Texas leads the nation in payday lending and car title loan businesses with more than 3,000 storefronts across the state. Payday lenders are both a blessing and a curse: on one hand, they meet a need; on the other, they do so through sky-high interest rates.
That’s why communities of faith are getting involved in the effort to better regulate them. But should faith leaders get involved in money matters?
John Hill is with the United Methodist Church. He says faith leaders are commanded to seek financial justice.
“There’s really no wiggle room on this,” Hill says. “There are explicit mandates against charging usury as interest – that’s very clear in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, I think, most Christians are familiar with one of the rare flashes of anger that Jesus showed when he expelled the money changers from the Temple.”
The film “The Gospel of John” portrays that scene: Jesus is angry with the merchants outside the temple for jacking up the price of mandatory offerings. Like most people today who resort to payday lenders, those in Biblical times had few options. In a way, they were forced to buy their offerings at exorbitant prices.
The United Methodist Church has been lobbying around the country for stricter regulation of payday lenders and car title loan companies. Other faith leaders were doing the same. But last year they decided to join forces. Bishop Joe Vazquez says the Texas Catholic Conference joined the effort last spring.
“We as Catholics, as Christians, said ‘This is terrible. They are taking advantage of the poor and those who have no means,'” Vazquez says.
Vazquez started looking at numbers from across the state. One source of information was the charitable branches of the Catholic church: Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He knew people in dire need were asking for rent assistance or for food from the pantry. But why were those people so poor, so desperate?
“We discovered that about one-third of those clients that we were helping were tied in with one of these payday titles,” he says.
People were trapped, each with a unique story on how they got entangled in debt. I first heard Daria Vera’s story on a trip to Rio Grande City earlier this year. I was reporting on the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march by farmworkers. Vera was a heroine in the story – the Rosa Parks of her movement.
Her wooden house is tiny. Plastic bags and plastic sheets are nailed to the walls as insulation.
“Me decian no que tu casita parece caja de cerillos – le decia yo pero no pago renta,” Vera says. She says people make fun of her house – they say it looks like a matchstick box. But to Vera, the house is a labor of love.
She took her six children with her when she left her abusive first husband. A friend took her in, but he only had a small piece of land and a one-bedroom structure. Vera showed me the original room.
“Look, the twins used to sleep there – we had a stove hooked in here,” Vera says in Spanish, “all in the same makeshift shed.”
Little by little she said they built two more bedrooms and a proper kitchen with wood found in trash bins or at construction sites. Vera eventually married her friend and they had three more children.
“I lived a happy life with him,” she says in Spanish. But three years ago – her husband died and Vera went to five payday lenders to get enough money for a proper burial.
“I get $784 from Social Security,” she says in Spanish. “I give my payments every month, but I don’t have enough for food. So for three years now, I’ve been renewing the loans every month – buying some time.”
Bishop Vazquez says the dioceses in Austin and Dallas have come up with a solution to help people like Vera.
“We – through our St. Vincent de Paul Society – figured a way to have these predatory lending conversion programs,” Vazquez says.
Through donations, the church came up with a pool of money to pay off high-interest rate loans. Qualified people get their loan bought by St. Vincent de Paul and acquire a new loan, but the interest rate for this one is at 5 percent.
But not all dioceses in the state can have a conversion loan program – it’s hard for those like Vera’s church in Rio Grande City. That’s why Vazquez says the coalition of faith leaders is planning to be strategic in its efforts this upcoming legislative session.
“Now, we are not out to completely do away with these organizations,” he says. “These payday lending companies – all we want is fair regulation of these companies.”
It will be easier said than done. An investigation by Texans for Public Justice revealed payday lenders are big political contributors. In 2014 alone, the industry gave Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick half a million dollars in donations.