Rev. David Gerth, Organizing Director of Metropolitan Congregations United, at the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis where members met for training in collecting signatures. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
December 14, 2011Area members of the Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) don't want to just "talk the talk" when it comes to advocating for social justice and the poor. They want to "walk the walk" and actively help those in the struggle to make ends meet.
"A lot of people are frustrated that our financial institutions and our Congress are not stepping up to address some very serious problems," said Rev. David Gerth, organizing director for MCU. "So, people are ready to go to the streets and do the work that needs to help people with fairness and justice issues."
Gerth said more than 600 people attended an MCU organizing meeting at St. Pius V Church in St. Louis several weeks ago. Among the issues that the growing ecumenical group decided it will focus on:
•Aiding families caught in the crisis of foreclosure on their homes.
Montague Simmons addresses the group at Second Presbyterian Church. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
•Protecting Missouri's minimum wage and its cost-of-living increases.
•Helping the wheelchair-bound by promoting neighborhood sidewalks.
•Working to defeat a "mega" sales tax proposal that MCU feels will be unfair to workers and the poor.
"The foreclosure problem and the payday loan ripoffs are issues that involve human dignity," said Gerth. "Working to address these problems that leave so many people hurting are part of being faithful to what we believe as religious people.
"When you explain the trap of payday loans to religious people, it doesn't take long for them to feel outrage and to want to do something to end this in Missouri," Gerth added.
Payday Loan Meeting
Rev. Richard Jackson of Manasseh Ministry signs a petition. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
MCU members met Dec. 6 at the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis to train for the collection of signatures for the payday loan ballot initiative. The measure would cap interest on short-term loans at 36 percent. Now, the average interest rate is 445 percent annually in Missouri and can be even higher.
Payday Lenders of Missouri argue that high risk loans can only be made if rates are high to insure a return. They also argue that they fill a need that banks refuse to fill, because it is expensive to loan to high-risk people.
Thirty-five congregations in St. Louis have pledged to work to get the payday loan cap on the ballot. Members note that Missouri is among the very worst states in unregulated payday loan gouging; and that there are far more payday stores in poor North County areas than Starbucks or McDonald's restaurants.
The Rev. Lee Porch, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church in South County, said he has seen people suffer from being trapped in payday loans – losing their cars and any money they have. He said he will be out getting signatures because it is the right thing to do.
"From the standpoint of biblical history, this practice is called usury," said Porch. "I know this has been debated for years in the legislature, but I don't see this as about politics. It's about right and wrong and whether we are going to be a fair and righteous and just society."
Mary Chubb, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, agreed with Porch. She said the legislature has been inept on the issue of payday loan scamming, so MCU is now joining congregations in Kansas City for a statewide effort to get the payday loan cap initiative on the ballot for November 2012.
Elder Ronny Hooks and missionary Barbara Hooks of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ attended the MCU meeting at Second Presbyterian Church. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"If the legislature was doing its job, the citizenry would not have to be out in the street getting petitions signed," said Chubb. "The legislators have had years to address this, but they've been unable to agree on anything. They seem to be a lot like all the legislators we have in Washington, D.C.
MCU Isaiah Cluster
Chubb is chair of the Isaiah Cluster of MCU, a group which follows the words of Isaiah 58:12, which declare: "You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in."
Montague Simmons (click for larger version)
According to Chubb, members have been closely watching a proposal that would abolish the state income tax and hike sales taxes to unprecedented levels. She said the plan, championed by some legislators and Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield, would shift the state's tax burden to the poor and middle class.
"It's the 'everything tax,' that will take a much larger portion of the incomes of regular people to finance the needs of our state," said Chubb. "It will hurt everyone who has to buy essentials with much higher sales taxes, while the best off will be much better off."
Gerth said the mega-sales tax proposal will hurt poor and middle income people, and will also harm businesses in Missouri.
"The mega-sales tax is really onerous," said Gerth. "It will remove the state income tax and tack it onto the sales taxes that we pay at the grocery store and when we purchase items for our health needs. We will be discouraging anybody from signing petitions to get the mega-sales tax on the ballot.
Barbara Paulus addresses the group. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"But we are ready to hit the streets with the petitions to get the payday loan cap initiative on the November ballot in 2012," noted Gerth. "We had more than 40 people training to collect signatures on Dec. 6. We will have another meeting to get people trained in early January."