Father John Lasseigne, O.M.I. doesn’t have
to preach the story of David and Goliath. He’s living it.
Armed with a “slingshot” of faith and
determination, Fr. John is taking on the giant banking
industry on behalf of his parishioners and neighbors at
Mary Immaculate Church in Pacoima, California. He is seeking justice for people in his community
whom he believes have been unfairly treated during
the current housing crisis.
“This is not just a question about homes but
about children, parents and the integrity of the
family,” says Fr. John.
Father John had been pastor of Mary Immaculate
Church for just a few months when a parishioner
came to him with a request – “Father we are losing
our house, can you please pray for us?”
Father John did more than pray for that family – he took action. At the end of each
Mass on Sunday he asked for families to add their names to a list if they were in danger
of losing their home. Dozens of families signed up the first week. Hundreds more
signed up in subsequent weeks.
Today Fr. John has helped to organize more than 300 families in the San Fernando
Valley to seek some relief for their housing payments.
“Once Mary Immaculate Church got involved it brought the community together and
we realized that we are not alone,” says José Hernandez, who is facing the possibility of
his family losing their home.
Father John’s idea for organizing homeowners was based on the premise that individually
these families would have almost no chance to renegotiate the terms of their mortgages. Collectively, they could get bank officers and politicians to sit up and listen.
Father John partnered with One L.A., the local affiliate of the Industrial Areas
Foundation (IAF), to look at ways to help families facing foreclosure. Mary Immaculate
has been a member parish of the IAF for over ten years. Other community groups,
parishes and activists also joined the cause.
A number of meetings have been held between bank officials and groups of families. Father
John says the banks are resistant to negotiating with groups and prefer to work individually
with homeowners. But with the staggering number of potential foreclosures – more than
8,000 alone in the San Fernando Valley – individual negotiations could drag on forever.
Father John also said that bank representatives have been unwilling to accept their
share of responsibility for the housing crisis. If the banks have money to give bonuses to their executives, Fr. John
rationalizes that they have
money to lend to the hard
working immigrant families
that make up his parish.
He also points out that
many local families had good
credit histories but were
steered into sub-prime mortgages so the banks could make even more money.
Most of the families in his
parish have limited capacity
to speak English. While the
majority of their loan agreements with the bank were
in Spanish, the section about adjustable mortgages was provided only in English.
Most parishioners at Mary Immaculate parish have seen the value of their homes cut
nearly in half since the start of the economic downturn. At the same time, their monthly
mortgage payments have nearly doubled.
One positive result from the efforts of Fr. John and the other housing advocates took
place in August. The Los Angeles City Council dedicated $1 million to a demonstration
project designed by One LA to prevent foreclosures. The program allows about 30
homeowners to receive low-interest loans of up to $75,000.
The homeowners then turn this money over to their banks, but only if the banks agree
to lower their interest rate and reduce their loan principal. With their principal lowered by
up to $150,000 the homeowners are then able to afford their monthly mortgage payments.
In October the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society
agreed to invest another $1 million in the same demonstration project.
Father John’s approach to helping people survive the financial crisis gathered national
attention. A story written for the Los Angeles Times ran in newspapers around the
country. His foreclosure fight was also profiled on National Public Radio and the CBS
The housing crisis will not
go away anytime soon,
especially in California.
Father John says that while
the obstacles facing many of
his parishioners may seem
insurmountable, he is in the
fight for the long haul.
“If we stay united and
combine our resources, we
can have a positive effect on
this problem,” says Fr. John.