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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, April 24, 2009

"One, holy, catholic and apostolic church"

Sometime, just for 'ha ha's' google the word 'poverty' and then click on images.

You'll find pages and pages of images of hungry children - mostly children from the so-called 'third world'.

You'll also see heaps of trash on a barren urban street blighted with decrepit buildings or high rise city ghettos.

In among them, you'll also find images urging us to "Make War on Poverty" or "Fight Poverty" or "End The Cycle of Poverty" or "Make Poverty History."

Wonderful slogans with altruistic if not unrealistic expectations.

What you won't see is the image of poverty that I have been dealing with most of this week.

I got a call on Monday evening from a man I'll call 'John' who lives in a small town I'll identify as being in "The Heartland" of these United States of America.

His voice was calm and steady, devoid of the usual tones of what I've come to wearily call "the long distance skammers."

Clergy get them all the time - people who look us up on the internet and tell us very sad tales of impossible woe which usually begins with, "I lost my job." Or, "My mother died last year." Or, "You're not going to believe my story, but I hope you'll listen because no one else will. I've got no where else to turn, pastor. May I call you pastor?"

You'll clearly hear my sarcasm when I tell you that I sometimes refer to them as "The Country Western Song" calls - you know, the ones with the litany that includes variations in the key of Sad: ". . . My wife done left me, my dog died and my car broke down . . . OOOOOh, my achey-breakey heart."

'John's' call was not like that. Not at all. He was polite but not solicitous. As I recall, he began with, "I wonder if I might have a few minutes of your time?" I thought it was a telemarketing call or my local police or fire station making a cold call for donations.

He explained that he was an Episcopalian who had been born in Northern New Jersey, but found himself transplanted to "The Heartland" which he now called home. He said he had looked me up on the Internet, along with several other clergy in the area, whom he named. He had spoken with two of them and had left messages for two others.

"I've gotten into a tough patch," he said, and I had this idea that if I called a few clergy in my old home state, maybe if a few of you got together, you might be able to help. It's really bad here in the Midwest, and churches can really only help with a few days supply of food, which is wonderful, but that's not what I need."

"Well," I said, trying not to sound sarcastic, "let me guess. You need money."

I was preparing myself to give him the bum's rush with my usual line about how I don't give money to people who call me on the phone from out of state, but his honesty stopped me dead in my tracks.

"Yes," he said, "Seven hundred dollars, to be exact."

"And how did you come to need seven hundred dollars?" I asked.

"Well, we've hit a rough patch, like I said," he began, "The medical bills got way ahead of us and the pharmacy sent our bill to a collection agency. All of a sudden, we were getting these calls and letters from a lawyer who told us that if we didn't have the money by the end of the week, he was going to foreclose on our house."

"For $700?" I asked incredulously. "He's going to leave a family homeless for $700 in medical bills?"

"I can give you his name and number," he said, "and you can hear him for yourself. The man may have more education than me," he said, quietly, even kindly, "but he don't know nothin' about being a gentleman."

He cleared his throat before he continued, "So, after I realized that the local churches here were almost as bad, if not worse off, financially, than we are, I thought maybe churches in the Northeast might not be so bad. So, I thought I'd start giving you a call. I mean, we're all 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church', right? Isn't that what we say in the Creed on Sunday?"

Okay, so now he had me, but I was still defensive because of my suspicion.

"I need you to know that I can't afford $700," I started.

"Oh, no, no," he said kindly, "I don't expect that. But, maybe if you give $25 or $50 and I can get other churches to do the same, I'll be able to make a dent in this loan."

"Wait," I said, clearly unnerved by his calm pragmatics, "you took out a loan?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said, "and that's the problem. See, after the lawyer called we met with him in his office. I thought, well, maybe if he saw us face-to-face, we might be able to work out a deal. It only made it worse. He yelled and screamed in my face and told me that he had just foreclosed on two other families just that week."

'John' grew quiet again, "Pastor, when I tell you that the man was heartless . . . well, I was taught not to say anything bad about other people, but . . .I'll just say this . . .I knew that I was in the presence of something evil."

Again, he cleared his throat and said, "So, the wife and I went to this place where the attorney said we could get a loan today and it would be all taken care of before we went to bed that night."

"We went down the street to a place called 'The Cash Store'. They seemed to know that we'd be coming. Within 15 minutes, the papers were all signed and we walked out of the place feeling relieved that we wouldn't lose our home."

And then, when I got home and read over the paper work, I realized the mistake we'd made. I knew it right a soon as I saw the annual finance charge. I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that I heard the man say it in the store, but what I heard most was that I would get to keep my house for my wife and son."

"What is the percentage rate?" I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Ready? No you're not, but here it is anyway: 403%.

Yes, that's Four Hundred and Three Percent.

He would later send me a fax of his Loan Agreement but here's how it broke down: the family would have to make nine weekly payments of $108.50 - which would not pay off the principle of the loan.

That would come with the tenth "balloon" payment of $805.50 which was the original loan plus the last finance charge.

If you're doing the math, that adds up to total payments of $1,785.00 on an original $700 debt, earning the loan company $1,085.00 - more than the family owed in the first place.

No wonder they call themselves "The Cash Store."

What I do wonder is how these people sleep at night. Or, look themselves in the mirror every day.

But wait! There's more!

As I was digesting this information, I asked, "How did you let your medical bills get so out of control? Is it your boy that's sick?"

Well, 'John' lost his job a few months ago, but his wife works full time for an agency that helps kids with disabilities. Thankfully, the position comes with health insurance benefits which is not the best, but it's something.

This would be the place where you should make sure you've got some tissues handy.

His wife, whom I'll call 'Jane' has a genetic disorder which she has and has passed on to her three children. It's call 'Turcot's Syndrome" in which there is clustering of colon and brain tumors within the same family and sometime within the same patient.

'Jane' has colon cancer which is under treatment and presently in remission. One of her sons died with rectal cancer at the age of 21 a few years ago. Her 22 year old daughter presently has rectal cancer and has developed a second malignancy which is a primary tumor of the brain. Her 12 year old son was just diagnosed with colon cancer which is now being treated and doctors are optimistic that it will go into remission, but, since he is an adolescent, he is a prime candidate for the development of a brain tumor, which is the pattern of the disease in adolescents.

Go ahead. You can read those two paragraph again. I'll wait. It's all true.

I gave over all the information that 'John' faxed to me to the scrutiny of Ms. Conroy's careful if not cynical eyes. She studied them for several long minutes and declared them legitimate.

Since Monday evening, in between all the other pastoral and administrative duties I've tended to, I've been making calls. I was able to convince a friend in a neighboring police department who owes me a few (ahem) favors to run a 'sheet' on the guy. No outstanding warrants, no prior convictions, no felonies.

I called The Cash Store and learned that, in fact, a loan had been taken out by 'John' and his wife, 'Jane' for $700. And yes, I was told, the interest rate was 403%. And yes, the first nine payments were finance charge which did not apply to the principle balance. And yes, she said, she slept well at night. (Yes, I asked.)

I called the drug store in the Midwest to check out the story of the loan. After a few calls, I eventually got the owner who sounded more desperate than 'John'. He's had so many outstanding debts that he, in his words, "had to resort to a lawyer who has been a godsend to me. He's helping me save my business."

When I tried to tell him what the attorney was doing to exact the income from his debtors, he said, "I don't want to hear it. I can't hear it. I have to provide for my family, too. You just don't understand how bad it is out here."

Apparently, I don't. It got worse.

I called the attorney. 'John' was right. He is an educated man, but he ain't no gentleman. He essentially said that this was none of my business and that I was to . . . wait . . . let me quote him exactly . . ."turn my goody-two-shoes in the opposite direction and mind your own damn business."

He did end our conversation on a somewhat compassionate note by saying something I had heard before, "You just don't understand how bad it is out here."

So, I decided that I probably needed to try and understand how bad it was out there.

I called the Episcopal Cathedral where 'John' said he had gone, but all they could give him was food - and someone slipped a $20 bill in his hand. I spoke with a woman who was as cold as a three day old codfish packed in ice.

I had introduced myself and told her that I was just trying to get a better understanding of the situation and could she fill me in. I'm trying hard not to believe that her rudeness was due to the fact that this particular Cathedral is in a highly conservative diocese with a bishop who has had a very high profile in the movement to leave the Episcopal Church.

Nah. Couldn't have been that. Or maybe, when they say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, when they get to the part about "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," they cross their fingers.

So, I called a friend in a neighboring diocese who told me that "Yes, it's that bad here, Elizabeth. Most of us are just working on the principle of 'the greatest good for the greatest number'," adding, "I'm amazed that someone had $20 in cash to give your caller. That was probably an act of sacrificial giving."

I suddenly felt ashamed of the secret judgment I had made in my heart about that.

I also called the Dean of the Cathedral in a neighboring, friendly diocese. I left a message, explaining the nature of my call. That was two days ago. No word yet. I'm going to keep trying.

I had also emailed all the clergy whom 'John' said he had called, giving them all the information I had, and urging them to try to be as generous as they could.

Well, there's no 'happily ever after' - not in this economy - but there is Good News:

Three clergy were able to contribute $108.50 each.

One clergy person went to her Ecumenical Clergy Council and was able to secure a donation in the amount of $434.

I was able to contribute $216, for a total of $976.50 - or the equivalent of almost the entire finance charges on the loan - leaving them with the $700 original amount plus the last $108.50 finance charge.

Something in me prompted me to pick up the phone and call the Cash Store again. I got the same woman I had previously spoken with and told her what we were able to do. She seemed surprised but pleased in an amused sort of way.

So I pushed it a bit further: I asked if they received the $976.50 by Monday, the 27th of April, the date the first payment was due on the loan, would they forgive the entire rest of the loan?

Well, she did the math and muttered that there would be this penalty and that additional charge and would I wait while she made the adjustments.

It was my turn to be rude. I interrupted her mathematical pre-occupation and asked, in my best professional tones, of course: "Are you kidding me? You are going to get all your money back, plus earn $276.50 in 14 days without breaking a sweat and you want more?"

She was quiet for a while and said, "If you get a valid check or money order to me in the amount of $976.50 here by the close of business day on the 27th, we'll call it a deal."

I know how this is going to sound, but I'm going to say it anyway: I'm thinking she probably made money on the deal.

Whatever resentment I harbored for her melted away when I called 'John' and told him the Good News. He could hardly believe it, but as soon as he got his mind wrapped around the truth, the first thing he did was call out to his wife, "Honey," he said, "it's a miracle. It's an honest-to-God miracle!"

Okay, you can hand me one of those tissues, now.

I am so proud of my sister and brother clergy here I could just weep. These are kind, generous people with not a great deal of money in their discretionary funds, but they did the very best they could. I thank God that I am in this diocese with them.

But mostly, you know, I have a 'peace that passes human understanding' in my heart. I keep thinking about something 'John' said.

"I mean, we're all 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church', right? Isn't that what we say in the Creed on Sunday?"

Yes, it is, 'John'. Yes it is. Those are no longer ancient words on a page in my Book of Common Prayer.

I don't think I'll ever say that part of the Nicene Creed again without pausing to think of 'John' and 'Jane' and their son - and a few of my clergy colleagues here in what many in this church consider 'that apostate diocese' of Newark who really believe - and live - the words they profess with they lips.

And all to the glory of God.


8thday said...

If you post an address or otherwise get me some contact info, I would be honored to make a donation. I assume that John will have continuing expenses and will need more than the original loan paid. My email is

Mary Sue said...

I'd report the lawyer to the local Bar. That sounds straight-up underhanded to this law-school dropout.

Anonymous said...

Yup, it's that bad. I'm the new rector of a small parish in southeastern Michigan and even if my discretionary fund had $50,000 in it I could probably give it all away in a month. As it is I sit on the phone and hear desperate people plead for me to help them to not be evicted, to help them repair their furnace because they can't stand another night in an unheated house, or help in buying stuff like insulin. And then I have to decide who gets the pittance I can give out, and after that I sometimes go sit in the sanctuary and cry. There are too many Johns and Janes out there and not nearly enough help to go around. Some nights I lay awake and pray that these folks find some relief, and soon.

Lisa Palmer said...

Wow, and none of us are alone in our struggles. You did an awesome job of researching and contacting everyone involved. In reaching out to someone you had never met, you offer us all hope. Thanks Elizabeth, for being such a compassionate person.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks. I suspect you are correct. I'll keep your email for future reference.

There has GOT to be a better way!!!!

J. Michael Povey said...

My beloved

This is a Gospel story. Do you suppose that Episcopal Life would run it?


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It absolutely is underhanded. What a creep!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Karen, my heart breaks. There has to be a way out of all of this. I know that systemic change is what is called for, but that is even more daunting a task than trying to find help for this family.

I'm with you in prayer and in spirit, my sister.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Michael, I would hope that EL might run the story only if we could get ERD to have some sort of local response team effort. See Karen's comment above.

KJ said...

Thanks be to God! What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it, Elizabeth.

Grace said...

An awesome story, Mother Kaeton. God bless you!

Suzer said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story, Elizabeth. And thank you for going the extra mile to help this man, a stranger at first, but not a stranger in Christ.


Elizabeth, I am in awe of your compassion and persistence in tracking down help for John. I am humbled by his story and inspired to renew my paltry efforts to make a difference. Prayers for all who listen, pray and help the poor.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

And likewise, you can always hit me up for $25 in similar situations, Elizabeth. I know you do your research and know you're legit with what you go out on a limb over.

I get SO torqued off at those instant cash places. Somehow they always can manage themselves into being exempt from the usury laws. grrr

Muerk said...

John and Jane and their family are in my prayers. I pray especially for healing for their children.

Here in New Zealand we have laws that allow people to back out of consumer finance arrangements:

If you change your mind about a consumer credit contract (such as a loan contract or a hire-purchase agreement), or later discover that you will not be able to afford the payments, you may be able to modify or get out of the contract, in one of the following ways:

* The law allows you a three-day "cooling off" period after you sign the contract to change your mind and cancel the contract.
* You may be able to get out of the contract if the lender hasn’t provided you with all the information that the law requires.
* You may be able to get out of the contract if the contract or the lender’s conduct is oppressive.
* You may be entitled to have the contract amended if something unforeseen has caused you hardship.

Does America have similar protection?

IT said...

okay but can we teach them to fish?

Look blogs are a great way to mobilize people beyond "isn't that terrible"

If things ARE that bad there....could we set up a fund for donation with a review board of X number of clergy (some local some not) to give emergency grants and loans? I'll donate.

call it the Telling-secrets loan fund
Or "Put your money where your mouth is"

Even if it's only a couple of hundred $$$--if John was in this for $700 that's all he needed. Or they original loaner might have given him a break if he'd managed to come up with $400 and a payment plan.

You could even be eye to eye and challenge the "other side". Can we come together to help people in need regardless of conservative or liberal? Under the skin we are ALL the same.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT, of course you are right. The real tragedy of this particular situation is that 'John' realized his mistake after he made it and after it was too late to do anything about it.

His tragedy is compounded by how some prey on the vulnerability of others.

And, I am haunted by revkarenj48's post. What to do when you've got a cup of rice and 100 hungry people?

Song in my Heart said...

What to do when you've got a cup of rice and 100 hungry people?

Make stone soup.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Right, Song, which is what I tried to do in this situation but keeping my sister and brother clergy in the information loop. But, read revkarenj48's note again. I hear Jesus saying, "The poor will always be with you."

I can't take care of all the people in the Heartland, any more than I can take care of every person in my church.

I can only do what I can do. What I'm going to do today is to try and call that 'friendly Dean' again and see if we can't get organized and make another small pot of Stone Soup.

Doorman-Priest said...

Perhaps you do need socialism after all.

Song in my Heart said...

I think making stone soup is exactly what you already did and exactly what you are trying to do. I'm sorry if it seemed I implied otherwise.

If everyone were willing to go to such lengths, maybe there would be enough to go around.

I don't know. But I hope so.

I try to be generous with what I have; I struggle to know when is enough, and I struggle to know when what I'm able to give is actually making any positive difference.

Let me know if I can add some cabbage to the next pot.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Doorman, if we're talking about Stone Soup Socialism, I'm all for it. And, you know, Song, this particular thing unfolded exactly the way it was supposed to. God was really sitting on that family's shoulder. But, if you've got some cabbage, you might want to check with some local clergy, too. You just might inspire them to whip up a fresh pot of stone soup.

Song in my Heart said...

In an attempt to retain at least some anonymity I don't post using this identity about the bits I do locally. I'm also sort of in-between communities, so I end up contributing a little bit to many separate pots. Some of them are local and some of them aren't; in the case of non-local pots I contribute based on whether I trust that good work is being done.

It may be that I'd feel less frustrated if I concentrated my efforts more, but I think it's important to recognise that we're all in this humanity thing together and it's all, really, the same pot.

I don't have a whole lot of cabbage either, but I guess the point is to put in what I can.

Unknown said...

If you talk with poor people who are being threatened by a debt collectors tell them to talk to their local Legal Aid. The generally must be low income to call. Many have hotlines that can tell them their rights. I doubt that "John's" house was actually at risk, but he had no way to know that unless he got legal assistance.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I read this post last night, and I was extremely moved and grateful for what you and your colleagues did on behalf of this family. It's been with me for the past half day or so. One thought that occurred to me was that your inner Suzanne Sugarbaker (assertive, articulate, advocate) came into play. Obviously, many systemic things have to change. But between now and then, we do need some First Aid strategies. I, too, am always happy to kick in a few dollars - but the other thing that happened was your effective use of your experience (discerning need from scam), speaking to power, and gathering a network). I wonder if there could be a way we could all learn to be better economic first responders.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You're absolutely right, John. The problem is that people like 'John' have bought the 'American fable' that, to be a 'real American' you must be able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and if you can't, well, you deserve what you get. The predatory loan sharks know this and feed on it.

I have filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and this particular store. I can't prove it, but I suspect there's a connection between that lawyer and that 'Cash Store'.

Anonymous said...

Just a postscript - it's bad, but let's remember how amazing people can be during tough times. Elizabeth's story is one example of many. We just finished wrapping up the final day of the parish rummage sale, and for the last hour we basically give stuff away. We were mobbed. People were walking away with shoes, coats, pots and pans, and all kinds of things to make life easier. Members of the congregation are amazingly generous with both their time and with donations, and because of their generosity a lot of people were able to shop with dignity.

We've got to dig in, keep praying and working, and remember the loaves and fishes.

VTcrone said...

I just posted your blog piece to the White House's website contact page and asked them to make sure the President read it. I also posted it to NBC New's "Making a Difference" web page.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

VT Crone - Oh, my. I don't much care about NBC news but I do hope someone on President Obama's staff reads it and begins to crack down on places like The Cash store with prey on good people.

Paul Davison said...

I don't know which hurts the most: what these people were doing to their neighbours or the coldness in the hearts as they did it.

Of course, on some of the cable news channels, you can see that coldness applied all of the time.

Judy said...

Surely that interest rate must be illegal and if not, why not.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I agree, Judith. Apparently, it IS legal. Why? Hmmm . . . perhaps there's a logical answer to that question; if so, it has escaped me.

Paul Davison said...

Why is the rate legal? I don't know what state "John" is in, but I suspect the loan companies made liberal contributions to the members of the state legislature, who then wrote the laws to suit the loan industry. That's what happened here.

Unknown said...

Having grown up in the heartland, Ok, I know that most of these states have usary laws that prohibit this type of conduct. Further, most states have poverty law centers that can help John and Jane by advising them of their rights, filing a bankruptcy petition to save the house, and calling the local bar to report the improper conduct of the harassing attorney. My prayers are with John and his family. Thank goodness there are people like you to listen and help.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm sure most states across the country have laws that prohibit 'this conduct' (threatening, harassing, etc.), but not the outrageous finance charge. I think Paul may be on to the reason for this. The problem, of course, is that unless you can prove a pattern of 'conduct', it's really just one person's say-so against another.

What's that verse from the old Depression song, "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer"?

I think it is helpful, as Karen says, to focus on the loaves and fishes. It's not that there's not enough (fill in the blank) in the world - it's about distribution of wealth.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

That is exactly how quick loan places stay within the law, Elizabeth. "Finance charges and "fees", including one if you pay them off "too early." Some of them also work by having you title over your car to secure the loan. Then they can get all your money and your car, too, which, of course, is the usual means of transportation folks use to get to work. See the vicious circle?

Credit card companies get around their 23% interest because they have a good lobby, and it's not "bank interest." Banks and traditional lending institutions are the only thing covered by usury laws in Missouri, best as I recall.

Here in my part of the heartland, the lady from our parish who volunteers most frequently at the local food bank and makes announcements for it at church told us last Sunday that they have been giving out food as fast as people can donate it, and could definitely use more.

Things are really rough out here.

Br. Christopher Nicholas said...

I have heard of many churches and organizations which are doing micr-loans for people in dire situations of poverty in third world countries. Your heart wrenching story would indicate that something like that is as needed here.
We can't help everyone but we can do something for those God puts directly in our path (i.e. The Good Samaritan). The family you wrote about is now on our path and through you a heart connection has been made. Might we deepen this connection and continue to help him and surround him with love and widow's mites? I would be willing to send a little something to go towards helpinh his family in their struggle. Count me in for adding some carrots to the soup.