The gospel of credit unions
Harlene Johnson’s life with the church brought her to credit unions.
Harlene Johnson has spent much of her life in service to others. Is it any wonder she found her path to credit unions through the church?
Johnson enjoyed a successful banking career in Louisiana when marriage took her to Houston, where she opted to be a stay-at-home mom who dedicated her free time to volunteerism and the church.
Soon enough, New Light Christian Center Church in Houston made plans to charter a credit union. And church leaders quickly determined that Johnson was well-qualified to lead that initiative.
Johnson’s banking acumen—and determination—led Light Commerce Credit Union through the chartering process. But from the beginning, she was struck by credit unions’ openness.
“The league aligned me with credit unions in the area that mentored me,” Johnson says. “I also connected with other faith-based credit unions, who shared their wisdom and their experiences. Even to this day I can call any of those credit unions and they’ll provide me with the support I need.”
Like many urban credit unions, one of Light Commerce’s priorities is providing an alternative to payday lenders. The $2.7 million asset credit union attacks the problem at the source.
“One of the first things we decided was that when predatory lenders called us to verify member deposits, it was important for us not to do so without first speaking with the member one-on-one,” Johnson says.
During these phone conversations, Light Commerce representatives urge the members to contact the credit union for a one-on-one consultation before taking out a loan.
The credit union representative outlines the repercussions of a payday loan, and more often than not fills that void with a loan from the credit union with more manageable terms.
Johnson also makes financial education a priority. “We take advantage of every opportunity we can—church events and credit union workshops—to speak to our members about finances,” Johnson says. “I do a lot of one-on-one, free financial counseling. I am a CUNA-certified financial counselor, so I work with the members on a one-on-one basis to develop strategies to improve their credit and to create a financial budget.”
Light Commerce recently obtained designation as an Emerging Community Development Financial Institution by the U.S. Treasury Department. With that designation, the credit union received a $124,000 grant, which to fund operations and develop a micro enterprise program along with a payday lending program based upon member relationships rather than credit scores.
Johnson takes great pride in the fact that, although small, Light Commerce offers a robust menu of products and services, including mobile banking, online banking, and debit cards. She offers no secret to success other than sponsor support and efficient operations have allowed the credit union to grow.
“Because we are small, I am always monitoring expenses,” she says. “As contracts come up for renewal, I am always looking for a better way of doing something that will provide us more for less.”
Johnson has made Light Commerce a part of the Houston community—and a true reflection of her passion for serving others.
“I love to share the knowledge and the blessings I have with others,” she says. “Being a part of a wonderful church that helps people not just spiritually but in all areas of their lives has given me the freedom to pursue that passion and make a difference in the community.”