How Our Church Freed Its Members from Predatory Lending

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A sign for tax return loans outside of a brick building.

Predatory lending is especially insidious in low-income neighborhoods. Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Virginia has built a unique microloan program to counter these lenders, based on Jubilee principles. Credit: CreativeCommons / David Goehring.

I have served as pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, Richmond, Virginia, since 1986. Wesley is a predominately Black middle-class church (approximately 130 active members) where the majority of the members commute from surrounding suburbs for worship. Our church is surrounded by private homes and three low-income public housing developments. Being centrally located in a low-income area means that we are constantly bombarded with community residents seeking rental and utility assistance, food, clothing, school supplies and medical needs, children’s needs, and support for families with a parent incarcerated. Over the years of my ministry, we have been the financial resource to aid mostly single-parent households with weekly and monthly living expenses.
To address these needs, I started a mission’s fund through the church. The mission’s fund worked well for persons who needed a small sum to get them through the week or month until the next pay check came; but, it was insufficient for persons who needed larger amounts, such as car repairs or medical emergencies. The need for more income is today’s financial crisis which is the result of a structural systematic problem created by greed, corporate power, and “the government for the wealthy,” not “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This system of financial injustice has diminished the resources of the middle class and put more persons in the ranks of poverty.
Debt: A Major Dilemma
Our mission’s fund was like a band-aid for the larger problems that our members were facing. Since the 1980s, the ranks of the needy grew exponentially; because wages and salaries did not increase proportionately with the rising cost of living, thus making it virtually impossible for individuals to keep up with their financial obligations; such as, exorbitant interest rates on credit cards, costly medical care, inflated college tuition, and high college student loans and other increased costly living expenses. This scenario has caused a debt crisis that most of our church members face today. The middle class and the poor have been victims in this destructive economy. The laws are made to give the wealthy exorbitantly high wages and bonuses, low income taxes, and other perks while top executives are already saturated with lavish income. The average workers receive low wages, high unemployment, no benefits, low retirement benefits, and little, or no, medical benefits. Prices for gas, food, rent medical care and other expenses continue to rise as wages remain stagnant. For a nation to make laws that destroy the morale of individuals and families is unethical and criminal. This situation opened the door for predatory lenders to further exploit persons who had no alternatives. Persons who needed income to make it through the week turned to the only source available –predatory loan sharks– for needed funds, but at the cost of more unbearable debt and less working income. The Bible addressed this economic problem of exploitation ages ago, and Martin Luther (16th century) showed the age old spirit of today’s problem when he remarked, “the rogue’s (merchants) eye of greed, which sees the neighbor’s needs; not to relieve it, but to make the most of it and get rich at his expense” (Trade and Usury, Luther’s Works 45).”
A Biblical Solution
Since the government has failed to regulate just laws to protect the poor, the Bible has given us a solution to address the issues of poverty and debt. God knew that persons would/could fall on hard times, because of famine, crop failures, death or other disasters that caused a loss of income. When this happened, God made sure that the indebted persons had to be released of debt and obligations after six years of service. God’s laws prevented land owners and the wealthy from concocting long-term schemes and share cropping-type methods to keep persons indebted forever. Today the Bible still addresses the systemic problems of debt and exploitation.
Doing Something
After Jesus preached to the multitudes in a lonely place and the hour grew late, he told his disciples “to give them something to eat”. They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish. (Luke 9:10-1).” With the little available five loaves and two fish, all ate well with food left over. With God’s help, we are commanded to “do something” even with our scarce and meager resources. God will bless the effort and multiply the resources for His people. The Jubilee Assistance Fund is a faithful effort to do something to alleviate the pain and suffering of the poor and needy.
To provide a ray of hope to this debtor’s nightmare, the following Bible verses inspired me to start the Jubilee Assistance Fund: “If your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; take no interest from him or increase…You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him food for profit…If your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave (Lev. 25:35-39).” The Hebrew Bible provides a way to aid hardship community members without taking advantage of their misfortune. Reasonable limitations were established to prevent exploitation or eternal bondage. Likewise, the Christian community also shared resources to make sure the less fortunate could have necessities and living expenses.
The New Testament also demonstrated the same principles of debt release. Jesus preached good news to the poor. He taught “forgiveness of our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Those who please the Lord are those “who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, hospitality to the stranger, clothes to the naked, visits to the sick and the incarcerated. (Mt. 25:31 ff).” The Christian community shared their resources to make sure that all persons had the essentials of life. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45).” Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but had everything in common (Acts 4:32).”
The Holy Scriptures show that God’s community was a community of compassion, sharing and forgiving. In contrast, today’s society is filled with greed, predatory lenders, exorbitant interest rates, low wages, poor job security, and unfair tax burdens. Predatory lenders feel they are doing something good by providing loans to those in need, but their motive is selfish gain at the expense and devastation of the borrower; however, their way goes against the Bible concept of excessive interest rates.
The Jubilee Assistance Fund
The Jubilee Assistance Fund was created to help our hardworking members in need. Many hard working members of our church were in need of emergency funds. Their only recourse was to use payday lenders with fees that kept them in debt. Many organized efforts were made to the Commonwealth’s Legislature to regulate this criminal assault to hard working citizens, but to no avail. It was at this point that I started talking with my colleague Pastor Charles Swadley, Bishop Charlene Kammera, and the Virginia United Methodist Conference Credit Union to start a loan program with reasonable interest rates for our members. To fight this systemic debt oppression, I believed that we had a spiritual structure in place to make a difference in our church community. With a sharing community and financial institution in place, all we needed was the faith to start our Jubilee Program. The program put in place offered the debtors a fair way to borrow funds. A loan comparison shows the blessing of the program:

This example of a Jubilee Assistance Fund loan saves the borrower $933 per year that can be used for family needs. Credit: Virginia United Methodist Conference Credit Union.

Since the program began in 2007, we have been able to make eight loans to persons in need. Thus far, the program has been a blessing to people who were in a perpetual cycle of debt, or suffered for lack of emergency funds. Our loans range from $100.00 to $1,000.00. With this loan, persons are encouraged to start a savings account and receive financial counseling. Thus far, all persons have been diligent in repaying their loan. Only one person has had problems, because of reduced employment hours; however, her loan has been re-financed.
The program has helped our church see the blessing of helping people in need. Prior to this program, many members felt that our small church with limited funds could not afford to help others. We have shown that a small church with limited funds, but with faith in God, and a belief in the teachings of the Bible can do great things to aid the community. We are doing something to alleviate the pain of debt as we continue to urge our legislators for fair and sensible laws for the common working society. Since we started the Jubilee Assistance Fund, our mission’s fund has doubled in income. It is just like the multiplication of the two fish and five loaves (Mark 6:30-44). We have done something.

Check out Tikkun’sWinter 2015 Issue for more spiritually engaging content on Jubilee and Debt Reduction, and this article from the Washington Post on the Jubilee Assistance Fund.
Reverend Rodney M. Hunter is the founder of the Jubilee Assistance Program and has served as pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia, since 1986.