For years, Christians Against Poverty has been helping people trapped in debt break free and take back control of both their finances and their lives.
It does this by providing debt counselling services through churches at the heart of their communities, well placed to offer support to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn when the debt collectors come calling.
In addition to this, the charity, founded by John Kirkby in Yorkshire in 1996, runs money management courses to teach simple but effective budgeting skills and Fresh Start courses to help people overcoming addictions to get back into work.
Now, after more than 20 years, CAP is expanding beyond the UK to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US to help even more people in debt.
Overseeing the pioneering of CAP America is Simon Wilce, the former director of operations at CAP UK, and Nicola Robinson, CAP UK's previous head of church engagement, who will act as the vice president of fundraising and marketing.
Christian Today spoke to Simon to find out how the charity is getting off the ground there and what kind of issues it will be helping to address.
CT: CAP has been going for a long time in the UK and you are now expanding into the US. Did American churches approach you to set up something similar there or did you see a need that you felt you could answer?
Simon: We've been approached by many churches and individuals in the US over the years but felt the time was right in 2019 for the UK to be able to launch and support a new CAP country.
With 30% of Americans saying they've more debt than they can manage (according to the Financial Health Network formerly CFSI UK Financial Health Pulse 2018 Baseline survey) we know debt is a huge problem here and churches are struggling to address the problem, often relying on stewardship and budgeting courses where professional credit counseling is actually needed. We want to equip churches with our unique model to bring this much needed solution to Americans trapped in a prison of debt.
CT: In the UK, you have worked very successfully through local churches. Will the approach be the same in the US or have you had to adapt the British model to fit a completely different country?
Simon: Local church remains a core value everywhere we go, as we say "no church, no CAP"! We always seek to learn the cultural context that is unique to the area we land in. We will need to work hard to build trust and relationships with all churches, including the African American and Hispanic majority churches. The same goes for adapting our services enough to work here, but we will need to adapt some things to fit the local regulations, laws and culture.
CT: You have launched the CAP America head office in Chicago. What needs do you see in the city?
Simon: After a long search and lots of prayer we picked Chicago as the right place to pioneer with a view to eventual nationwide expansion. It's a good central location and also to connect with our Canadian offices in Toronto and still be in a good time zone to work with the UK when needed. It has around 9.5 million people in the metro area which means a lot of churches in one area, a lot of potential supporters in one area and lots of people to help!
It's an amazing place full of wonderful people and at the same time it has many needs. Most well known would be it's high homicide rate, gang problems and a long history of racial division and wounds. There are many needs and we simply seek to play one small part in what God is already doing through his amazing church here and many other wonderful ministries.
CT: In the UK, a lot of people in debt have experienced problems with Universal Credit, but what are some of the common drivers of debt for Americans? Are there any challenges that are specific to the US?
Simon: We find that wherever we go, unmanageable debt can be caused by a common life change such as an illness, job loss or a family breakdown. Having said that, there will definitely be different aspects to debt over here. The social safety net is nothing like it is in the UK and student loan debt is huge here with 1.6 trillion owed, a lot of which isn't income contingent repayments, and medical debt is still an issue even with the expanded coverage.
CT: When an individual comes to CAP for help, presumably they are under not only huge financial strain but emotional and spiritual too. Take us through how you work with them to get them back on their feet.
Simon: We are aiming to open our first centers in January 2020 and to do the same life transforming work we do in the UK and around the world.
Church-based staff meet with the client through in-home visits and give wider holistic support. Through these visits, the clients' circumstances are gathered and sent to trained credit counsellors at our head office who will negotiate with creditors on the clients behalf and offer the client a tailored plan to eliminate their debt.
Through all of this we sensitively offer to pray with the client, share the gospel where appropriate and invite them to get involved with church community if they would like. It's this combination of care that sees so many people lifted out of the burden of debt and given a hope for the future.
CT: You are from England. How has the move to the US been for you on a personal level? Will you be staying there long-term?
Simon: I'm enjoying the experience and the deep dish pizza especially! It's always hard to move to a new place and to leave behind deep relationships but Americans are very welcoming. The long-term future depends a lot on the visa situation but that's just another area to trust God with!
CT: Do you have plans to open more CAP centres across the US? What's the long-term plan?
Simon: Our vision is to launch our services in Illinois to establish our work in America before launching nationwide in 2023. Our overall vision is that every American in every major town and city would eventually have access to a church offering CAP's life transforming work.
CT: What can the church be praying for as you pioneer CAP America?
Simon: Please pray that churches would partner with us, faithful Christians would engage with us and support us and that we would quickly set up our service to begin setting people free from the misery of debt. If anyone has any contacts in Illinois please direct them to capamerica.org/contact-us or if they would like to donate to help the work they can also do so there.