Denise is friend of mine who almost took her life. She was trapped and saw no other way out. Her problem wasn’t heroin, alcohol, or an abusive marriage. Her problem was a payday loan. Stories like this one convinced members of the church where I serve as pastor that we had to do something to protect people like Denise.
At one point there were more payday loan stores in Ohio than there were McDonald’s, and their interest rates and fees could exceed 700 or 800%. Their primary customers were working class, retired, and disabled people living near the line of poverty. Disabled individuals, for example, are three times more likely to take out an expensive payday loan than those without disabilities.
I grew up in a church that placed great emphasis on telling people about Jesus, but they would have lumped this issue in with others under the heading of “social gospel” and ignored it. As an adult I came to understand that I was missing a major part of the gospel, the part about setting captives free and bringing good news to oppressed people. I had missed the fact that following Jesus requires standing up to people who oppress the poor. I often remind my congregation that following Jesus isn’t just doing good things, it’s also fighting bad things.
When I was first confronted with this issue I tried to brush it aside as a horrible practice that I couldn’t do anything about. But then Easter came. As I read the story of the Passion week, I was jolted by the realization that the first thing Jesus did when he arrived in Jerusalem for Passover was to take on the payday lenders of his day, people charging exorbitant interest to people in need. He didn’t just say, “Don’t do that!” He called them thieves and chased them from the temple with a whip. We thought, “If Jesus took time to address this issue during the last week of his life, we need to find time in our schedule to address it.”
We were also moved by verses like Psalm 12:5, Psalm 82:3, and Isaiah 1:17 which don’t just call us to care, they call us to action with words like protect, defend, and correct.
“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Scripture actually speaks directly to the issue of predatory lending.
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.
Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.
Our effort to correct this form of oppression began at a local ice cream shop where I encouraged our State Representative to meet with me and a group of about five other pastors and an area businessman. We told him the stories that we were hearing from people in our community about the toll that predatory lending was taking in their lives. We asked him to sponsor a bill that would prohibit practices that trap people in long cycles of excessive interest.
Fortunately, our State Representative was willing to hear us, and at great political cost he has sponsored a bipartisan bill (Ohio HB 123) to regulate the payday lending industry, greatly lowering the cost for those who need emergency loans. We received a great deal of help from a nationally known nonprofit research organization in collecting data and helping us understand policy.
The bill was successfully passed out of the Ohio House of Representatives last week and now heads to the Ohio Senate for consideration. Our cause has been helped by the fact that our Speaker of the House was forced to resign after being caught taking expensive trips paid for by the payday lenders and the lobbyists.
I won’t understate the difficulty of this process. It has been an uphill fight all the way, and our bill still hasn’t passed. Those of us in the thick of the battle have referred to it as a “David vs Goliath” confrontation. We are up against an industry that will lose $75 million per year if our effort passes. They have millions of dollars to spend to oppose and misrepresent us, even using a website linked to one of their lobbyists to try to discredit me as a pastor.
But we remain committed to this cause till the end, because we feel it is what God has called us to do. If you live in a state where payday lenders are oppressing the poor, consider following the examples of Ohio and Texas where people of faith are leading the effort to correct oppression and protect our neighbors from those who take advantage of their need in order to enlarge their own fortunes.