Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, almost fifty years after the historic 1963 March on Washington. Today we also bear witness to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. The simultaneity of these events is remarkable, serving both as a signal of how far we’ve come as a nation, and how far we’ve left to go.
The economic crisis Barack Obama discussed in his first inaugural address—a new iteration of the economic crisis Martin Luther King jr. spent the last years of his life fighting—continues unabated. More specifically, the foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately affects people of color, continues to exact harsh costs.
But unlike the situation in King’s time, no significant movement exists to transform the crisis into an opportunity to generate economic equity. Just last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced new provisions that should make it harder for banks to give mortgages to unqualified men and women, and that should help people going through foreclosure. Banks now have to ensure that the person applying for a mortgage has a high enough income to be able to pay the monthly bills and associated fees, as well as any other debts that individual may have, whether it be credit card debt or student loan debt. Furthermore, banks can no longer “dual-track” homeowners, foreclosing on their homes even as they work through the loan-modification process. These new provisions should help some homeowners.
But they do not go far enough.
The new provisions do little to nothing to ease the burden of the millions of American homeowners who are either underwater because their homes have fallen drastically in value, or on the verge of foreclosure because of job loss or health issues. It’s time for concerned Americans to figure out some new organizing strategies that will keep us in our homes and prevent further evictions.
Nationwide, a variety of groups have begun to do this, using a number of tactics up to and including civil disobedience. But the challenge here is a straightforward one: people are still too ashamed to even talk about their circumstances amongst family and friends, much less in a broader public forum, and as a result these organizations have found it difficult to build a critical mass of support for their activities.
Movements, like people, need homes
Five months after Occupy Wall Street began, a group of civil rights leaders formed Occupy the Dream. Although it amounted to little more than a photo opportunity, I think the idea of connecting the fight against rampant economic inequality to the strategies and tactics of the civil rights movement is one that deserves further examination.
We should begin with the church.
Approximately 57 years ago last year, a group of political organizers in the Deep South made a tactical decision to fight busing segregation. Though they’d had some success in finding individuals willing to challenge Jim Crow, they hadn’t yet found a way to mobilize the broader community.
They needed a central space within which to dialogue, to organize, and to provide legitimacy for their work. They chose the church because it was one of the few institutions blacks had a modicum of control over, one of the few institutions a significant number of blacks routinely participated in, perhaps the only institution with moral authority, one of the few institutions they could gain legitimacy from.
After Rosa Parks was arrested, the organizers identified a church led by young Martin Luther King jr. and Ralph Abernathy, and were able to successfully use the church to wage what would become the longest boycott Montgomery had ever seen. Victory came a full year later, when the Supreme Court upheld a federal district court ruling that found the segregation of buses in Alabama unconstitutional. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was created as a result.
Now, the causes and consequences of the Montgomery Bus Boycott are far more complex than I note above. Furthermore, the circumstances we face now are very different than the ones faced by black Montgomery denizens suffering under Jim Crow. Black churches are not the force they used to be (for good reason).
Yet a few facts remain. America remains a nation deeply segregated by race and class. Along those lines, even though churches are not as central a part of black life as they once were, they still represent an important gathering spot for African Americans. And they are still one of the only places where people from different walks of life routinely gather to gain moral and ethical instruction and guidance.
Given these realities, churches could be a wonderful place for organizing and mobilizing Americans against foreclosures. Organizations like Take Back the Land, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, and Occupy Baltimore (among others), have done a masterful job of getting citizens to realize that the foreclosure crisis is not driven by irresponsible individuals taking out loans they can’t afford, but rather by an irresponsible system. But imagine how this movement could be broadened if churches became involved, given how many churchgoers routinely attend church once a week if not more.
What would it look like?
I believe that a church-led movement against mortgage debt should have a few key components.
It would begin with a church-based anti-shame campaign modeled off the one developed by Strike Debt. Once a week or one Sunday a month, churchgoers either would be given (or should take) the opportunity to speak candidly about their mortgage debt. At best, this should be combined with sermons that emphasize the immorality of the ongoing debt crisis. Contrary to the views of prosperity gospel adherents—who believe that material wealth is a sign of God’s approval—Jesus was far from what we would today call a capitalist. The den of thieves he refers to in Matthew 21 was arguably the biggest bank in Jerusalem. If done correctly, the personal testimonies and sermons should reduce stigma around foreclosure within the church membership, and create a space for public conversations and political actions around debt. Churches can involve everyone in this activity—choirs can perform songs, children can draw pictures, and so on.
The second component is creating debt committees. These committees would exist for the purpose of identifying the roots of churchgoer debt. Are the mortgages held by one bank in particular or several? Are the terms of the loan onerous, as they were with the subprime mortgages disproportionately handed out to African Americans and latinos? Are the mortgages themselves under water? If individuals are in the foreclosure process, where are they in the process?
These committees would exist as both a short-term means of giving churchgoers the means of coping with the stresses and anxieties of being in debt and as long-term means of both giving churchgoers the information they need to take individual control over their debt and placing them within a broader community able to aggressively fight unfair practices.
The third component would be foreclosure defense committees. These committees would work to keep individuals who are in foreclosure in their homes through non-violent methods. This is perhaps the most critical component, the one most needed to transform the mortgage crisis from a fiscal crisis with minor moral consequences into a fully moral crisis. Churchgoers should learn nonviolent foreclosure defense tactics.
Note here that I am not simply talking about marches and/or boycotts—tactics associated with the civil rights movement but today used more often to release steam than to foment change. I am talking about engaging in tactics of civil disobedience designed to prevent bank officials and law officers from taking people out of their homes, tactics that force bankers, police, locksmiths, and the like to make a tough moral choice. Community outreach is important here—informing people in the affected communities of their plans to prevent foreclosures from happening. At best, given the concentration of the housing crisis in black communities, they will find other individuals willing to speak out and act against foreclosures.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King jr. spoke plaintively about a “promissory note” that guaranteed all Americans, regardless of race, “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For African Americans, he said, that note had come back marked “insufficient funds.” Just four years ago, Barack Obama noted that “the success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity…”
These visions overlap, but not enough. Let’s begin to use our churches to bring Obama’s vision more in line with the one that made his re-election possible.