More than 40 million people live with student debt in the United States, totaling more than $1 trillion dollars. Photo by Inbal Marilli/Creative Commons

A biblical answer to the $1 trillion problem of student debt

More than 40 million people live with student debt in the United States, totaling more than $1 trillion. Photo by Inbal Marilli/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) — The festive sights and sounds of college gradations, captured in photos and video, are coming soon to our social media feeds. As we celebrate the educational achievements of friends and family, let us as people of faith not lose sight of the $1 trillion trail of tears that so many of these graduates will now walk. It's a walk I am personally familiar with.

As of 2016 there was a total of at least $1.3 trillion worth of student debt in the U.S. —more than any other from consumer debt except mortgage debt. I have long held that this massive amount of crippling, soul-crushing, economy-damaging student debt is the latest great sin of this nation. If left unaddressed, this national crisis will inflict grave and lasting damage.

When I was in seminary I championed the idea that the theologic academy could and should play a much more active role in helping graduates grappling with student debt. Some graduate students' debt from schooling (including my own) is well over $125,000.

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As a seminarian several years ago, I made an impassioned presentation before my seminary's board of trustees. I urged the school to seriously consider joining a group of small, Christian liberal arts colleges in the Midwest that were pooling their resources and offering recent graduates who were entering modest-paying professions — such as education, ministry, the arts and social services — grants to help pay off their student debt. This plea was for others, but also for me. Within a year, I walked off the commencement stage with a brand-new Master of Divinity degree and student debt that was almost double my mortgage.

The theology I studied points the way to right economic wrongs.

My faith and the rich theologies I was exposed to in seminary — that radical, progressive gospel of Christ as seen through the lens of black liberation, queer and womanist theologies — compel me to believe that we can put our collective faith to use to transform the very notion of how we fund and pay for higher education in this nation. Individuals of faith, churches, denominations and all ethically minded people can help solve our student debt crisis.

Here are just a few ways we can do it.

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On a national level, denominations, church conferences and religious organizations such as the National Council of Churches in Christ, the Conference of National Black Churches and others can declare an ongoing student debt jubilee. The idea of a debt jubilee comes right from the Torah or Old Testament, which provides those who need biblical-based precedent as a powerful road map.

This ancient concept of forgiving all debts after a set length of time can be updated and formatted as we see fit. For example, national religious bodies of all faiths can lead a concerted effort to lobby the federal government to boost subsidized graduate student loans and ensure that ministry and missionary work is included on the list of "service-oriented" professions that qualify for loan forgiveness programs.

Denominations should also increase scholarship grants for undergraduate and graduate students. They should also develop loan repayment assistance policies and grants for seminary graduates and new hires. And they should declare that the abomination of student debt must not go forth.

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As the national faith bodies work to make an ongoing student debt jubilee a part of our national consciousness, individual churches can work on the local level by creating "debt scholarships" for college graduates in the same way they raise funds and awareness for those entering college. The moral, ethical and spiritual necessity of a continuing student debt jubilee should be taught, explored in Bible study, yeshivas, mosques, temples and meetings halls wherever  possible.

Lastly, and perhaps the most powerful thing the more than 40 million people living with student debt can do is believe that the creator of the universe made us all for a much higher purpose than to languish in debt. Focus on your God-given gifts, calls and purpose, and live your life unafraid and transform the world for good through your faith.

(The Rev. F. Romall Smalls graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 2013,  where he received the Malcolm Boyd Veritas Award for social justice in the LGBTQ community. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. I struggled but paid my modest (I worked as well) student loans. No forgiveness – our country can’t afford it, especially if the student over reached. Let employers (private sector) help pay off their new hire’s loan as an incentive. We are enough of a socialist country without subsidizing college degrees.

  2. A country with one of the largest incomes and one which has a hideously unequal distribution of that income can afford to make all, including higher, education free. This requires an adjustment of income by increasing tax rates for the wealthiest. Maximum and minimum salary rates and a minimum income would also help. A national health service and nationalized pharmaceutical research would too. Although government required mutual aid is a liberal concept. it doesn’t make a society socialist. This would be rational and compassionate capitalism.

  3. The only Biblical answer to the world’s corrupt, selfish and greedy political and economical problems, is:

    God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Matthew 4:17), which will soon put an end to those man-made systems, as well as all other problems we now face.

    Until that government replaces all of man’s governments (Daniel 2;44) and righteously rules over us with love, justice and peace (Isaiah 11:1-5), we are all “stuck in the mud,” so to speak.

  4. Why didn’t you get an education ?
    Not a masters degree – in nothingness !
    Pay for your own education – by working at a real job !

  5. Right now, I can remember at least 3 Biblical quotes on debt. All the 3 quotes say that we should pay off our debts.

    “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Romans 13:7

    “The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives;” Psalm 37:21

    “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.” Ecclesiastes 5:4

    Honestly speaking, the student loan debt has become a massive problem in our country. Some people have 2-3 student loans on their shoulder and they are delay their major life plans due to debts, which is unfortunate.

    Your last suggestion is good. If all of us abide by the biblical principles, then maybe we can avoid debt in the future. But the question is, how many people are ready to follow the biblical principles?

  6. Jim, unless you attended private schools and one of the few universities that refuse to accept federal or state money, your education was subsidized by tax dollars from kindergarten to graduate school. It’s pretty obvious that Institutional subsidies have not kept up with rising costs, so the increase gets passed to the student. It’s all a win win for the banks.

  7. Redirecting our funds:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:

    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror LIKE 9/11.

    – One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    – Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:

    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    – The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian “religions” and evangelical non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    – the faith-based federal projects supported by both Bush and Obama and Trump will be eliminated saving $385 million/yr. and another $2 billion/yr in grants.

    Giving to religious groups in 2010, totaled $95.8 billion,

    – Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    – All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a YouTube,Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!


  8. Such debts would not exist if not for unregulated usurious lending run amok. Tuition hikes coincided with conservative efforts to cut funding to public universities and the rise of cheap predatory lending for student loans.

    The loans are given out without any regard to the ability of grads to pay it and spurred on by deliberate misrepresentation of employment prospects, often in collusion with schools. The purpose is to create debt slavery. Without the ability to discharge the debt in bankruptcy gives zero risk to the lenders for atrocious underwriting practices.

  9. Your hateful ignorance is duly noted.
    You have no clue what you are talking about. These are people working for a living.

    Undergrad degrees are an entrance to white collar work. Most schools are now charging tuition far in excess of ability to pay after gainful employment. Predatory student lending has artificially inflated tuitions far in excess of real value.

    The point is to make higher education out if the realistic reach of the working and middle class. Conservative oligarchy seeking to destroy yet another known sign of middle class existence.

  10. The student lending environment 15 years ago or earlier was far different. Schools were receiving government subsidy and evident loans were given out in a less usurious environment.

    Its not the students overreaching. It’s the lenders creating an unsustainable bubble at student expense. The only difference between this kind of lending and the horrific practices with mortgages in 2002-2008 is the non dischargability laws protecting lenders.

  11. One could also make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy and watch the lenders go belly up. Stricter underwriting practices would cause massive drops in tuition for all but Ivy League schools (who have the lowest % of students using loans).

  12. You are attacking people who have huge student loans as having useless educations and not working for a living.

    Truth of the matter is many people entering professional employment these days are saddled with huge usurious debts here. Debts that only snowball with low starting salaries and deferred interest.

  13. Edited because I doltishly missed your point there. My bad.

  14. What would you consider a masters degree in nothingness? M.Arch? MSN? MEng? You do realize many jobs now require a Masters and many that don’t, financially reward those who get them. What is a real job?

  15. So to take your point to its logical conclusion, we should do nothing?

  16. At a bare minimum, we need to return basic consumer protections to student loans. By allowing bankruptcy, many would get instant relief. This relief is enjoyed by businesses and consumers for all other products. Many businesses do not see dismissing predatory loans or being able to adjust from incorrect business strategy as something shameful, it is merely good business. (heck, even our president has enjoyed this benefit several times!)

    If we allow bankruptcy for loans, many will be made whole, again, and lenders and schools will adjust amounts loaned going forward to a reasonable amount. The debt issue only happened as a result of the 90s, when congress forced a law that changed these protections.

  17. Lending is neither unregulated nor usurious (for the most part) nor run amok.

    Banking in general, and loans in particular, are heavily regulated.

    Part of the problem is caused by demand for student loans – Federal student loans increased demand for college education, colleges raised tuition blithely assuming there was a golden goose.

    Although you love to put black hats on those you dislike, this mess is much more complex than mean old bankers hosing poor old students.

  18. The banks are not the problem.

  19. My reality was working full time while going to school, I got loans to cover my education at a state college though I had no where near the amount today’s students get into. What did this do for me? I was not able to get a job in the field I studied (biology) that paid me enough to pay my student loans. In fact, I gave it a try and fell behind. I am glad I got an education, but mostly I am bitter that I could not do anything with it causing it to be rather useless. There are many things that need to change, and it starts with the cost coupled with better opportunities to find jobs in their fields of study. Increased base pay for college graduates is another issue. The plain fact that it is not working for students, or society does mean something needs to change.

  20. Religion, divinity, theology etc….

  21. Who holds the notes? In my children’s case, they were held by a bank. Who gets the interest? One trillion dollars at daily interest sure adds up to a sizable profit. Who profits from the law that congress passed not so long ago which forbids bankruptcy in the case of school loans? Perhaps things are different now. Please correct my misunderstanding.

  22. Mark,

    I could not afford to go to college, and instead took 2 years of secretarial science at a FREE VOCATIONAL high school in the early 70’s. They placed me and 85% of graduating students into jobs before graduating.

    Young people who spend a fortune on higher education aren’t even guaranteed a job after graduation.

    I would definitely recommend vocational high school for kids out there today, doing something they love, and it won’t cost them an arm an a leg!

  23. This has been well studied by economists.

    The problem is not that institutional funding has failed kept up with rising tuition. Rather, institutional funding is the cause of rising tuition, flooding the demand curve and and the relatively inflexible supply curve simply rose to meet it. The excess funding does not go to benefit the students or teachers;it goes to massively increased administrative budgets.

    The cure is to cut off the funding. The demand curve will fall back to where it formerly was, and the supply curve will fall with it.

    Yes, this would be very painful, and would be the end of many students college careers. There is no painless way to solve this problem; anyone who claims differently either knows nothing of economics, or is trying to make money off this sad situation.

  24. observations
    1. author wants his education for free. I don’t support that idea.
    2. perhaps part of the growing expense is overpaid tenured profs.
    3. perhaps part of the growing expense is too much support staff
    4. perhaps part of the growing expense is too much subsidized education for non-US citizens in the form of scholarships and in-state tuition breaks (ie for illegal aliens in some states)
    5. perhaps part of the growing expense coupled with can’t find a job is a lack of focus on a particular skill set with curriculum filled with useless courses not contributing to productive skills

  25. That’s analogous to asking during the pre-Civil War period “Who wears cotton clothing?”

    The student loan system both currently and historically is more than slightly complex.

    For example Congress changed the bankruptcy laws relative to school loans to require proving that repaying student loans would cause an undue hardship because the rate of non-payment had reached the point where the government spending reimbursing lenders was approaching government spending for grants and aid to higher education.

    The risks in making student loans got so high, and lenders became so wary, that in 2010 the federal government began making loans directly and is now the lender for a significant percentage of student loans.

    All of this is a result of Federal meddling.

    In a free market the percentage of high school students going on to college would be less than it is currently with Federal money driving up demand with support directly to schools and incentives to make student loans.

    The lower demand and fiercer competition for the smaller student population would lead to lower prices as colleges competed for students.

    The public would demand better preparation of high school students, with the expectation that a significant percentage would be prepared to enter either a career or apprenticeships of some sort.

    This is substantially how things work outside the USA.

    The solution is for the Federal government to get out of higher education.

  26. I see. We will depend on the invisible hand to fix our problem. Starve the beast and that will right-size the university system. The other 80-90% of our kids will go to trade school and learn to be welders, auto mechanics, and nurses. We already import a portion of our university educated work force, so our our Asian and European friends will just have to up their output. Frankly, I don’t think Adam Smith anticipated neo-liberalism and the global economy. But when the invisible hand is your god, it all becomes a matter of faith.

  27. Has there ever been an economist since Adam Smith that didn’t try to tinker with the economy? Perhaps we do educate too many of our kids, but why then to we still need to import a portion of our educated workforce? Relying on the fabled invisible hand to solve our problem is not only hurtful, it doesn’t work in a global economy. And isn’t what you’re suggesting just as much a “planned economy” as we have now?

  28. If the invisible hand was at work, there wouldn’t be a problem.

    The situation developed when Congress, who gets elected promising “free” stuff, took a look at a situation where college was relatively uncommon, and those who lacked funds to go either worked and went to school or had friends or relatives with assets who borrowed using the assets as collateral.

    Funding a huge GI-bill style give-away would have killed the budget.

    So they came up with a scheme: provide Federal guarantees on student loans, thus inducing otherwise risk-aversive lenders to engage in student loans.

    The major driver in issuing these loans were the colleges themselves, since the more FTEs they got, the more other Federal largesse they received.

    The only thing booked to the budget were the defaults, which began fairly small.

    The result was to drive up demand for college, which drove up the cost, and to induce unqualified students to attempt college, resulting in drop-outs and defaults on loans.

    Now the bad decisions were showing up in the budget.

    Since the colleges – who were the servicers of the loans – were guaranteed against defaults, they did not do much if anything in the way of collections.

    Congress than forced the loan servicers to use collection agencies, engaged the IRS to intercept tax refunds, and on and on. When debtors began filing for bankruptcy, Congress then made it very difficult to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

    So, the core of the existing situation is NOT “the invisible hand” but the Welfare State, which has again mucked something up to nearly the point being uncorrectable.

    In the short run the solution is to wind down Federal participation of any kind in student loans. In the long-run we have another Federally-created mess to pay off.

  29. Exactly.

    There is no free lunch.

  30. Have you run the numbers on making all education free?

  31. And then the lenders would (wisely) stop making student loans, which only came about because the Federal government guaranteed the loans.

  32. Not going to college would be the solution.

  33. We did allow bankruptcy for student loans.

    Since the Federal government guaranteed the loans, it started showing up in budget, so Congress made bankruptcy difficult.

    If Congress eliminates guarantees, student loans will disappear.

    And that is the solution.

  34. That is the most coherent response yet.

    Not everyone has to go to college.

  35. Allowing bankruptcy for all of history up until the 90s, is what kept the prices of colleges in check and the loans from being as predatory as they have become. It was removed as a “deal with the devil” to get Republicans to back the change in loans in the 90s.

    Student loans will not disappear if we bring consumer protections back. Schools will adjust their fees to match what markets demand, students will get less predatory loans, and overall costs should decrease. Banks used this predatory atmosphere to jack up the amounts students were “elgible” for and schools used the greater amounts students could “pay” (because of the larger loans) to put in gourmet cafeterias, spa-like rec centers, upscale on campus apartments (instead of basic dorms,) etc.

    Bringing back basic consumer protections will cause some pain in the beginning, but it’s the only way to reign in this spiral of unending building by schools and limitless lending by lenders.

  36. I understand. You think that if government gets out of the way, the market forces will solve the problem. You have more faith in the invisible hand than I do. Perhaps it worked in little English villages centuries ago, but this is a global society where politics, nationalism and corruption hold sway. Neither do I think pulling back here or there, trusting the market, will work any better than what we have now. What scares me is our seeming willingness to let corporations rule. It’s the end of democracy, but the natural result when we put our faith in the invisible hand.

  37. No, you don’t understand.

    Market forces would have not created the problem.

    The government having messed with it, thus creating a problem, much as it did with the savings and loan collapse or the pension fiasco, we now have a huge debt which is going to have to paid by someone.

    Guess who?

    The rest of your rhetoric about “little English villages centuries ago, but this is a global society where politics, nationalism and corruption hold sway” is the sort of reality-avoiding nonsense we hear from folks who like to compound problems with yet more silliness.

  38. Allowing bankruptcies is one of the things that kept the demand for uncollateralized loans high, which in turn kept the price of colleges high by creating an artificially inflated demand for college education.

    Both parties voted for the changes in the bankruptcy law to stem the resulting losses as cover-up of how far off the mark the loan program had gone, else it would have shown up on the budget.

    There were no “consumer protections” removed.

    This was just another kick the can down the road by Congress.

    No college student anywhere could obtain an uncollateralized loan for the kinds of sums provided in college loans if the loans were not guaranteed. Period.

    How many college students can float a loan for a $30,000 automobile, which at least allows the bank to repossess?

    Banks aren’t the problem, then. They did what they were incentivized to do by the Federal government.

    Real consumer protection, given that those of us who will have to pay these loans off are the taxpayers, is to scrap Federal loan guarantees, which will result in a shut down of the student loan programs, which will reduce the college population, which will cause the price of college to drop.

    Serious students will either borrow off parents’ homes, which will really goose them to pay off their loans and take courses that will actually lead to employment, or they’ll work their way through school.

  39. A real job is one which provides a paycheck sufficient to house, cloth, feed, and care for one’s self and to pay off one’s student loans.

  40. Among other reasons we import a portion of our educated workforce is that college counselors – who make $30,000 a year – tell students to get a degree in what they “really love” instead of “in something you can support yourself with”.

    A couple of my acquaintance is going to be attending their daughter’s medical school graduation, and then the offspring is off to begin the practicums necessary to enter the workforce.

    Their son is in Vancouver “studying Pacific Salmon” with no prospects for employment whatsoever.

    We did NOT rely on the invisible hand, thus the problem.

  41. The banks would not even be in the business if the Federal government had not guaranteed student loans.

    How much money do you think a 19-year-old could borrow on her or his own with zero collateral?

  42. In 1950 I lived in California and graduated from high school. At that time California had a network of free junior colleges. These were scattered around the state making in convenient for many students to live at home while attending college. A B average from high school was a requirement for enrollment. Completing all courses required by the University of California with a B average entitled the student to enter the University of California as a Junior. I enrolled as a junior at Berkeley and needed to pay only $72 for an “incidental fee” per semester.

    This benefit was destroyed by rhe Republican Party when Ronald Reagan became governor.

    I very much doubt that if California in the 1950’s could afford this, that the Great USA could not do this now. It would require reinstalling a progressive tax system.

  43. California has a progressive tax system. It continually dances along the edge of insolvency.

    Had the Republicans not thrown the brakes on, the state would have gone insolvent.

    You’ve inadvertently put your finger on the problem: “free” stuff is a powerful campaign tactic.

  44. At that time we had a national very progressive tax system. In the present situation the states must not tax much more than other states or the corporations will leave them,

  45. Social “austerity” measures in this country are due to the pie being of a limited size.

    When California, for example, looked at adopting a single-payer healthcare system, the numbers totaled more than its entire existing budget – by a factor of 2.

    The notion that you can live in a socialist utopia by simply ratcheting up the tax rates is silly on its face.

  46. Although commonly accepted, your ideology rather than reasonable is an escape into a world of fantasy. A larger “pie” would require an increase in productivity. That is not possible on this planet without hastening our demise due to lack of the resources necessary for survival. The “pie” must be cut more justly. We need to decrease consumption and the time individuals must spend producing goods..

    Your understanding of socialism seems to be any system that has a just distribution of production and distribution of income. I’m not certain that Socialism would do this. For our survival we must create such a system.

  47. Perhaps the reason we can’t have free education in this country is because of too many greedy citizens.

  48. That would mean more people like yourself not being able to understand reality.

  49. The purpose of a rounded education is for citizens to be able to understand our reality and to think critically, The need for this is apparent considering the President that Americans elected.

    Evangelical Republicans are advocating technical training only. This will help them to foster the separation of us into classes that can be more easily controlled. Knowledge is power that they don’t want to share.

  50. You went to college and you have a very thin grasp on reality – e.g., the magic utopian socialist state.

    Explain that for us.

  51. It’s commonly accepted because it’s true.

    The fallacy that “not possible on this planet without hastening our demise due to lack of the resources necessary for survival” apparently arises from being raised in the People’s Republic of California and/or going to college there.

    Predictions that we are going to run out of resources have consistently been disproven by increases in productivity brought about by technology.

  52. Your question, which is a strawman. demonstrates that you couldn’t understand the answer.

  53. Your answer, which is nonsense, demonstrates that you don’t understand the question.

  54. Yes, because it’s greedy to want to actually make use of the money you earned.

  55. That pretty much defines man’s governnents.

  56. That almost reads “The purpose of a rounded education is for citizens to think like me.”

  57. Your rather skipped over a critical distinction between these countries and the USA.

    For an example, let us take a look at France:

    “Lycée general and lycée technique”

    “Students start to specialise with the aim of sitting the Baccalauréat (le bac), which is the qualification to enter university at 18 years old. Students choose different ‘series’. The general bac consists of the L series (literary studies), ES series (economic and social studies) or S series (sciences). The S bac is considered the toughest.”

    “There are also some seven baccalauréat technologique, diplomas based on specific technical skills. The technology bac series include Science and Industrial (STI), Science and Laboratory (STL), Health and Social Sciences (STSS), Science and Management (STG), Music and Dance (TMD), Agronomy (STAV) and Hotel Management. If the lycée has an International or European section there may be tests taken in English that count towards the marks.”

    “Students have to pass all subjects in the series (getting 10/20 in the exam) to pass; those getting 8/20 or under have to retake the year and sit again. Those who pass can get a place at one of France’s universities.”

    “Sitting for the tests can be a nail-biting experience and many students may add a series of practice tests to their regular studies during the final two years. However, many complain that the testing level has decreased and is one reason why many students fail their first year of university, although ministers and civil servants disagree.”

    “Lycée professionnel”

    “At a lycee professionnel (lycées pro), students work towards qualifications to help them get a manual or clerical job or pursue further vocational studies. These qualifications are the baccalauréat professionnel (bac pro), CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnel) and BEP (Brevet d’enseignement professionnel), which focus on one of four fields: social/health, driving/transport, catering/hotels, and optics. Lycées du bâtiment and lycées agricoles specialise in building trades and agriculture. The professional baccalaureate requires three years of study and certifies the student to work in a qualified professional activity.”

    Functionally illiterate students, which a goodly percentage of American high school graduates are, cannot enter colleges and university.

    Education is aimed at obtaining employment, not “doing something you love” which appears to be standard mantra of American education.

    The French approach is the standard European and Asian approach.

    The result of the American approach is that a bachelor degree is the equivalent of what used to be a high school degree, and tuition is through the ceiling.

  58. Actually the non-dischargability laws were passed to protect Congress, which made loan guarantees without which no lender in his or her right mind would give large uncollateralized loans to college students.

  59. Replace “a rounded education” with “religion” and you’ll actually have posted a rare correct phrase there, Bobosé.

  60. There surely must be libs who are aware that university education abroad is not “free to all,” but I’ve rarely ever seen one comment on the subject. .

    For all his claims of advanced age, BH sounds remarkably millennial-like.

  61. He’s a product of California and an earlier incarnation of its “Governor Moonbeam” politics and higher indoctrination system.

  62. Must be. My mom’s cousin graduated from Stanford in the 1950s and came away with nothing much that anyone could see other than a marriage that lasted less than a year and an odd preoccupation with the paranormal.

    However, having lived and observed for eight decades she is now a conservative. I guess for some the higher indoctrination is incurable.

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