The Common Good

Community Organizing: Changing Lives

[Editor's Note: In the current issue of Sojourners magazine, Danny Duncan Collum's article on community organizing describes how faith-based groups are inspired to take on social sin. From America's heartland, here's an example of how a grassroots group, with help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, took on moneylenders who were preying on the poor.]

A few years ago, when Bev Causer took out a loan from her neighborhood lending store, she saw it as a short-term solution to help her unemployed son. But she soon became tangled in a web of short term loans -- each one taken in order to buy time to repay the last, and each carrying hefty penalties and an exorbitant interest rate, often hidden in the fine print of the agreement. In only a short time, her debt grew from $500 to $3,000.

Bev's story is similar to more than 300,000 others in her state of Ohio who have fallen victim to payday lending. In 2008, the average payday lending victim in the state had 13 outstanding loans, many with annual interest rates as steep as 391 percent. There were more than 1,600 payday lenders in the state -- more than the number of McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's restaurants combined.

But unlike many other states, a coalition of community organizations that make up the Ohio Commission for Responsible Lending was able to successfully pass a new state law capping payday lending interest rates at 28 percent, extending repayment terms to 31 days, limiting customers to four payday loans a year, and prohibiting such loans over the internet. (Read this blog's celebration of that victory at the time here). With this new law -- which was the result of the blood, sweat, and tears of community organizing groups and their committed members -- significant steps have been taken to protect people like Bev.

Many of the groups involved in achieving this victory -- for example, Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP) and BREAD (Building Responsibility, Equality, and Dignity) -- have received help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). CCHD is the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops that supports around 250 community groups every year engaged in work to address the root causes of poverty in their communities through community organizing and economic development.

A central criterion of CCHD's funding is the empowerment of low-income people and their involvement in the work and decision-making of the groups in which they are involved. For example, through BREAD, Bev Carver began testifying publicly about the dangers of payday lending -- an action inspired by her faith and her desire to be involved in a larger effort to change an unjust situation. Such testimonies were instrumental in passing Ohio's new law.

The stories of groups like ESOP and BREAD and the individuals involved in them testify to how community organizing affirms human dignity, support families, and build stronger communities. For CCHD, supporting such efforts is not only one of the most effective ways to effect positive change in local communities and in the lives of individuals and families who live there. It is also a necessary response to the Gospel call to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, new sight to the blind, and to set the downtrodden free (Luke 4:18).

Jill Rauh is Issue Outreach and Youth and Young Adult Coordinator for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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