project.


The economic-literacy movement at Salem has had its successes. In the past year alone, 120 people have taken the Sunday morning course on debt management and investing; members of the church have formed more than 200 investment clubs. The economic ministry is planning seminars on real estate and a website that will allow other churches to download teaching materials and follow the progress of Salem's various programs.

On a national level, 80 ministers invited by Rainbow/PUSH have attended a three-day investing seminar run by the New York Stock Exchange, with the idea that they would preach the gospel of money to their congregations. Another 120 are set to take similar seminars this year.

Still, the investing-oriented model will clearly not work everywhere, especially for less affluent congregations. At the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, located across town from Salem Baptist, the Reverend Marshall Hatch has been preaching money-management issues to his congregation. But when the church recently started a credit union, only 25 families joined, even after the church offered to pay $50 of the $100 needed to open a account. "People don't understand it," Rev. Hatch explains. "They are living with the survival instincts of day to day." He adds, "The poor man's first leg up is buying a home, not buying stocks."

That is the tack being taken at People's Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American church in downtown Boston. One evening I attended an economic-literacy class, in the church basement, designed to help people purchase their first home. Everyone in the group had agreed to save $30 a week--they must bring to every meeting proof that they are putting the money aside--and go through a 50-week economic-literacy course. If they completed the training and saved at least $1,500, the city and the Federal Home Loan Bank would match their money 4 to 1. But now, at the 36th session, it was clear that not everyone was going to get a house. Some were now earning too much to qualify for the matching money; others simply wouldn't have enough for a down payment in the pricey Boston real estate market.

Aren't you worried about this? I asked the Reverend Frank E. Kelley, who had helped set up the program. What happens when people put their faith in something the church has promoted and don't see results? "There is always a risk here," he said. "But people see their lives changing, even if they don't get a house."

There are risks too in launching an economic empowerment movement based on investing. "We took this last-quarter loss, just like everyone else," Rev. Meeks told me when I asked how his own investments were faring. "Just when I got into the market, it goes down," he said, turning to Bonita Parker, a former banker who's now director of investments and economic empowerment at the church.

"I know, pastor, I know, but it's going to go up again. We're in it for the long term," Parker replied. Rev. Meeks sighed and nodded. "I always tell everyone that the stock market is not for the person who thinks he can put $1,000 in and win the Microsoft lottery," he says.

Robert T. Ross, the head of the adult education financial ministry at the church and a director at Merrill Lynch, has his own concerns. In interviewing members of the church, I noticed that a number had hired financial planners at Merrill, which had been extremely active in launching the economic seminars. But when I ask Ross how many church members were now Merrill Lynch clients, he says he has purposely not kept track. "I felt if I measured how many people came to Merrill Lynch, it would taint what was going on," he explains. "I'm not doing this to say how much money we've made off the program. When anybody approaches me about business, I discourage the conversation. I say, 'If you want to volunteer, come and help. If you start distributing your business card, I'll shut you down.'" Ross acknowledges that the program's success depends on networking, but he also recognizes the risk of allowing financial professionals to talk to the congregation about money: "By virtue of standing up in our pulpit and speaking, they are endorsed by the church."

Still, no one at Salem Baptist is ready to abandon the notion of using the church to promote saving and investing. Perhaps this is the natural evolution of what Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating, as those who were the children of his dream now contend. "Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people," Rev. King asked his followers that day in Memphis, "more than the preacher?"


For as long as she can remember, Bonita Parker says, she has been interested in money. We are sitting in a quiet corner of the Salem Christian bookstore, eating freshly baked muffins from the store's bakery. People wander in to look at books or put on earphones and listen to gospel music. "My first job out of college was at a bank," says Parker, who retired as second vice president of Northern Trust and is now overseeing the church's economic ministry. "One of my white colleagues there was the same age that I was, we had the same level of academic accomplishments, we had been working at the bank the same amount of time, but he knew much more than I did about finances and the markets." Finally one day over lunch she asked him why that might be.

"My friend asked me, 'At dinner, what does your family talk about?'" Parker recalls. One of seven children, she told him that it was rare for the whole family to sit down to meals together. When they did, they talked mainly about church. "Well, my family had dinner together every night," her colleague responded. "And we always talked about economics, how the market was doing, the prime rate, investments."

"My family had access to capital," Parker tells me. "We just didn't know what to do with it." Now her family-run investment club, which they named Saving by Grace, meets every month to talk, as her friend's family did, about economics, the market, the prime rate and investments.

Parker shows me the neighborhood. She points out rusting signs of companies that once flourished but are now gone. The only commerce seems to be liquor stores and beauty parlors. Every place has heavy steel shutters. We drive up a hillside until we get to a plot of land where Salem Baptist Church intends to build a new church--part of an ambitious plan that depends in large part on the ability of members of the congregation to tithe. Directly across from where the church will sit, a large white building looms. Every day when they pray, the congregants will be able to see it. Every time they talk about savings and investments, the building will be part of the discourse too.

What is that structure? I ask. "That's the offtrack betting parlor," Parker answers. The two of us sit in silence staring at it, contemplating the parameters of this strange new city on the hill.