Bridgeport — Pam Stewart of Bridgeport’s Mount Aery Baptist Church took the stage, facing a crowd of about 1,500.
“I’m going to talk to you about predatory lending,” she said, Wednesday night, leaning into the microphone. “I contacted my bank in October — just to get information about loan re-modification. By March, they had hiked my mortgage to over $2,500 a month from just $782.55.”
Stewart offered that testimony to the Connecticut residents gathered, stomping and cheering, as the state’s largest multi-faith advocacy group was born: Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT).
“There’s something I need for you to remember,” Stewart continued. “All predatory behavior is the same. It lives and feeds off of others. It operates best in the dark. And you can and will be next, if you don’t CONECT.”
CONECT is a faith-based advocacy group four years in the making. Since 2007, it has established 501(c)3 (nonprofit) status and attracted a diverse membership of faith leaders and congregations across religious lines. Current membership includes churches, mosques and synagogues from Fairfield and New Haven counties. What started as a small community organizing effort among a few rabbis and pastors now boasts more than 13,000 members who have paid more than $100,000 in dues and a policy platform that addresses issues from predatory lending to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
The early leadership of the organization, which held its founding assembly Wednesday, helped Stewart work with Bank of America to keep her house out of foreclosure.
“We’re looking for a new Connecticut with job training that leads to well paying and meaningful jobs,” said CONECT co-chairman, the Rev. Anthony Bennett of Mount Aery Baptist, taking the microphone.
“A new Connecticut where banks do right to those who are their customers, with health care that we can afford.
“A new Connecticut with safe drivers with driver’s licenses and car insurance so that we will all be protected,” he said.
Addressing the roaring crowd in the standing-room-only sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bridgeport, Bennett said CONECT would engage in public negotiations with government officials on this platform of issues.
First up was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who sat on stage with government officials that included Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, state Sen. John McKinney R-Fairfield, and State Insurance Commissioner Tom Leonardi. Malloy and other lawmakers heard testimony from CONECT delegates on how each of the four issues had affected them personally.
As part of the group’s housing crisis initiative, Bennett called on Malloy to ask Connecticut’s attorney general, George Jepsen, to meet with CONECT leaders and congregants before signing a multi-state foreclosure settlement with the country’s largest banks.
“Our attorney general is about to make a deal with the banks without researching and without talking to us, the borrowers. Ms. Stewart went to the bank with CONECT, and got her money back,” he said. “Our attorney general needs to do that for the hundreds if not thousands of homeowners who are having the same kinds of difficulties,” he said.
“So our question tonight for the Governor is will you ask Attorney General Jepsen to meet with a delegation of CONECT leaders including borrowers before he signs a deal?”
Taking the stage, Malloy agreed. But the attorney general, he said, believes in earnest that Connecticut would fare better under that agreement than if it brought individual or organized law suits against the big banks. The proposed settlement could cost the banks up to $25 billion.
“And he doesn’t work for me, you all elected him. He works for you,” Malloy said. “But yes, I can ask him to meet with you.” That drew applause from the crowd.
Malloy also agreed to meet with CONECT on job training, health care rate increases and making driver’s licenses and car insurance available to immigrants, illegal or not. And the governor praised the group’s efforts.
“It is after all the root of our democracy that people come together and organize themselves, not just in political parties but along interest lines,” he said. “And that is what you’ve done. And you are prepared to debate and discuss important issues and to advocate on behalf of the communities that you represent.”
Over time the group developed a platform of issues — based, said CONECT Co-Chairman, the Rev. Jim Manship of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Parish in New Haven, on meetings with small groups in homes and houses of worship. “We met with individuals and talked to them face to face about what issues were really affecting them.”
It’s important for religious organizations to reach out in charity to help those in need, he said, but those needs are growing.
“That’s because the systems that are in place are not serving life.”
As people of faith, Muslims, Jews and Christians can come together to work to transform these systems, he said.
“That’s tremendous inertia if you think about it. How can one or two small congregations do that? But when we’re able to amass ourselves into a collaborative organization with over $100,000 in dues in this tough economy, we can really do something.”
CONECT joins sister organizations in Virginia, New York, Washington and Illinois. In Massachusetts, a similar organization’s efforts helped create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and secured more than $2 million worth of textbooks for Boston public schools.
“It’s clear from tonight that we are in a relationship now with our elected officials,” Manship said after the event. “We may disagree on some things, but we’re committed to working together.”