Connecting Faith and Finance Q&A

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In October of 2021 Faith + Finance hosted the first webinar in the four part Building a Loving and Just Economy series. This is a transcript of the Q & A session hosted by Rachel Johnson and Kevin Jones of Faith + Finance with panelists Rabbi Elan Babchuck of the Glean Network and Stephanie Swepson-Twitty from Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation. You can read the transcript of the webinar here.

Rachel Johnson: I’m Rachel Johnson. I’m part of the Faith + Finance team and it’s my great pleasure and honor to welcome you all to this webinar and conversation today. We are so glad to have you as part of the kickoff webinar of our “Building a Just and Loving Economy” series. It’s my pleasure now to welcome two of our panelists: Rabbi Elan Babchuck of the Glean Network and Stephanie Swepson-Twitty from Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation. I also have with me, Faith + Finance team member, Kevin Doyle Jones. I will be taking your questions and sending them to this all-star panel.

Rachel Johnson: Stephanie, Elan, thank you so much for being with us today and for being part of this kickoff conversation. Well, as we give some time for folks to put more questions in the chat, I want to start off our Q&A with a question of my own. As the person who wrote the title for this conversation, I feel a little bit of ownership to immediately problematize the title, “Connecting Faith + Finance.” I want to kick us off by asking, why? Why should we care about connecting faith and finance, impact investing, entrepreneurship, community development? They’re all happening and can happen outside of the involvement of faith, so why are we having this conversation? Maybe to put it another way, is there anything that’s lost when communities and of faith people don’t think about this? Stephanie, I’ll start with you.

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us back and for giving us an opportunity to be a part of the Q&A. My initial thoughts around, why should we connect? Why should faith and finance be connected? Because I think that without question it is scriptural. It is rooted in the principles and doctrine, of understanding how we should be in community, regardless of the religion or doctrine that we follow.

The general premise of taking care of each other is at the heart of connecting faith and finance. Again, I harken back to my remarks when I think about the body and that the body is one unit and that it has all of the members working in it, but in it there is also some weakness in the body. And so, who’s to care for the weak and the faith community? So, yeah. Thank you. Thank you.

Elan Babchuck: Yeah. Again, I just want to say ditto to what Stephanie just said. I’m so glad you went first. That way, I get to just say, yeah, that’s exactly right. And I started to get at this in the introductory comments, but I think, why does faith have to be connected to finance? Why should they be in conversation? Because we see what happens when they’re not. Because faithless finance gets us exactly where we are right now, with widening gaps, greater inequities, more marginalization, more consolidation of wealth. And you know, a couple of people going up to space while most of us are never gonna make it out of the town we grew up in.

Right. So we know what faithless finance looks like. But then at the same time, we also know what happens in the faith space. When we look at finance without a faith lens. What do I mean by that? An individual institution building up its wealth and its endowment and the value of its building, without looking around and saying, “gosh, what kind of impact should we be having on our broader community?”

That’s financeless fate, right? And so I think the reason why they have to be in conversation is because we know what happens when they’re not. And I think, especially when we think about the financial marketplace and this, you know, this rising trends around entrepreneurship and venture capitalism, you know, my colleague and teacher, Erwin Kula, he often talks about re-moralizing capital.
So, what would happen actually, if we could, and I don’t care, don’t call it faith. –call it morals, call it values, call it ethics– if the whole religion thing, you know, freaks you out, that’s fine. But if there was only one bottom line and there’s no higher power that we’re answering, and I don’t mean God, right? For me, that’s mine, but I’m talking about greater aspirations that this marketplace doesn’t even have to answer to, or at least take into consideration. We’re just going to continue going down the path we’ve been going, which is getting us nowhere fast.

Rachel Johnson: Your response makes me think of our next conversation, “The Economy’s Not Gravity.” And it’s this idea that the economy is not this force of nature that’s, you know, shaping us. And can you relate to that? We seem to have a myth that the economy is amoral. It’s the neutral arbiter that determines value and and you know, and you can come in with a biased moral lens. We’re going to unpack that in our next series, but I want to bring it forward a little bit. If we do have this myth out there, that there’s kind of an amoral economy, what are the types of questions that arise when we bring values into the conversation? What does a moral values-based economy look like? I’ll leave it open for anyone to jump in.

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty: Well, Rabbi, I feel a little bit uncomfortable going ahead of you, but I will jump in the deep end here and say if I heard the question correctly, what does a moral society look like? Is that? Yeah. Yeah, I think as many of the members of the audience have noted, I think the rabbi said it best.

We tend to get stuck sometimes around nomenclature and around what are we going to call it? And, you know, is it faith? And I liked what he had to say about morality. How are you guiding your own values to have an impact on what your community does with a value system?

So, to say it succinctly, I am very much a person who is committed to working with small businesses to help them improve their positions in the community, so that they can better help the community. To me, that is my moral imperative to do that work, so that all of the community is improved in some respect.

Kevin Jones: This is Kevin Jones. I’d like to jump in on the “why” question. I did an interview with Sister Corinne Florek. She’s called the godmother of CDFI, or “community development finance institutions,” institutions set up to lend to marginalized communities. And she’s a nun. She said early in her career, “you know, the Bishop would send two nuns to start a school or a clinic in a place. And then there weren’t that many.” And so she realized they needed to send their money as co-ministers. And so she was one of the first that actually started nun-lending. And so, and now she’s done it for 40 plus years. It’s phenomenally successful. In 40 plus years, there are fewer than 10 failures. And she is leading a fund with a combined 37 other Catholic women’s religious orders. Follow her lead on what to invest in. And she said, “Well, what’s your theory of change?” I didn’t really think about this. She said, “where’s the good Samaritan?” And I said, “okay.” “And the other gospel stories, we just do that.” And that was the end of her theory of change. It’s like we were told to do this, so therefore we do it.

And it’s, you know, nevertheless, tending to those in trouble, out of your abundance, to enable them to get back on their feet and get on the road. It’s what she’s done for four decades. And you know, 38 Catholic nun orders follow her lead. And she has just a really simple thing, you know, they’re the gospel stories. So we’re going, “what’s next?” No big theory of change.

Elan Babchuck: I love that. Kevin. Thank you. I’m glad you jumped. I’m glad both of you went for that. This is all just, you know… God has a plan, right? And I’m just, I’m just here to follow it. I love that you brought up the good Samaritan piece and that’s, actually, I wasn’t planning on going in this direction, but this is where I want to go.
You know, when you talk about “what does a remoralizing of capital look like? What does an economy look like that works for every individual? What happens when Amex’s 10,000 small business campaign turns into 10 million small businesses, and everyone’s taking ownership of their financial future and they’re getting invested in by their communities? What does that prophetic vision actually look like? And here’s the thing: the Good Samaritan Study. I think it was 1973. If I’m not mistaken, there was a social psychology study to test out whether or not seminary students would actually help someone in need while they were on their way from one building to another. I won’t get into all the details of the study. You can Google it. It’s amazing. But it’s a myth. When we think about what actually controlled their behavior, it wasn’t when they were told “you could write a sermon about the good Samaritan.” That had no impact on whether or not they stopped. They were told, “you could write a sermon about ministry and how important ministry is in the world.” Didn’t affect whether or not they stopped. You know what did? Whether or not they were running late. Hmm. So, what does that tell us about? It is a privilege to be a good Samaritan. It is a privilege to be a good Samaritan because you have 10 minutes to spare, because you’re not rushing from your first job to your second job to pick up your kids and go back to your third. Right?

What does the world look like if we could re-moralize and bring faith values into this kind of marketplace? It means that people must have margins in their time, margins in their talent, margins in their treasure, and margins in their trust. All of this stuff is eroding because we don’t have those margins and the margins are not evenly spread.

That’s what the world looks like for all of us to live up to our potential. I believe every single person is born good. Every single person wants to stop for the person next to them. I really believe that. By the way, the most popular show in Netflix history is Squid Game, which is outright. Now, the entire show hinges upon whether or not people will make that kind choice for one another and stop to help someone else. It’s fascinating. Anyway, that’s what I think the world actually could look like if we want.

Rachel Johnson: That’s incredible. And I think a beautiful vision that leads really well into a question we received in the chat from Erwin and Elan, that’s directed at you. Stephanie, Kevin, please jump in, also. So, given the erosion of the religious sector, all the loss that you talked about, obviously religious institutions need to re-imagine themselves, as they relate to faith and finance, but is there an opportunity slash responsibility or even competitive advantage for companies, businesses, and capital allocators to get it done what the faith institutions have traditionally done? In other words, traditionally we thought, “oh, there’s a Baptist hospital because no one else is providing healthcare in the area. And there is this service because the faith community sees a need.” Do we need to rethink this whole, you know, “faith community props up when there’s a hole” and reimagine partnerships?

Elan Babchuck: I love Erwin’s question. I think part of the opportunity here and I’m going to speak, I’m like inside faith. So, I’m going to do the inside face response, which is, and I’m going to quote another one of my teachers, Brad Hershfield. He says, “when are we going to ever take yes for an answer?” And what do I mean by that? It’s like in the faith world, when we see people outside of religion doing religious kind of stuff, sometimes it looks, sometimes it doesn’t feel so good. Right? Sometimes it feels weird. It’s like, “wait, what do you mean soul cycle lights candles and they inspire people? That’s our job. What do you mean?” Right? Or Peloton has Sundays with Love. It’s basically a church service with 30 minutes and you get to sweat, right? Like if I’m leading churches on Sundays and my congregation is going there, I would be upset.

And, it is an indication that we made it. It’s also an indication that a lot of our highest aspirations in the religious domain are getting adopted or appropriated. In secular spaces, it means that those jobs are universal and we’re not the only ones that can do them. So, I think then, the opportunity is to think strategically. What would it look like to partner with maybe, you know, unlikely, strange bedfellows? Companies? For-profit companies that maybe prior to this, we had no business to do with? So I wonder, what would it look like? What would it look like if an entire denomination or powerful religion had partnered with WE WORK before they turned into the cynical mess that they became? I don’t know. Could there have been a different intervention? Could it have turned into something more wholesome? Maybe, but I think that’s where the possibility lies.

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty: So, I’m going to jump in here, if I can. And I’m going to hopefully create a segue for Kevin to talk about this amazing paper that he wrote. So, if we think about organized religion, and I am really careful to let folks know I am a practicing Christian –I am not religious. And so, what that did, when I accepted that revelation, is it liberated me, to say that the only prescription I have to follow is the one that I chose, which is prescribed by Christ and the Bible.

If your thoughts around how you want to be in society line up with some other doctrine or thought and you continue to do good, you continue to work so that the greater masses are served by the work you do, I’m right behind you. Regarding church and the kind of institutionalized way we’ve gotten ourselves –and this is where I’m leading to Kevin– I think that there’s an adage that says religion is the opium of the masses. And I translate that to mean that it was the way that oppressors used it to be able to lull the people into conformity. For me, thanks to a creator who I trust, He did not make me to be a conformist. So for that reason, I would look at where we are now and say that we can upend all of that. We could become community development, corporations who have faith-based guidelines that we’re going to follow, or that we have other Unitarian or other doctrines that we’re going to follow that serve the greater good. So Kev, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about your white paper, if you don’t mind.

Kevin Jones: Well, thanks. I appreciate it. I spent a lot of time in Mississippi, and one of the virtues of Mississippi is that the racists don’t lie. And so, you know, racism in a more clear sense in Mississippi than you do in other places. And, you know, I came to the conclusion that in Mississippi, racism is what was keeping everybody back.
And so, I became aware of that as a business person in Mississippi. And so, I looked into the history of racism in a lot of ways, and I looked into the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South and I’ll start with an incident. When we had built, we meaning my wife, had built the largest Habitat for Humanity chapter in the country in Jackson, Mississippi, and everybody had built a house, the Junior League had built a house, the law firms had built a house, the accounting firms, and obviously the churches, the Sunday schools, you know, the one synagogue, and finally a First Baptist Church came and built a house.

And they said, “you’re probably wondering why we’ve built a house, because it’s not about saving souls. And we said, “no, we’re wondering why you were three years behind the Junior League. and two years behind the insurance defense law firm.” But what happened was, they only could see saving souls. And if you go back to the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, as I said back in the early 1700s, most of the slave owners were Anglicans. Now we call them Episcapalians, and they were approached by the dirt farming, non plantation-owning Baptists, and wanting to preach to the slaves. And the Anglicans looked at it a long time. And here’s the bargain that they struck: they said, “okay. You have to preach that Exodus is spiritual. It does not mean, ‘let my people go.’ It means ‘swing low, sweet chariot,’ and the sweet by and by.” You had to spiritualize freedom from slavery. And then the second thing is you could not mention Jubilee. You could not mention the forgiveness of debts. You could not mention the turning over of the land. So there wasn’t an intergenerational empire created and or anything like that.

Because the core was that the slaves were the source of capital. And so to preach to them about spiritual things, they had to agree with the plantation owners that slaves were commodities. And so they could preach about individual salvation, but they could not preach about collective salvation.

And I ran into that in the 1980s, talking to Robert Moses, who was the architect of the Freedom Summer, you know, when Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were killed in Mississippi, and all the people came down and tried to get voter registration. They had to recreate a curriculum around Exodus for older Black folks, to be able to say, “I can go sign up to vote. It is the source of my freedom.”

And so, I think, you know, a lot of the white church has been complicit with the monopoly plantation owners from, you know, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to the folks at the plantations. And they’ve signed off to a smaller spiritual religion, and they did it a couple of hundred years ago.

And so, the guy at the Baptist church doesn’t know why he can’t say “we’re involved in the community” because the decision to have a smaller God was made by his great great-grandfather. And so, we’re saying to people, “hey, break that bargain. That’s a devil’s bargain. You know, we are our brother’s keeper.

We are our neighbors.” My basic understanding is the neighborly economy as outlined by the theologian Walter Brougham. If you Google “neighborhood economics and Walter Brueggemann,” and you’ll misspell Brueggemann, but that’s okay. You’ll still find it. There’s a great video.

Rachel Johnson: There’s having this conversation on the faith side with faith communities, but then there’s that science side – very loosely defined as ‘everything not safe’ community. We’ve already talked about how deeply problematic that is. Martha wants to know, how do you help? Faith communities have certain tangible ways to undertake an economic justice problem. How can communities of faith and people who haven’t been engaged in this work before, start to jump in? And Kim is asking, as a financial planner, how can she start to introduce the concepts of values and morality that we talked about into conversation? She says, “just because I’m in the investment world doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be thinking about morality. How did you start to have that conversation over in those non-faith spaces, so to speak?

Elan Babchuck: I think part of the work is, look, I think there’s maybe three frames. The first is, there’s a great way that rabbinic teachers in the Talmud would sort of end arguments between their students. And they would, if they felt like their students were stuck in theory and not understanding how it actually applied to people’s lives, they would say “[speaks ]”, which is Aramaic for saying, “go out and see what people really are doing, what they’re saying, what they need, how they experienced the world.”

Life is not lived in theory. It’s lived in practice and experience. So first thing, if you’re at church thinking about, “gosh, we have a really valuable property. We have money in an endowment. We have dah, dah, dah, dah. We have wisdom. We have traditions. We have things that we can share and give first thing,” look around you.
We don’t need to look too far to find the need, and also to identify who is around. Right? That’s one of the most important things. And maybe expand the definition of who it is that you, as a community leader, really serve. Is it just the people who pass the plate and show up on Sunday? Or do we have a broader sense of service here, or maybe a bigger sense of calling?

So the first thing is to take pause and get out. The second is, to look at it through an entrepreneurial lens, which means to say, the definition of entrepreneur that I like to use is the bearer of risk. So here you have to ask yourself the question, how much am I really willing to risk? How much am I really willing to risk?

So, okay. We don’t want to play by the market rules because usury, and okay, would you go with a 0% return when the market’s making 12? Would you actually not even have an endowment and sunset your funds so that, you know, it’s going to be gone in five years, but you are going to do such good work in five years? Would you give it all away today? Those are all viable answers, but you need to know exactly what you’re willing to risk before you enter that conversation, because otherwise, the conversation starts with idealism in theory, and then you get to the, “okay, I think we’re ready to write this check” and the treasurer signs it, and the treasurer says, “no, no, no, my job is to keep the lights on.” So, that’s where you really have to understand how going out and knowing exactly what you’re willing to risk in that going out process enables a community to really move forward and live their values.

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty: Thank you, Rabbi. And I want to tag you just a little bit, and say everything he said and to add briefly that I think to do this, you want to build it with community.

So, we’ve been socialized to think if we build it, they will come. Well, how about if we reformat that, and we build with them? And then we can all come. So, you know, I think that a sense of church kind of being here and the congregants being here, and the community being there is a concept that we can start to re-imagine, if you will.
And then, we see how we can have a different part in it. One of the things that I would champion is what Rabbi said about being an entrepreneur, or thinking like an entrepreneur, you know, and I love how you say, “we’re the ones that take the risk.” So, whenever we put together a unique opportunity, Kevin and myself, called the Community Equity Fund, which is all about a CDC taking the risk of working with businesses in a different way than that society has been working with them. So instead of conventional debt, we have equity. The equity is repayable, but they have a flexible mode to pay that equity back. So, you know, those are the kinds of things I would think about. I would think about a thriving community. What does it take to have a thriving community? And how does the church have a small or large role in being a thriving community? So, yeah.

Kevin Jones: I would add looking at your assets that you may not see. Back in Ittamon County, a small county halfway between Memphis and Birmingham, two Catholic nuns moved to town and introduced me to the concept of presence. And they didn’t have a plan, but they looked and saw what the need was. And they discovered there were a lot of trenches and people who were sleeping in their cars, poor folks sleeping in their cars on the road. And so they got half a dozen churches to agree that, “I’ll be where the folks can sleep on the weekend this week. You’d be the second week.” And so the asset was, you know, their fellowship halls with just, you know, mattresses down, less than once a month.

Another thing I saw in other churches, too, was, you know, looking at their actual vendors. And the woman who was sewing the choir gowns really needed a surgery to make her business more real and almost full time. And so they invested in a service. Then, they paid back her electrician, who was a single guy doing it, and he couldn’t pay back some RFDs. They wouldn’t let him hire more people. And so they actually just invested in the people they were already paying to become real businesses and move from job to job. So there’s lots you can do with just two people that your church has already engaged with and or, you know, what we’ve found in our community equity fund is that the first money was a father and son. They put in some money. They were the first dollars into the community equity fund, $2,500. And then the fiscal diocese said, “I’d been looking for something like this,” and they gave $25,000, and then another person of faith. And what we find is people of faith can often be visionary, catalyst investors. That’s kind of my new phrase for them in the capital stack. At the very bottom, they invest in what ought to be.

They will give their money to invest in what ought to be, but it isn’t quite there yet. They invest in the substance of things that should be happening in the future. So there are a lot of ways that you can just start passing the plate, turning it into something that creates an asset that can grow over that.

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty: I just wanted to add one thing there. The actual, first hand community equity fund investor was Eagle Market Streets. Eagle Market Streets was so committed to the idea of being able to support this initiative, that we put in our own funds, which leveraged then the faith community coming in, the lady social circle and, and others. So I think it’s important to know that when we talk about asset building and wealth creation, that we think about ourselves as an asset. I think oftentimes, that gets lost. We have again been socialized to think about assets, being the tangible things that we can put our hands on and accumulate for 50 years, building a whatever, and actually, asset building starts with yourself. It starts with you knowing the value of who God created you to be, so that you can do other things. That’s it. Amen.

Rachel Johnson: Amen. Do you wish to share any final thoughts?

Elan Babchuck: The only last thing I would say here is, you know, you’re we’re talking about a massive tectonic shift in how religion relates to finance and relates to itself, its own assets. And I think that when there is change, especially a sea change, there’s going to be a lot of loss. And I think we need to go where that loss is experienced. We need to go towards that sense of loss and grief, and we ourselves are going to experience some of it, too. You know, it’s easy for me to say, “oh, we can sunset an endowment,” but not when that endowment’s paying for my kids’ education or for the synagogue. That’s hard. So, I think it’s really important, no matter how certain we are about the path forward, that we can, you know, make finance a more faithful entity, and to make faith a more financially equitable institution. I also think that we need to sit with what is the experience of the person who disagrees with me completely and for whom my prophetic vision is actually such a profound, it evokes such a profound sense of loss. We need to hold that up as scripture too. Cause that’s real.

Rachel Johnson: Thank you, Elan. I really appreciate it. Thank you for being part of this conversation and thank you to all of you who have joined us today. Thank you and see you again next time!

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.