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One Ariz. investor repayment effort shuts down; others continue to help

PHOENIX (BP)–Restoring Our Integrity, a grassroots effort seeking to repay Baptist Foundation of Arizona investors and restore Southern Baptists’ integrity, has ceased operations. However, other efforts to help those affected by the BFA crisis are continuing.

ROI had a two-pronged plan. Arizona Southern Baptist churches were asked to contribute 1 percent of their undesignated receipts to cover administrative costs, and funds received from individuals nationwide were to go toward repaying BFA investors’ losses.

BFA, which filed for bankruptcy last fall, owes about $586 million to 12,000 investors. Under a liquidation plan filed with the court, $230 million-$240 million may be returned to investors.

Only 66 Arizona Southern Baptist churches and missions, out of about 400 congregations, had pledged to support the ROI plan, said Larry Deskins, pastor of Gateway Fellowship, SBC, Gilbert, Ariz., who was spearheading the ROI effort.

While a few pastors said they didn’t like the ROI name or they did not see the BFA situation as an integrity issue for Southern Baptists at large, Deskins said most had no response at all.

“I don’t see this as an impossible task,” Deskins said. However, he added, “It takes more than a few churches to get it done.”

This week, ROI will be returning the $11,000 contributed by individuals to repay investors and the $12,000 contributed by Arizona churches for administrative costs, Deskins said.

ROI had yet to hear from the Internal Revenue Service concerning its application for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, which was filed about 60 days ago. “Unless something miraculous happens,” Deskins said, “I see this as a done deal.”

However, Steve Bass, Arizona Southern Baptist Convention executive director-treasurer, said the churches’ lack of commitment to ROI should not be construed as a lack of concern for BFA investors. Arizona churches have already demonstrated their concern and will continue to do so, he said.

Some churches were waiting on the 501(c)(3) approval before getting on board, Bass explained. Research by the convention’s attorney, however, raised serious questions about whether ROI could qualify as a nonprofit, tax-exempt entity, Bass said.

“We wanted to assure our churches that their contributions to such an entity would not harm their own tax-exempt status,” he said. “Our desire was to see ROI succeed in their efforts; however, our analysis caused concerns about the ultimate success of their qualifying for tax-exempt status.”

While ROI drew limited support, many churches and individual Arizona Southern Baptists have contributed to the Jerusalem Fund, which was established by the state convention to assist those who depended on their BFA investments for all or part of their support.

More than $250,000 was contributed to the Jerusalem Fund through a statewide offering received one Sunday in February. The offering total includes $100,000 of matching funds contributed by Celebrate Jesus 2000 – Caring for the Valley of the Sun, the North American Mission Board Strategic Focus Cities effort focused on Phoenix.

Since the Jerusalem Fund began last September, $384,918 has been contributed.

In March, 76 BFA clients received almost $40,000 in grants. The grants are made for one month at a time, following approval of an application to the Jerusalem Fund committee.

“We’re proud of our congregations for what they have been doing,” Bass said. “Many churches are helping their own members who have been adversely affected by the BFA crisis. They are helping both monetarily and in other ways, but most of these contributions will never be reported beyond the local congregation.”

North Phoenix Baptist Church, Southside Baptist Church, Tempe, and First Baptist Church, Sun City West, are among many Arizona churches ministering to people hurt by the BFA collapse.

North Phoenix established a BFA crisis response team to provide practical assistance to church members. Team members include professionals in the areas of social services, counseling, legal and tax issues, and human resources.

An employment re-entry seminar helped individuals explore employment options, write resumes and prepare to enter the workforce. Another seminar helped senior adults learn how to access government resources and assistance. A group of CPAs offered free tax preparation.

The first session of a new grief support group designed especially for those affected by the BFA crisis drew almost 100 people.

The deacon ministry is providing home and car repairs, and other church members have volunteered services such as hairstyling, nursing assistance, plumbing and yard work. In addition, an individual donated funds so that senior adults can continue to eat meals at church and participate in fee-based church activities.

Through three church-wide offerings, North Phoenix collected $107,426, which was divided between the Jerusalem Fund and the church’s “Acts 4:32 Fund” that was established to help local church members.

When the BFA crisis first hit, Bob Dodridge, pastor of Southside Baptist Church, initiated a church-wide sharing time to discuss the situation. Every Wednesday night since, church members have prayed for investors, current BFA leaders, convention leaders and sister churches.

Last September, Southside’s deacons recommended that the church use money in its general fund to make a gift to the Jerusalem Fund. In addition, Southside began its own in-house Jerusalem Fund to help fellow church members. So far, Dodridge said, church members have been individually meeting the needs of others without the fund being drawn upon to a great extent.

With BFA employees, former employees, investors and board members all within the church family, Dodridge said he has been pleased with church members’ sensitivity and spirit of fellowship during what could have been a tense time.

The Wednesday after BFA investors were first informed of the crisis, Larry Baker, pastor of First Baptist, Sun City West, assured the congregation that the church would do what it could to help investors. The deacons established a care fund, similar to the Jerusalem Fund, to help members with crucial, immediate needs.

Sun City West hosted two town hall meetings, which were open to the community. The first was to help investors understand the bankruptcy process and initial proposal, and the second was a question-and-answer session with Bill Crews, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the official Unsecured Creditors’ Committee.

In addition, the church offered a seminar in financial planning, to help investors maximize their remaining funds, and another seminar, led by a social worker, to help seniors learn where to go for help and how to tap into available resources.

Investors and non-investors in the church have been linked as prayer partners, and two support groups, led by a retired minister, are meeting weekly.

Bass said Jerusalem Fund contributions are welcomed from Southern Baptists nationwide. Donations are being received almost daily from interested individuals and churches. Contributions may be sent to “The Jerusalem Fund,” 3031 W. Northern Ave., Suite 131, Phoenix, AZ 85051.

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  • Elizabeth Young