A Payday Loans storefront (Photo credit: Tony Webster)

Serving our neighbor through politics

By Katie Thompson

Churches have rightly long heeded the call to care for the needy, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Church leaders are familiar with congregants mired in financial trouble seeking help from church benevolence funds and have come to their aid when possible. But when it comes to matters of policy and legislation, many Christians and churches have largely opted out of involvement.

That was not the case for a faith community in Phoenix, Ariz., whose story serves as a model for what positive political engagement can look like. Payday lending was outlawed in Arizona in 2008. Payday lenders offer short-term loans with exorbitant interest rates — the national average is 395 percent APR on a two-week loan. The industry, which preys upon low-income communities and often traps borrowers in an endless cycle of debt, re-emerged in Arizona in early 2016 with proposed legislation that would effectively bring the predatory product back to the state.

The Flex Loan Bill proposed to offer borrowers up to $2,500 in credit for up to two years. The interest rate on these loans? An enormous 204 percent APR, meaning that an initial two-year, $2,500 loan would end up costing the borrower $435.05 per month, amounting to a total of $10,441.15 at the end of two years.

The Surge Network, a group of churches and pastors dedicated to seeing all members of the community flourish, viewed the Flex Loan Bill as a very real danger to vulnerable residents. This was an issue that they could not address on their own — using benevolence funds to get someone out of a debt trap was essentially putting money back into the hands of lenders. It required fundamental legislative change.

“We were a group of pastors who said, ‘Let’s get rid of injustice through politics,’” Dennae Pierre, executive director of the Surge Network, said. “When you come [to lawmakers] as an informed citizen, there’s really a lot of power.”

Pierre said that the problem of payday lending was largely off the radar of the majority of white churches in the Surge Network; their congregations weren’t affected in the same way that the Network’s African-American churches in predominantly low-income Latino and African-American neighborhoods were. When the Flex Loan Bill was introduced, the Network’s African-American church leaders shared stories of how their congregants had been harmed by payday loans in the past, and they expressed their deep concern with the proposed legislation.

Learning from the African-American pastors about their congregations’ past experience with payday loans was the catalyst for Surge taking action, Pierre said. The Network began to convene training events to educate pastors about the devastating effects of payday loans. But education was just the first step in a longer process of political engagement.

“We wrote a letter urging legislators not to pass the bill, we met with lots of legislators, and we shared why we didn’t want [the bill] passed,” Pierre said. “We prepared our people to tell stories of how the loans play out in reality.”

Forty pastors signed onto the letter urging lawmakers to vote against the bill. Their persistent efforts and their call to protect vulnerable citizens made a big impact. The Flex Loan Bill, backed by a very powerful payday lending industry, died in the state Senate. Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Forum, which also worked to oppose the bill, said that Surge’s involvement was essential.

“A faith perspective really made a difference,” Zwick said. “What Surge was able to do was mobilize and activate the faith community in a way that we hadn’t seen in the past.”

Even with a legislative victory, the Surge Network’s work isn’t finished on this issue. The Network recognizes that there will always be a demand for short-term loans, but believes that there is an economically just way to extend small-dollar, short-term loans. Responding to the need for more responsible credit options, the Network is now consulting with nonprofits about opening a community bank, and is also developing a financial literacy curriculum for churches to use.

According to Pierre, Surge’s involvement in stopping this bill and pursuing public justice was just another way of loving their neighbors in Phoenix.

“My primary passion is people and being faithful pastors to the people God has placed in our communities,” Pierre said. “If that’s your heart, engaging in the political process is a significant opportunity to impact the lives of people around you.”

For Christians committed to a vision of human flourishing, the efforts of Dennae Pierre and the Surge Network provide a model for political engagement. Without publicly just laws, the poor and vulnerable will continue to be exploited. Our call to distinctive Christian citizenship requires that we love our neighbors by looking to the well-being of our political communities.

As Pierre articulated, there is power in an informed citizenry. We need to do the work to become informed about the issues that affect our own communities. This includes loving and advocating for neighbors who face an injustice that may not directly impact me personally, but affects the overall flourishing of the communities that I am called to uphold.

Christians disillusioned with or skeptical of government can find inspiration in the way that the faith community in Phoenix entered into politics as a way to love their neighbors. Upholding God’s good purpose for government requires active participation in the political process. A clear articulation of why a particular injustice degrades the dignity of your neighbors is crucial for lawmakers to hear. That every human being is made in the image of God, and that this vision should be upheld in public law, is a distinctive perspective that people of faith bring to policy discussions.

The Surge Network’s work to motivate and activate its churches and pastors should serve as a model for Christians seeking the flourishing of their communities. God calls us to citizenship that contributes to creating publicly just laws that will ensure justice. Let us be a people eager to serve our neighbors through politics, not absent of it.