Do a Google search for the words “Baptists” and “payday.”
You will be surprised by what you find and disappointed by what is missing.
You will find abundant references to the Baptist preacher R. G. Lee, who preached over 1,200 times the same sermon–“Payday Someday.” You will find little evidence that Baptists care enough about predatory lenders to take reformatory initiatives.
“Pay Day–Some Day! God said it–and it was done!” proclaimed the legendary former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. “Yes, and from this we learn the power and certainty of God in carrying out His own retributive providence that men might know that His justice slumbereth not. Even though the mill of God grinds slowly, it grinds to powder. Yes, the judgments of God often have heels and travel slowly. But they always have iron hands and crush completely.”
Lee concluded: “And the only way I know for any man or woman on earth to escape the sinner’s payday on earth and the sinner’s hell beyond–making sure of the Christian’s payday on earth and the Christian’s heaven beyond the Christian’s payday–is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner’s place upon the Cross, becoming for all sinners all that God must judge, that sinners through faith in Christ Jesus might become all that God cannot judge. Pay Day–Some Day!”
Does God’s justice “slumbereth” for the payday lenders and their silent partners in Baptist churches today?
A search of the words “Baptists” and “payday lenders” suggests that through our inaction we are welcoming and affirming of the predatory lending industry that preys on those in financial trouble. There are a few exceptions.
One is Jim Evans, pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, whose weekly columns appear on EthicsDaily.com. Evans wrote almost two years ago about the abusive nature of payday lenders: “It seems particularly cruel to charge exorbitant fees to families and individuals already struggling financially. The Bible pronounces stern judgment on those who exploit the poor for profit. That same judgment falls on those who stand silent and let it happen.”
Another exception is David Washburn, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Va., who told a local newspaper that payday lenders “have found a niche, and that niche is people are in a bind and we’re going to gouge them.” Washburn said, “I don’t see them as providing a valuable service” and that religious leaders had a moral responsibility to protect the poor.
Two Virginia Baptist churches, First Baptist Church of Newport News and First Baptist Church of Denbigh, joined with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy to provide an educational seminar about payday lenders and what church members could do. Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, hosted a public hearing about payday lending, called by the state’s attorney general.
When payday lenders sought legislation last year to return to Georgia, a public hearing was held in Atlanta, where only the measure’s sponsors were allowed to speak. “This is an outrage! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Shame, shame, shame,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church. Told he was out of order, McDonald acknowledged that he was. He said, “God was out of order. Jesus was out of order.”
What is out of order is the poverty of evidence that Baptists are challenging the predatory lenders who live in our very neighborhoods and presumably attend our churches. The reality of the location of payday corporate headquarters mocks the pious pronouncement of the prelates of local churches.
Advance America is headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., just a one-minute drive from the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, according to Map Quest. The church’s pastor, Don Wilton, was elected president of the South Carolina Baptist State Convention in 2005.
Advance America claims to be the “nation’s leading payday advance company, with approximately 3,000 centers in 35 states.”
In a small Bible-belt community of Spartanburg, with a population under 40,000, does anyone really believe that First Baptist Church’s deacons and Advance America’s leaders live apart in neighborhoods, belong to separate clubs and send their children of different schools? No, that is not likely. More likely is an overlapping religious and financial power structure.
Headquartered in Cleveland, Tenn., Check into Cash claims over 1,250 centers in 31 states. Check into Cash is a short two-minute drive from the First Baptist Church and a five-minute drive from the Bradley Baptist Association. Cash America International is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, a mere 14 minutes from both Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Tarrant County Baptist Association, which has 400 churches.
These churches are served by 10 Cash American International stores in the Fort Worth area, as well as another 10 Ace Cash Express stores with one located on East Seminary Avenue, a quick four-minute drive for cash-strapped seminary students. With corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas, Ace Cash Express claims 1,718 stores in 38 states and brags that it serves over 11,500 customers every hour.
Corporate employees in the payday headquarters surely attend Baptist churches, as payday lenders target churches for customers.
Bill Harrod, a Check ‘n Go store manager, stated that he was instructed to attend the Unity Baptist Church to gain favor with the pastor, offering almost $1,000 to get the pastor to testify against a bill that would restrict the interest rate of payday loans. The pastor refused.
Payday leaders, lenders and borrowers are in Baptist churches–churches have moral obligation to address the biblical mandate to protect the poor and marginalized.
In our silence, we become partners with payday lenders. In our noisiness, we raise awareness and challenge the existing ethos for change.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.