Friday, October 25, 2013

Speaking up and speaking out

Our text for this fourth week in our series on Nehemiah and faithful leadership comes from Nehemiah 5:1-13, which you can read here.

When I opened our mailbox at church this week, I found the usual stack of magazines from various groups with which our church shares common ground. One of those magazines, however, had a somewhat surprising cover story. "Predatory Lending: Baptists Confront a Neglected Justice Issue." The article by Aaron Weaver in Fellowship! magazine, which you can read in full here if you have interest, tells a host of stories like this one about one of the 12 million Americans who take out at least one payday loan each year:

"Like a growing number of Americans, Elliott is underemployed and has lived paycheck to paycheck for quite some time. An emergency savings fund is a privilege that he has not been able to afford. When his wife Linda fell and broke her leg, Elliott panicked. With Linda unable to work, how would they make the next mortgage payment? To save their modest home, Elliott took out a $500 “payday” loan. But that small payday loan proved to be a bad decision, if he even had a real choice. One loan led to another and then another. Elliott was forced to take out additional loans, a loan to pay for the last loan. Two years later, he was trapped, paying the lender $450 every two weeks, never able to touch the principal for all the interest. Elliott eventually lost his home, spending more than $30,000 in the process."

The article detailed how widespread stories like Elliott's are, and how different Baptist groups are beginning to take up the fight to stop such predatory lending, using their voices to call for regulation of interest rates, and longer payback periods as they addressed their legislatures. But some churches have gone even beyond using their voices to call for justice: a consortium of churches in San Antonio is looking to launch an alternate lending option called "Freedom First" that will help the working poor secure small loans and save money. A church in Louisiana has worked to offer free tax filing assistance to low-income tax payers.

This article caught my attention because it sounds a lot like what was going on in Nehemiah 5: when Nehemiah sees the working poor around him caught in a horrible situation of cyclical debt and despair, he sees the system needs to change. He boldly and publicly speaks out against the way things are, and then he suggests practical ways to shift the status quo and agrees to be part of a new way himself--changing his own practices for the sake of his neighbors. Nehemiah's choice to speak up and speak out and back his words with action changed the way his community was doing business.

Predatory lending is just one neglected justice issue facing our neighbors. What others do you see? In what ways might you--and our congregation--be called to speak up, speak out, and back words with actions, as Nehemiah did in his community?

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