For Rosie Kendall, seeing the church getting involved in helping people out of debt is not just a job, it’s a passion.

“The feeling of isolation that people when they’re in debt can be very overwhelming…” she says. “I’m passionate about seeing the church stand alongside people at very difficult moments in their life…and to see people given the ability to get out of that financial mess or situation that they’re in.”

CAP course

Christians Against Poverty offer a free counselling service for people struggling with debt. PICTURE: Christians Against Poverty.

Kendall is the CEO of the Australian arm of Christians Against Poverty, an organisation which aims to form partnerships with churches and, through that relationship, help people who are struggling under the weight of debt.

Founded by John Kirkby in the town of Bradford in the UK in 1996, CAP first arrived in Australia in 2000 and has since also expanded to New Zealand, Canada and the US.

CAP Rosie Kendall

 

“I’m passionate about seeing the church stand alongside people at very difficult moments in their life…and to see people given the ability to get out of that financial mess or situation that they’re in.”

- Rosie Kendall, CEO of the Australian arm of Christians Against Poverty

The organisation partners with churches in two main ways: firstly to provide training to church members so they can run a CAP Money course in their community, and, secondly, by helping to establish CAP Debt Centres at churches.

CAP Money courses are based around DVDs and accompanying workbooks and are usually held for a couple of hours a week over two to three weeks. They can be held anywhere the church feels is their mission field – it could be held in the church itself or at a school or even in prisons for people who are about to leave on parole. The idea is to help people put together a budget and then to help them to make informed decisions about their future spending and savings.

“It’s the first building block in people’s financial wellbeing,” says Kendall, who started with CAP UK in 2007 and came out to Australia with her husband Dave in 2013. “It’s how do I manage my money on a day-to-day [basis]? How do I start beginning to save? How do I start to have healthy conversations around what we do with our money in our household?….Often – and it’s very simple - [it's] totally revolutionary to people who don’t talk about their finances.”

More than 300 churches, from various denominations, are currently running the courses on an ongoing basis in Australia while more than 17,000 people have taken part in a CAP Money course to date.

The CAP Debt Centres, which are usually a second step for a church which had already been running the courses, provide assistance to people who are in a financial crisis.

“It’s a step beyond looking at someone’s financial wellbeing – it’s actually helping people,” says Kendall. “Our service is designed for people who are the most vulnerable so they’re normally marginalised, socially isolated, potentially they’ve got a mental health issue going on, they’re on low income, [and] they might be in some sort of crisis - whether that be a diagnosis of illness, whether that be a death in the family - and the debt situation which was once manageable had become unmanageable because of those vulnerabilities.”

Peter Jensen

Peter Jensen. PICTURE: Courtesy Brassall Debt Centre.

OVERCOMING DEBT - WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS

It had taken Queensland bus driver Peter Jensen a while but, through using various credit cards to buy what he wanted when he wanted without any thought of a budget, he eventually racked up so much debt that he began to despair of ever being able to pay it off. 

“I just wasn’t getting anywhere with the debt…” said the 55-year-old. “Bankrupcy was right on the back door.”

Jensen, a father of two adult boys who lives in Ipswich, came across Christians Against Poverty through his sister’s church about four or five years ago. Following his initial contact, he soon found himself at a meeting learning about budgeting and how to pay off his debt.

“It took over three years – I had $70,000 on five credit cards,” he says. 

Angela Coto, who works one day a week at a CAP Debt Centre at Catalyst Church in the Ispwich suburb of Brassall (she works as the church's executive officer for the remainder of the week), was the person whom Jensen first connected with when he approached CAP.

 "He had a real addiction to his credit cards and when we started to speak about his credit cards he got quite emotional..." she says, adding that his life now is very different. "He's doing really good....he has hope and he has plans for the future. I love that he's teaching his boys how to budget."

CAP Angela Coto

Angela Coto (left) at a meeting with clients. PICTURE: Courtesy of the Catalyst Debt Centre.

Coto came to work with CAP about six years ago after returning from a six year stint with her family in China where they served as missionaries. While she's always "been good with money", Coto - who's seen about 140 people since taking on the job including about 40 people who have gone debt free - says she had little expertise in financial matters before taking on the job.

"The beauty of it is, CAP has their own financial advisors who are accredited - they put the budgets together, they give all the financial   advice," she says. "We're basically...the hands and feet and love, face-to-face, so that we can reach more people."

Coto, who keeps in regular contact with her clients, says the most exciting part of the job is seeing people freed from debt.

"The reason why I'm still going, I think, is that we can bring hope into what looks like a hopeless situation."

Jensen, meanwhile, can’t speak highly enough about CAP.

“I still get phone calls from my case worker every three or four months to see how I am even though they have done their job. They still care enough to see if I’m OK.”

People facing a financial crisis are encouraged to call via a help line and a representative from their local church’s debt centre will then be sent out to gather information for an assessment of the person’s situation. 

That information is then fed back to CAP’s headquarters in New South Wales where experts are tasked with coming up with a plan to help the person out of debt, whether it’s a repayment plan or insolvency. The client is then given ongoing support through a professional caseworker based at head office as well as maintaining contact with the church representative on a face-to-face basis.

“It’s a free service and we pride ourselves with working with people over the long haul,” says Kendall. “So we don’t just provide a solution and then say ‘Off you go’ – we actually set up a system for them to be able to get out of debt successfully. So, of the clients that we see every year, we see a really good percentange of them become debt free.” 

CAP helped around 750 clients last year – there are currently 37 debt centres based around the country - and saw some 260 people go debt free (clients typically take three to four years to achieve that).

Kendall says one of the advantages of involving people from a local church is that it provides a point of connection between the congregation and the community. 

“It gives [churches] an ability to meet people who wouldn’t normally be coming to church; it gives them an ability to be in the community and loving people in a practical way…It actually gives them a mission field in their base.”

The need for help with managing finances in Australia is enormous – Kendall says CAP had to turn away some 166 people this year because CAP didn't yet have a debt centre in their area.

“We need about 250 [debt centres] to get national coverage…” she notes, adding that CAP hopes to see a debt centre in every town and city in Australia. “So that anyway who needs help, they would be able to go to their local church for help with their debt situation.”

Areas where there is a particular shortage of debt centres include Sydney.

Kendall says that the problem of debt is a growing one in Australia and dismisses the idea that debt crises are simply caused by overspending on luxury items.

“We never walk into someone’s home and think ‘Oh well, we know where all that money’s gone and there’s no surprise you’re in a mess’,” she says. “There’s always a circumstance that has created it…”

She relates the story of Natalie, a mother-of-five who went through a relationship break-up involving domestic violence and subsequently started having mental health problems. Her mother, who was her main support, died of cancer and Natalie found herself isolated, unable to work and, trying to care for her children. 

“Her household bills essentially just completely went out of control,” says Kendall. “She wasn’t up-to-date with her rent, she wasn’t up-to-date with her gas and electric – she had taken out some credit to pay for those things and everything just snowballed into a very bad situation…”

Following help from CAP and their local church partner, they were able to put together a plan to help Natalie out of debt and, after just three years, she was debt free and is now loving being part of the church community that helped her.

“That’s a typical story for us," says Kendall.

www.capaust.org