Every Sunday, every sermon, Rev. James Meeks is on a mission. Meeks is the pastor of Salem Baptist, the largest African-American church in Chicago. He wants to transform his church into a school of learning.
"How many of you are in debt?" Meeks asks his congregation. It's the same question he asked three years ago. He says the entire congregation raised their hands then. From that day on, Meeks' mission was to preach and teach finance.
Starting with getting out of debt, Meeks brought in well over a hundred financial experts who volunteered their time teaching classes and seminars. Paying off the bills caught on. Now hundreds of Salem congregates are on their way to financial security.
"Three years ago, I was $20,000 in debt," said Kim Berleigh, who says she's now only about $4,000 in debt.
Single mother and full-time college student Evelyn Sterling says her first step was canceling her credit cards. "
You have to make sure you balance out your budget, don't try to spend more than you can handle," said Sterling.
At Salem, preaching finance doesn't stop with debt. Investing is the next step. Rev. Meeks hired 34-year-old Bonita Parker to head up a new department in the church called financial ministries. Parker comes Salem after 14 years at the Northern Trust Bank, where she retired as a vice president.
"I realized once I spent time in corporate America that a lot of people knew a whole lot more about stocks, bonds and managing money than I did," said Parker.
Parker discovered, unlike several of her white counterparts, budgets and investing were not topics her family talked about at the dinner table. Rev. Meeks says while African Americans have gained political power, there is still a long way to go when it comes to economic power.
"It's been an uphill struggle for African Americans because to start out with no wealth in a country that is built on capitalism can be an awfully tough thing," said Meeks.
African Americans make up 12.7 percent of the total population in America. Yet, they only account for 2 percent of this country's wealth. Rev. Meeks is convinced that number will increase as long as the next generation learns about the value of the dollar and the science of capital.
Hundreds of kids participate in Salem's after-school and Sunday school classes devoted entirely to finance. While kids learn about the dangers of credit cards, the benefits of investing in real estate and the stock market, Meeks and others hope they will also walk away with a new understanding about the value of money.
"The more we learn about money management, the more our values will change," said one student.
"The name brand shoes don't mean so much to me as 10 years ago when I was frivolous with my spending."
Evelyn Sterling is already passing on those values to her two young kids.
"I will have to show them they have to work for it," said Sterling, "work to save up their money over time."