When Hawaii landed more than $2.4 billion of federal money from the U.S. Small Business Administration in April, it was hailed as a boon for local businesses and the local economy. But based on data released last week by the U.S. Treasury, there was another big winner: religious organizations.

Such organizations, mainly churches and affiliated schools, got between $22 million and $43.5 million in forgivable loans under the federal paycheck protection program, or PPP. The money doesn’t have to be paid back if at least 75% is used to pay workers, so the loans are more like grants.

Like secular businesses, religious institutions were also shut down during the early days of the pandemic as government orders required people to stay home with few exceptions. The loan program offered money to keep people on payrolls even if there was no work to do until the economy picked up again.

Central Union Church.
Central Union Church was one of 22 Hawaii religious organizations that got forgivable, federal loans 0f between $350,000 and $1 million. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Religious organizations previously have not been allowed to receive SBA loans; however, the federal CARES Act, which set up the PPP loan program allowed such loans. The SBA also has said federal regulations excluding religious organizations from loan programs are impermissible under the Constitution.

Although details of SBA loans in the past have been treated as public information, the U.S. Treasury initially sought to withhold all details about COVID-19 stimulus PPP loans, which totaled about $510 billion paid out to 4.5 million borrowers across the U.S. as of May 30.

But after facing potential lawsuits from media organizations and other government watchdogs, the department released names of entities that got the biggest loans and general ranges of what they received. Borrowers that got less than $150,000 were not identified at all; however, the department did report loan amounts per industry.

According to the new data, at least 353 religious organizations in Hawaii received PPP loans worth between $22.9 million and $43.5 million in total. Of those, 300 were for less than $150,000.

But 22 religious institutions received significant loans, in amounts ranging from $350,000 to $1 million, or between $7 million and $22 million in total, the department reported. These included churches like New Hope, First Presbyterian Church, Kaimuki Church and School and Word of Life, as well as Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

Church Employees Kept Working While Revenues Dropped

Central Union Church also received a loan in the $350,000 to $1 million range, the department reported. All of that has gone to pay a staff of 50 to 75 workers, said Rev. Brandon Duran, acting senior minister for the church.

Employees include ministers, administrative staff and preschool teachers, all of whom have remained working, even when Honolulu’s shelter-in-place order completely shut down the church’s 8.3-acre campus with 13 buildings on Beretania Street.

Preschool teachers continued classes by Zoom, Duran said. And ministers continued to work with the congregation.

When people were stuck at home it was important for the church to check up regularly on the kupuna, especially ones identified as “super seniors,” those 75 or older who were living alone or with special needs, Duran said. All of that took work and planning.

“When you’re not able to get together as a community it takes a lot more intentionality to reach out to people and see how they’re doing,” he said.

Meanwhile, typical revenues had plummeted. Normally in the spring, Central Union holds two major graduation ceremonies: for Punahou School and Mid-Pacific Institute. Both were cancelled because of COVID-19. Likewise, the typical parade of spring weddings didn’t happen.

Duran couldn’t say exactly how much revenue the church lost, but he was able to quantify numbers of people at the church before and after the virus struck. Typically, pre-COVID-19, Central Union would host 10,000 people a month on the campus. Afterward, that dropped to none.

“While the campus is closed, nothing is happening on campus,” he said.

The same dynamic holds true for smaller institutions. Soto Mission of Hawaii, a Buddhist temple in Nuuanu, is one of 31 religious organizations in Hawaii that got loans in the $150,000 to $350,000 range. Bishop Shugen Tomagata said that with people not coming to the temple, that means fewer donations for memorial services and ceremonies like baby blessings. Still, the temple has a staff of about 26 to pay.

“People are discouraged to interact with other people,” he said. “Therefore, they do not desire to come to the temple.”

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