Be wary of (loan) sharks in sheep’s clothing (COMMENTARY)

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A cash loan or car title loan sign.

Photo courtesy of Annette Shaff via Shutterstock

A cash loan or car title loan sign.

(RNS) One can never truly know the heart of another person.

But I can’t help but wonder whether Rod Aycox, owner of a national chain of car title loan stores, saw the tragic shooting of nine men and women at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last June as an opportunity to buy off his most effective critics.

How else can one explain the announcement, in the wake of the murders, that he was donating $1 million to organizations that promote and protect civil rights — after years of making a fortune ripping off low-income people of color?

Aycox and his peers in the low-dollar, outrageously high-cost loan industry are used to buying influence, throwing money around and paying to keep dissenters quiet so they can expand their businesses and their bank accounts. Over the past decade, car title lenders have made more than $9 million in state campaign contributions and have hired hundreds of lobbyists as they work to fight off states’ efforts to rein in exorbitant interest rates and predatory practices.

The wheel-greasing has paid off in states around the country. Car title loans are an increasingly big business. While there are federal regulatory efforts underway to rein in the worst abuses of both car title and more traditional payday lending, the industry and the Aycoxes of the world are not going quietly. They are revamping their loans to look different and work the same way — that is, to trap the borrower in a cycle of debt. They are cozying up to nonprofits, civil rights groups, churches and others that have long connected payday and car title lending to the biblical prohibition against usury.

This recognition of payday and car title lending for what it is — preying on our brothers and sisters in contravention of God’s commandments — cuts across denominational lines. There is no tension between conservative and liberal doctrine. Christians who tend to favor free-market economic models as a manifestation of God’s will recognize that these loans are not honest, just as do those whose biblical interpretations take them in other directions.

That’s why religious communities from across the spectrum have consistently condemned high-cost lending as predatory and an exploitation of the poor.

The National Baptist Convention, USA, the nation’s largest African-American religious denomination, has joined forces with eight other major religious denominations and institutions to create the Faith for Just Lending coalition and call for an end to predatory payday lending.

Leading organizations in the civil rights community, such as the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP, are also fighting to stop the worst abuses of payday and car title lenders.

The public relations statement announcing the $1 million donation said the money would go “to support a number of local and national organizations including the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of National Black Churches, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, the NAACP, the National Action Network, the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.”

(It quotes Aycox as saying after the killings that “In a time like this, we have offered our prayers, but we know we have to do more — we have to take action and speak out.”)

Aycox’s donations to the NAACP and La Raza must not lessen their commitment to fight for what is right and just. And the other groups taking money from Aycox may not realize that his donations are truly “blood money” — extracted from the blood, sweat and hard work of those who are deceived into a debt trap.

I urge those groups to look into donations with a practiced eye and a sense of great humility. Do not allow the possibilities to glorify God offered by these donations blind you to the real purpose behind and the real pain from which those dollars have sprung.

Rev. Dr. Willie Gable, Jr., D. Min.. Chairman of Board, National Baptist Convention Housing and Economic Development Commission speaks at an event calling on Congress to enact laws that protect Americans from predatory lenders. Photo courtesy of Center for Responsible Lending

The Rev. Willie Gable Jr., chairman of the National Baptist Convention Housing and Economic Development Commission, speaks at an event calling on Congress to enact laws that protect Americans from predatory lenders. Photo courtesy of Center for Responsible Lending

I have great faith that none of these groups will allow themselves to be bought off and co-opted for a few dollars and some change. Our communities cannot afford it.

Be vigilant, brothers and sisters. We must not allow our work together to be turned back by economic predators — wolves, or in this case, loan sharks — in sheep’s clothing.

(Willie Gable Jr. is chairman of the board of the National Baptist Convention Housing and Economic Development Commission)