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A credit union for Pagans? Believe it or not, it could happen

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As the owner of Blackberry Botanicals, Beth Laferriere has struggled to secure a loan from three different banks to support the herbal supplement business.

Though each bank had a reason for rejecting her request, Laferriere is more suspicious than that. She believes her requests for credit were possibly turned down due to her religion – Laferriere is a practicing Pagan.

"Although discrimination is illegal, it still happens,” Laferriere said.

Laferriere is not alone in her frustration. There is currently a push to organize a credit union to explicitly serve Pagans. The desire to start the institution is driven by the perception that the group is marginalized and underserved by mainstream financial institutions.

"I'm coming from it as a business owner; there’s been issues with service providers in banking and banking situations because of the unconventionality of a faith-based business model for our particular faith [which] becomes an issue with interacting with professional banking and accounting,” said Laferriere, who is a volunteer on the steering committee organizing the institution. “And that was where I threw my support in because this wasn’t the first time the idea has been floated and I wanted to make sure that this time, it would be a success."

Not a monolithic group

Modern Paganism can be difficult to define but the religion largely focuses on the Earth rather than romanticizing the afterlife, said Michael York, a professor emeritus in cultural astronomy at Bath Spa University.

In general, it centers around polytheism, where most believers worship multiple deities, but some practitioners identify as duo-theists, meaning they believe in a god and a goddess; pantheists, which includes believing that all forces are god; and atheists.

“Modern Paganism isn’t a single religion. It’s a family of different religions that often coalesce around what they recognize as their common identity,” said Ethan Doyle White, a recent graduate of University College London, who has researched modern Paganism for the past decade. “Thus, it’s misleading to talk about Paganism in the same way one would talk about Christianity or Buddhism.”

The exact number of practicing Pagans living in the U.S. is hard to track since the Census Bureau doesn’t comprehensively ask about religion. There were roughly 342,000 adults who identified as Wiccan, 340,000 who identified as Pagan and 1.6 million who identified as atheist in 2008, according to the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the U.S. from the Census Bureau, which is based on non-governmental surveys.

Organizers of the proposed credit union are hopeful that the member-owned structure will be appealing to Pagans, who generally value experience, education and ideas over material possessions.

“That being the case, it might be fair to say that in general, modern Pagans aren’t that interested in wealth accumulation — they tend not to see money as the be-all and end-all,” White said, adding that Pagans “don’t tend to be greedy.”

Organizing efforts

The push to create a Pagan credit union started after Oberon Zell, a well-known member of the Pagan community, posted about the idea in an online forum. That drew interest from Jason Fletcher, who is a Pagan and also a banker.

In October 2018, Fletcher created a Facebook group called the Proposed Pagan Credit Union Project, which has since amassed over 600 members. He is now on the volunteer steering committee of the proposed institution.

A month after the Facebook group was created, roughly 20 Pagan leaders convened at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Toronto to discuss the needs of the larger Pagan community. That meeting touched upon the desire for stronger financial literacy for the community and helped catalyze the current credit union project.

The group discussed the financial needs of Pagans and the shortcomings and alleged discrimination that some experienced with banking.

“I think Pagans could be very skeptical of the banks and see them as monopolistic and see them as money-making enterprises that are focused more on profit than serving the individual,” York said. “And that’s where you get the kind of divide there.”

The steering committee surveyed those who were interested in joining the proposed institution. Roughly 38% said they would move all of their funds to the credit union while almost 35% said they would move enough money for online banking purposes, according to the survey of about 240 respondents.

Laferriere is interested in the proposed credit union because she believes she has experienced discrimination when seeking a loan for her small business.

Laferriere said the first bank turned down her request for funding because her business was not year-round. The second bank turned her away because she wasn’t seeking a large enough amount while the third bank said there wasn’t enough of a market for natural products in West Virginia, Laferriere said.

Structure of the proposed institution

The credit union’s organizers are seeking a federal charter in Washington State and hope to be chartered by the end of the year with the proposed name Pagan Federal Credit Union. They intend for the institution to be exclusively online since consumers are visiting branches less frequently and banks are doing away with locations and traditional tellers.

Perspective members also seem fine with online banking. Almost 75% of those the steering committee surveyed said they were comfortable with banking primarily online.

“We intend to do it all online,” said Lawrence Lerner, a steering committee volunteer. “[O]nline and mobile makes much more sense in a modern banking environment.”

Currently the steering committee is still in the first phase of establishing interest in the proposed credit union and confirming a name. Once that groundwork is laid, the group will focus on working with regulators and setting up internal systems.

Organizers have run into their fair share of obstacles, including securing funding. Starting a credit union cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, according to chartering documents from the National Credit Union Administration.

The group has contemplated setting up a crowdfunding campaign to help once the business model is set.

“I think all three of us have invested a good portion of pocket change in getting flyers out, going to events, talking to folks [and] reaching out to people that we know,” she said of the steering committee. “A lot of it’s been word of mouth.”

Once the credit union is operational, the steering committee hopes to reach 5,000 to 7,000 members in its first two years and then increase that figure to 10,000 members by 2025. It will take in deposits and offer bill pay services to start and then eventually expand into other products and services.

“A credit union is something that can be run in a way that will address ethical concerns that Pagans have with the banking community,” Fletcher said.

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