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Central California activists plead for foreclosure aid

WASHINGTON -- Prayers and politics combined Tuesday as Fresno minister Bill Knezovich joined some 170 activists pleading for help with the foreclosure crisis that's stricken the San Joaquin Valley.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was absent and heaven's intentions opaque as the faith-based activists bundled up in front of the Treasury Department. But through a half-hour prayer service, the faithful participants hoped they got their message across on an otherwise cold morning.

"We're praying for a just resolution, that money be used for Main Street and not just the banks," Knezovich said.

The minister at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Knezovich is part of what's called the PICO National Network. This includes churches banded together under different regional names, including Fresno's Faith in Community and Modesto's Congregations Building Community.

This week, as lawmakers and the lame-duck Bush administration conclude their final days together, the activists are gathering to shape the next agenda. It's a regularly scheduled grassroots lobbying event, dominated now by the 1.3 million foreclosure filings on U.S. homes in the first six months of the year.

The two-and-a-half day program blends idealism, practicality and a bit of theatrical staging. The morning prayer service at the Treasury Department missed Paulson, who was testifying on Capitol Hill about how he's managing a $700 billion economic bailout package. Later, the activists cannily met with John Podesta, who is co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.

Prior to the prayer services, activists convening in a United Methodist building near the Supreme Court warmed up by chanting "Wake Up!" Later, they carried to congressional offices detailed policy statements calling for new limits on monthly mortgage payments and new block grants to communities.

"We're really here to speak for people who can't speak for themselves, for people tired of vacant homes, tired of living on dark streets," said Dianne Hernandez, a Modesto resident and chair of the board of directors of Congregations Building Together. "We live on those streets, we live in those neighborhoods, we know their pain."

Stockton had the highest foreclosure rate of any metropolitan region nationwide between April 1 and June 30, according to RealtyTrac, while Fresno was ranked in ninth place. Modesto and Merced have likewise been at the top of other foreclosure rankings.

Those are numbers. Knecovich and Hernandez brought stories.

Hernandez, 62, spoke of Faustina Avenue. This is a slice of unincorporated county land within Modesto's city limits where she said half of the street's 35 houses have been foreclosed upon. Knezovich, a soft-spoken 51-year-old, spoke of a member of his congregation who is working three jobs. Her husband works a fourth, and together they are trying to raise three kids while they stave off foreclosure.

"We're here to put a face on the abstract," said Knezovich.

Hernandez said that "we want to see action, immediate action," but Congress may not be prepared for speed. A previously approved housing bill includes $3.9 billion in grants to help communities deal with foreclosed properties; including, potentially, buying them, fixing them up and selling them. California is currently slated to receive $529 million of the total, though state lawmakers have been pressing for more.

"There is no playbook," Paulson told the House Financial Services Committee, almost simultaneously with the start of the pray-in, "for responding to turmoil we have never faced."