There is a story in the Bible about a woman who goes to a judge many times, asking for justice. Each time, she is sent away. According to Luke, the judge did not fear God nor respect people. In the end, he gave her justice because he couldn’t get rid of her otherwise.
Preachers tend to skip over preaching this text. Like, “Ask and it shall be given,” this story can crossover into a place pastors like to avoid: annoy God enough and you’ll get what you want.
Not surprisingly, that take on this story is one of privilege. If you don’t know people who have been denied what was rightfully theirs, you tend to miss the point. If you see people as bad when they keep pushing instead of seeing their justified anger, you tend to miss the point. I’m not the most woke person ever; it took a while to see. It’s no surprise that Luke tells this tale, though. His Gospel is one of a world turned upside down, inside out, and every other way imaginable. In Luke’s telling of the Gospel, the unfavorable are by far the most favored by God.
I think of the persistent widow often these days. Almost two years ago, my church had a little extra money and a desire to do justice in our immediate community. We started down the road of offering small dollar, no interest loans as an alternative to title loans. In Arizona, payday loans are banned. Title loans quickly took their place.
Two years later, we’re almost there. Just past the two-year mark, we should be offering the first round of loans. We’re ironing out details. Right now, it looks like we’ll start at $500 and we need to figure out how we handle the minimal interest. Even if we charged the full amount, it’s 6% annual interest. Title loans are capped at 204% annual interest, typically advertised as 17% monthly.
The math is terrifying.1 At 6%, in a year, the total interest on $500 is under $31. That’s without figuring in the regular payments. That number only gets lower with regular payments. Contrastingly, with title loans, fees vary widely by vendor, from minimal to several hundred dollars. Most people who take out one loan take out another immediately to repay what they can’t pay back. This cycle repeats for around 9 months—at least that’s the average. A $500 loan easily ends up costing the borrower over $1,000 on the low end of things.
The predatory lending industry, made up primarily of payday loans and title loans, is a strong market anywhere it is allowed. Some states choose to ban their presence entirely. Nationwide, around 75% of people who use this type of loan are repeat customers. They use the loans to keep up with monthly bills. As we enter into this venture, we know that we’re hoping to offer something else for the other people, the 25% of the customers who had an unexpected expense that they can’t cover.
Solutions for the remaining 75% aren’t yet within our reach. However, this venture could well take us down a road that leads to solutions for some of those people. Jesus knew, “The poor you will always have with you,” but keeping on kicking them surely isn’t the answer.
I could, indeed, talk about all the ins and outs of this program. We’re definitely not doing it on our own. A credit union has agreed to partner with us as well as a social service agency for client referral. Part of the solution has to be credit repair or establishing credit for people. The title loan industry proudly shares that they don’t report to credit bureaus; we know that good credit is key to everything from lower deposits on utilities to landing a job.
There are many interpretations for the parable of the persistent widow, but here is the one I settle on most often: those who have the power to do good are compelled to do good. Here’s hoping that we do good $500 at a time.
1 Over these two years, we’ve read research from a variety of sources. Three reports inform this article. I highly recommend each of them. They are: Auto Title Loans: Market practices and borrowers’ experiences from The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2015; Single-Payment Vehicle Title Lending from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, May 2016; Wrong Way: Wrecked by Debt from the Consumer Federation of America and the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, January 2016.