A priest's typical mission is saving souls, but the Rev. John Lasseigne has a more down-to-earth goal — saving homes.
LOS ANGELES — A priest's typical mission is saving souls, but the Rev. John Lasseigne has a more down-to-earth goal — saving homes.
That's like trying to work a miracle in Lasseigne's Roman Catholic parish of Pacoima, a blue-collar corner of the San Fernando Valley where bank sale signs sprout faster than weeds. One in nine homes is in default, making it one of the nation's hardest hit towns in the foreclosure crisis.
"We're talking thousands of foreclosures," said the 44-year-old priest at Mary Immaculate Church. "I was stunned."
Lasseigne has gone from praying for parishioners to lobbying politicians and negotiating with lenders on their behalf. His daily discourse is as likely to include talk of balloon payments and negative amortization as Hail Marys and The Lord's Prayer. Meetings with banks rather than bishops fill his agenda.
Churches of many faiths have responded to the recession by offering credit counseling and job training alongside Sunday school and soup kitchens, and people of the cloth have a long tradition of social activism on many issues.
Still, delving into the fine print of mortgage finance may seem highly unusual for someone who will probably never have to worry about buying his own house. Lasseigne, however, is well qualified. Before entering the seminary, he graduated from law school and knew how to read contracts.
That knowledge, a passion for social justice and a priest's role — in a parish so devout that two Masses are said daily and nine on Sunday, all but one in Spanish — have made him the foreclosure-fighting father.
"Works of justice are an integral part of the priesthood," the lanky priest said. "We have to take stands in aiding the needy and denouncing the injustices of society. The financial entrapment that was part of this was unbelievable."
Lasseigne arrived a year ago in Pacoima, a gritty Los Angeles community where 90 percent of the 60,000 residents are Latino. Several families squeeze into shoebox bungalows, gangs roam the streets, and roosters crow in backyards.
Lasseigne learned Spanish in San Antonio, Texas, where he joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who work worldwide with the poor. He had debating joining the priesthood through college and law school.
He had heard only vaguely about the foreclosure crisis when a parish family asked him to pray for them because they were losing their home. Soon, the story was repeating itself: The dream of homeownership had led his flock, mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants with little money savvy and limited English skills, into murky subprime loans and overpriced real estate.
"These are hard working people from humble backgrounds. They weren't used to dealing with officials. There was a language problem," said Lasseigne, one of three priests at the 5,000-family church. "They had a very poor understanding of what they were getting into."
Hundreds of homeowners signed up for help after Lasseigne announced from the pulpit that he had united with nonprofit groups and three other area churches to hold financial workshops. One session packed 1,500 people into the San Fernando High School auditorium.
Lasseigne began working with some 100 families, forming a database with details of their cases, attending homeowners' meetings and offering counsel. He listened to their dilemmas and sought to allay their fears when they thought they had lost everything.
"I never heard of a priest doing so much to help people," said Juana Rodriguez, a single mother of four who almost lost her home. "He's always out there in front of us, leading us. I don't get frightened anymore."
At the urging of a broker acquaintance, Rodriguez borrowed the downpayment and principal with adjustable interest for a $272,000 three-bedroom townhouse. Her initial excitement turned to dread when the interest shot up to 10.56 percent and the monthly payment rose from $1,300 to $1,990. Then she lost her job.
With help from the church workshops, she renegotiated her mortgage to a 30-year loan fixed at 5 percent — and landed a new job as a home health-care aide. Now she advises other homeowners.
For every rescued homeowner, however, numerous others were spiraling into distress. The pain of seeing families lose everything they had worked for spurred Lasseigne to find a solution.
Teaming up with One LA-Industrial Areas Foundation and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Lasseigne has lobbied congressmen, councilmen and corporate executives for laws, funds and loan reductions.
He makes sure he wears his clerical collar to meetings. "I don't mean to strike divine guilt in their hearts, but it adds moral weight to the campaign," he said. "I would like to think that they see standing behind me the thousands of homeowners at risk."
Still, it's an uphill battle to get banks to reduce homeowner's loans, Lasseigne's main goal. Under a plan developed by One LA, homeowners would receive a loan of $25,000 to $75,000 to be paid to the bank, which would reduce the loan principal in line with the home's current worth, and slash interest to about 5 percent.
It's designed to help people like stone worker Angel de la Torre, who owes far more on his three-bedroom house than it's worth and is stuck paying 10 percent interest.
"If I understood, I would never have signed," said the father of four. "My dream turned into a nightmare."
He and One LA organizer Tom Holler were successful in lobbying City Hall to ante up $1 million in community redevelopment funds, but banks have been reluctant to reduce the principal.
Lasseigne remains faithful that banks will cede. He and Holler have also lobbied U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., for legislation outlawing predatory lending, and are starting to work in another ravaged area, South Los Angeles.
Homeowners are grateful that even if they can't get immediate relief, someone is looking out for them.
Jose Hernandez is working with Lasseigne to get his parents out of a financial quagmire. Their purchase of a $488,000 townhouse has resulted in negative amortization — the loan balance is increasing because the monthly interest exceeds the principal payment.
Now, with the priest's help, Hernandez is trying to get the loan modified. "He's willing to help and a lot of people aren't," Hernandez said.