Preacher: I appreciate everyone’s willingness to serve on this committee. The city-wide pastor association wants to do something about all the check-cashing locations that have opened in town. They feel that the poor are being taken advantage of. Something is very seriously wrong when we have a check-cashing business on nearly every city block throughout town. There is one shopping center with three of these things right next door to each other!
But all my university degrees are in Bible and homiletics. I don’t know anything about business or how we might take some action to help the poor in this city.
Lib: Preacher, I appreciate you including me, but I’m not sure I have much to offer. I majored in economics, and the market will take care of this problem. If the check-cashing businesses are over-charging, then competition will bring prices down, close some of the stores, and people will only have to pay what’s fair. The best thing we can do is nothing.
Mark S: I couldn’t disagree more! This is clearly a case of the entitled, privileged 1% taking advantage of their greater access to capital to charge the poor for a service that ought to be free! We should lobby the city or the state or the Congress to ban these businesses altogether. It’s just a scam to take from the poor to further enrich the rich!
Ellie Funt: Just wait a minute. If we have check-cashing stores on every corner, they must be meeting a real need. People need to have their checks cashed! So why don’t we meet with the owners and ask them to agree to some sort of voluntary limitations. Maybe a voluntary code of ethics where they agree to make full disclosure of their charges and don’t charge anything unfair. I don’t like the idea of the government regulating one more business. That idea has never helped a single poor person ever. We just need to push the owners to a little higher standard.
Don Key: Lib has overlooked something called “oligopolistic pricing.” There’s obviously a price conspiracy pushing the cost of check cashing above the natural price. But because so many companies are involved, and because the federal government has so weakened antitrust law, there’s no legal solution to their price fixing. We should get up a petition and picket them. The solution is non-violent resistance. Maybe we post signs on public rights of way saying that God is against price gouging the poor. I mean, we should take on the church’s natural prophetic role and loudly proclaim these people to be sinners!
Preacher: Well, I see we have a lot to talk about. And maybe I need to add my own thoughts to the mix. Obviously, I’ve not been doing my job in the pulpit because no one has yet mentioned what the Bible says on the subject.
[The rest of committee stare at their respective feet.]
The Preacher continues:
Here are a few verses to reflect on —
(Lev. 25:35-37 ESV) “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.”
I guess the usury part would apply more to payday or car title loans than check cashing. But there’s a principle here: we aren’t to profit on the poverty of our brother. You see, the Torah commanded the Jews to relieve the poverty of their fellow Jews by lending money and not requiring interest — and these loans were forgiven every 7 years.
And can you imagine this? Moses says that we should treat our fellow brother at least as well as we treat a stranger or alien (another translation for “sojourner”). The command is to let the poor brother live with you because you’d surely let a stranger or alien do the same!
Sometimes it’s easier to be generous to a stranger than a brother in Christ.
Lib: There you go! It’s about private charity, not some government giveaway. People taking care of people! We just need to forget the whole thing, and if some kind member wants to help a poor person, God will bless him!
Mark S: But we can’t count on people actually doing this. I mean, it’s not like Leviticus is a new command, and yet no one is helping these poor people. Not enough, anyway. I don’t see how we solve anything without the government requiring a change in behavior by the lenders. It’ll require the force of law.
[Lib was about to shout something when the Preacher cut him off.]
Preacher: There’s another passage I found. It’s about tithing.
(Deut. 26:12-13 ESV) 12 “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, 13 then you shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.”
The Israelites gave a tenth of their produce — gross receipts, not net profit — to the priests to be used to support not only the Temple but also the aliens, orphans, widows. It was a mandatory tax used to support the needy. You see, these were the people without land, and in that society, without land, most people could not support themselves.
[Mark S was looking pretty smug and Lib was flipping through his Bible looking for a passage on capitalism.]
Lib: What about —
(2 Thess. 3:10-12 ESV) 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Preacher: Oh, I agree with that! I think Moses did, too. After all, the gleaners still had to gather their own part of the harvest, thresh it, and otherwise do all the hard work of turning grain into bread. But those who owned farmland were required to leave some of their crops in the field for the poor to glean. It was a system designed to preserve the dignity of the poor, letting them work for their food. The farmers did what they could not do for themselves — grow the crop — but the poor had to do the rest.
Mark S: Look. I don’t want to picket or post signs at these locations. It would embarrass people who are already ashamed that they have to go to one these places to get their checks cashed. And I don’t think the market is going to self-correct. If that was going to happen, it would have already happened.
Preacher: Imagine that God made you a king or queen of our city. If you were really in charge and had the power of God, what would you do? You wouldn’t just close the stores, because people need a way to cash checks. You wouldn’t just pass a law making the stores cash checks for free, because, without a profit, the stores will close. So even God has to deal with reality.
So let’s ask why anyone in his or her right mind would cash a check for an outrageous price at a store that everyone knows is gouging the poor. Why do so many people do this? I mean, when I was a kid, no one had to do this. What changed? And maybe that will tell us how, as God’s people charged with God’s mission, we can help.
[A long silence filled the room. Facebook-level political posturing doesn’t provide any real insight into the real problems of real people.]
Don Key: You know, we have a housekeeper. We used to pay her by check because that’s how we pay all our bills — well, before computer payments were invented. And she begged us to stop. She went to our bank to cash the check, and they refused because she wasn’t a customer! My wife was so mad she drove straight to the bank and met with the branch manager. She threatened to cancel our accounts. I mean, why not cash our housekeeper’s check? It was good. It was drawn on the same bank!
The branch manager said our housekeeper should open a checking account and it wouldn’t be a problem. But my housekeeper explained that a checking account wouldn’t work.
First, the bank charges fees on low balances, and the housekeeper could barely make ends meet as it is.
Second, she’s Hispanic. And no one will take a check from a Hispanic woman — even though she and her parents were born here in the US. My wife explained that now most stores would take checks because they can electronically verify funds and transfer them immediately. But our housekeeper said that not every store would do that, and some refused her checks just because of how she looks. Even her daughter’s elementary school wants cash for school trips. Too many people pass bad checks.
Third, she explained that she uses cash to budget. When she gets paid, she sets aside money for the rent, for utilities, etc., and then the cash left in her purse has to last until her next payday. It’s just a lot easier than trying to balance a checkbook. Frankly, I did the same thing when I was in graduate school.
My wife asked about the dangers of carrying so much cash. Surely she’d rather not risk being mugged. My housekeeper explained that she goes to pay bills with friends, and only in the daylight. They don’t feel safe, but you do what you have to do.
Every since then, my wife has paid her in cash. We still report her wages to the IRS, but we’d rather go to the bank and withdraw some cash than force our housekeeper to go to one of these check-cashing stores. These people prey on the most vulnerable in our society, and God is going to deal with them.
Ellie Funt: Why don’t we prevail on the employers in town to pay employees in cash? I know some construction firms that do that. Why not encourage this among more employers?
Lib: Because most payrolls get made out of town and no one wants to have that much cash sitting around. I mean, if you make a large payroll, you might have tens of thousands dollars to pass out, and these days, that’s just dangerous. And you’d have to hire security guards. And the payroll staff would have to spend all day passing out cash, whereas now they just have to transfer funds to their payroll account and a computer spits out the checks.
[The Preacher was pleased that the conversation had passed clichéd TV news soundbites and moved to something more thoughtful. But he didn’t hear anything like a solution. He said a quiet, silent prayer for guidance.]
Mark S: I have an idea. What if we go into the check-cashing business? I mean, twice a month we set up tables and volunteers, get a bunch of cash, and offer to cash checks for free for anyone who needs our help. We’d have to invest in one of those check-reading machines that electronically transfers funds to the church. We’d have no risk on the checks at all.
[Ellie Funt liked the idea of no credit risk.]
Ellie Funt: So how do we get enough cash? And what keeps someone from holding us up and stealing the money? I mean, it could a huge amount.
Mark S: Well, the church has a line of credit. We just go to the bank and borrow it. And we have some members who are police officers. We could get them to stand guard. It might encourage people to come here to cash check because they’d feel safer. We’re in a convenient location and a couple of police cars in the parking lot and some uniformed officers at the door would keep us safe. More importantly, it would keep our … clients (I wanted to say “customers” but we aren’t going to be in business.) … safe.
Lib: I’ll visit city hall and make sure we don’t need a license. We aren’t trying to make a profit and so we aren’t “in business.” We shouldn’t need a license, but we should make sure. And we aren’t lending money, so there won’t be any bank or lending regulations. But we should get a lawyer to check out the legalities just to be sure. I mean, you can count on the check cashing places to try to shut us down. And their first attack will be that we don’t have a business license.
[The Preacher was pleased that the discussion had moved so easily from an idea to a decision to go forward to planning the details.]
Lib: Look. This can’t just be another charity giveaway. We have to help people as people, not a class. We need someway to get to know our clients. We need them to know that this is about Jesus — not just money.
Mark S: I couldn’t agree more. We could offer coffee and donuts for the people in line. Maybe offer a training class on how to get and use a debit card or computer bill paying. We might even set up some computers for the community to use to pay bills. I mean, I’m sure they’d prefer to come here, get some help learning the system, and sit at a computer desk rather than standing in line at the power company, the gas company, the water department, etc. I mean, I know people who spend all day one Saturday a month standing in line paying bills.
Maybe if we just offer some instruction, a free computer, and some help, people could have more time to spend with their families.
Ellie Funt: We have some members who are bankers. Don’t you know that they’d love to set up bank accounts and debit cards for those who want them? (They’d get points under the Community Reinvestment Act.) I know that many people will keep on paying and budgeting with cash, but some might prefer to go cashless. I mean, no one discriminates against a debit card!
Lib: What if we take their checks, deposit them in their personal account as kind of a clearing account, use a computer to pay their monthly bills electronically while they wait, and then give them the rest in cash. We could do in 10 minutes what would normally take a day. And they’ll have met a friendly church volunteer who’s made life a little easier — at the church building, in the name of Jesus.
You know, I can imagine this getting to be a big deal. People will feel safe, see friends, enjoy some coffee and donuts, share their lives with each other, and have a great time with some of our most loving, most Christ-like members. We might even persuade some folks that the church matters, that Jesus matters, that his Kingdom really can make a difference.
[The conversation continued until midnight.]