This article has been adapted from a reflection by Reverend Ebony Grisom at a Faith for Just Lending convening in January. Faith for Just Lending is a national coalition of faith-based institutions working to end predatory payday lending. Learn more about how predatory payday lending harms families and communities here.
I’ve been reading Nehemiah for the past week or so for my work with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. I am inspired by the people’s response to Nehemiah’s retelling of his conversation with the Lord, saying, “Then they said, 'Let us start building!' So they committed themselves to the common good.” (2:18b, NRSV). The people gathered together to work for a common good, based on someone else’s testimony and encounter with God.
The prophet Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s gates and walls after the exile, an embodied period of rehabilitation for God’s people. It was a manifestation of God’s restoration, an invitation to literally participate in their own renewal. God would restore them, but they would have to put in some work.
Nehemiah was in the palace serving as the king’s cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11d). I imagine him living his life like everything is golden - until he hears about the people’s suffering, the people on the other side of the tracks, the ones “that had escaped which were left off the captivity” (1:2b). Upon hearing the conditions under which his city and people suffer and that only a few remain, his heart becomes so broken that it shows on his face. Have you ever been so broken on the inside that it showed on outside?
If it stayed on the inside, he might have been able to keep it to himself. But, once Nehemiah’s heartache changes his countenance, the king takes notice and asks why. Despite his fear, Nehemiah makes his request: “Release me that I may build my city” (2:4). Nehemiah chooses to move from the palace to the people, from the seat of power to the posture of prayer. Yet, he remains true to his vocation throughout: a servant, first to the king, and then to the people of Jerusalem.
In Nehemiah 5, the prophet and the Israelites begin to build the wall, all the while listening to testimonies from the people impacted by the exile. As they build, they fend off attacks and watch one another’s backs. It must have been exhausting to fight battles on every side, but at the same time encouraging to know that they did not fight alone. No matter how busy Nehemiah’s hands were, his heart was with God and his people in solidarity, even in the midst of attack. The Message translates Chapter 5:1-13 this way:
A great protest was mounted by the people, including the wives, against their fellow Jews. Some said, “We have big families, and we need food just to survive.”
Others said, “We’re having to mortgage our fields and vineyards and homes to get enough grain to keep from starving.” And others said, “We’re having to borrow money to pay the royal tax on our fields and vineyards. Look: We’re the same flesh and blood as our brothers here; our children are just as good as theirs. Yet here we are having to sell our children off as slaves—some of our daughters have already been sold—and we can’t do anything about it because our fields and vineyards are owned by somebody else.”
I got really angry when I heard their protest and complaints. After thinking it over, I called the nobles and officials on the carpet. I said, “Each one of you is gouging his brother.”
Then I called a big meeting to deal with them. I told them, “We did everything we could to buy back our Jewish brothers who had to sell themselves as slaves to foreigners. And now you’re selling these same brothers back into debt slavery! Does that mean that we have to buy them back again?” They said nothing. What could they say?
“What you’re doing is wrong. Is there no fear of God left in you? Don’t you care what the nations around here, our enemies, think of you? I and my brothers and the people working for me have also loaned them money. But this gouging them with interest has to stop. Give them back their foreclosed fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes right now. And forgive your claims on their money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
They said, “We’ll give it all back. We won’t make any more demands on them. We’ll do everything you say.”
Then I called the priests together and made them promise to keep their word. Then I emptied my pockets, turning them inside out, and said, “So may God empty the pockets and house of everyone who doesn’t keep this promise—turned inside out and emptied.”
Everyone gave a wholehearted “Yes, we’ll do it!” and praised God. And the people did what they promised.
Like Nehemiah, that is part of why we are here today.
We’ve heard people tell heart-wrenching stories about how payday lending has affected their lives, how they’ve been trapped in the debt cycle, and how they desperately need help. They’ve lost their cars, homes, marriages, and dignity. In the most extreme cases, they’ve lost their will to live. We’ve listened to their stories, and we’ve been moved.
These stories affect us. How can anyone listen to these kinds of stories, seeing the impact payday loans have had on people’s lives, and not get angry or moved with compassion? Sometimes society forgets that people of faith, clergy in particular, get angry. We serve a Savior who wept, turned over tables, and deeply cares. Our culture needs a reminder that the Church still exists and cares about people consistently, not just on Sunday mornings. The Church’s “care” includes civic engagement; in the case of predatory lending, that means working to dismantle the policies that uphold these practices.
In verse 10 Nehemiah says, “I and my brothers and the people working for me have also loaned them money. But this gouging them with interest has to stop.” We have no issue with making loans. We do, however, take issue with making another’s poverty the portal to your prosperity.
Nehemiah reminds us that each of us has a responsibility - we too must lend justly. We must be doers of the word, not just hearers who deceive ourselves (James 1:22). Nehemiah 5:27 says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” As used here, orphans aren’t just the fatherless - they are “those bereft of a teacher, guide, and guardians.” We already know that there are many orphans among us: they sit in the pews where we pastor, walk into the agencies where we serve, cry on our shoulders, and appear on our social media feeds.
In our current political and societal moment, faith in the public square needs to be not only visible, but audible. It isn’t enough to visit monuments and look at pictures of leaders from yesteryear, reminiscing about “the movement”. We are living in a time of our own movement, and it is time to act.
In hearing the outcry of our people, we gather in Washington, D.C. again to discern how best to remind our lawmakers of their responsibility to protect their fellow Americans from usurious products. I love the way that The Message translates some of Nehemiah 5, verse 9: “What you’re doing is wrong. Is there no fear of God left in you? Don’t you care what the nations around here, our enemies, think of you?"
Something else jumped out at me while rereading Nehemiah this time. “So they committed themselves to the common good.” The people commit themselves to the work - not to one another, their leader, denomination, bishop, district, non-profit, or theologies. As we affirm each of our personal callings to seek justice for those whom the powerful prey upon, let us recommit ourselves to the common good that called us to this table before the creation of the universe. Amen.
-Rev. Ebony J. Grisom of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative in Washington, DC enjoys her native New York City, books, music, handbags, and shoes.