Black Churches Becoming a Battleground Over Payday Lending: Pastors Hired by Lending Companies to Lobby Government for Looser Regulations

Critics of the payday lending industry say it exploits its customers; proponents say it provides an important service. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)
Critics of the payday lending industry say it exploits its customers; proponents say it provides an important service. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

The Rev. Frederick Newbill is not the typical face of the payday lending industry.

Recruited by Florida’s largest small-dollar lender, Amscot, the senior pastor at First Timothy Baptist Church in Jacksonville was among several faith leaders to visit the state’s capital this year to lobby for a bill loosening payday regulations.

The group helped secure a victory for an industry known for its high-cost, short-term loans that had been under assault by federal regulators for years. Their efforts also opened a rift among some of the state’s most influential faith leaders, many of whom had spent years opposing the spread of payday loans.

“They don’t understand,” Newbill, 68, said of the industry’s critics. “If you are pastoring, like I do, you know that sometimes people come up short and need a little help.” That type of help, he said, is easier to secure through a payday lender than a traditional bank, which may be reluctant to lend small amounts and require pristine credit scores.

Amscot paid for some of the pastors to fly to Tallahassee by private plane, though Newbill drove instead and said he received no compensation from the company.

Black churches have become an unexpected battleground in the national debate over the future of payday lending. The Trump administration is reviewing a federal rule that threatens to cripple the industry, while payday lenders find themselves enmeshed in battles in multiple states over their business.

The debate often pits clergy against one another. Payday proponents in the church say the industry provides an important service after years of national banks pulling back from offering loans in regions with large minority or poor populations and black-owned banks all but disappearing.

Longtime opponents of payday lending have sometimes been blindsided by the advocacy of their religious brethren. They say that payday proponents are misreading not only the financial realities of borrowing at dangerously high rates but also biblical teachings — and are being co-opted or bought by an industry with a long history of exploiting African Americans.

“We lost the battle, but the war is not over,” said the Rev. James T. Golden, pastor of the Ward Temple AME Church in southwest Florida. The faith leaders who sided with payday lenders make up a sliver of the state’s faith community, said Golden, who is helping mobilize a coalition to block the Florida law from going into effect next year, including enlisting ministers and pastors who have yet to pick a side.

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SOURCE: Renae Merle
The Washington Post