Hebrew Free Loan inspires African American group

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Five years ago, when Milton Lathan decided to establish African Diaspora Free Loan Association, he called Cantor Julius Blackman.

At the time, Blackman was heading Hebrew Free Loan Association, a 97-year-old San Francisco institution that lends money interest-free.

What Lathan got was some free advice.

"We met with Blackman in February of 1990," said Lathan, an attorney, from his office in Oakland. "By August of 1990, we were able to submit our information bylaws to the Franchise Tax Board," among the first steps in becoming a non-profit lender.

One year later, Lathan's dream was incorporated as a non-profit organization.

It took another year to get tax-exempt status from the federal government and two more years to organize a board of directors.

Finally last November, African Diaspora Free Loan Association hung out its shingle.

In a letter to HFLA, Lathan thanked Blackman and current executive director Irwin Weiner for "spreading the spirit of gemilut chasadim — deeds of loving kindness," and added, "we shall continue to spread the spirit."

Like those involved in HFLA, Lathan's commitment to ADFLA's success stems from his desire to be a good neighbor.

"A part of the community helps another part of the community, which helps build and tie the community together," he said. "This is a very good way of helping people help themselves."

Lathan's challenge now is to expand ADFLA's membership of 20 in order to fill its coffers with enough money to lend.

Membership dues of $25 to $500 provide a basic loan fund, but Lathan said it's not enough.

Last fall, on the day before Thanksgiving, he sent out 1,000 letters soliciting members. "By Monday after Thanksgiving, people were calling, wanting loans," he said. "I found that incredible."

He talked to some of the applicants. "One lady was involved in starting up a business. She needed a few thousand dollars. I told her the organization was meant for exactly what you want, to help people do a variety of things. Unfortunately we don't have the funds to help you at this time. She said, `I'm sorry. Perhaps in an effort to help you I can ask people in our church to become members.'"

Lathan also is applying for grants from such organizations as the Bay Area Black United Fund and the city of Oakland.

Meanwhile, Lathan, who serves as president, and other members of the board of directors and advisory board are volunteering their time, working for free. Members are predominately community business people.

The organization, like HFLA, is based not on race, but on religion, said Lathan. Churches included under ADFLA's umbrella are African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ and several Baptist denominations.

"The religions were started by Africans in the diaspora," he noted.

Also following the tradition of HFLA, loan applicants need not belong to the specified churches.

"If a person says that they are practicing these religions, we'll believe them, unless shown otherwise," said Lathan, who sometimes attends a Baptist church but is not a member,

Once there's enough money to lend, ADFLA will provide interest-free loans for students, entrepreneurs and people with "dire financial needs" such as medical emergencies.