by Phil Brochard
Readings for November 11:
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Heb. 9:24-28, Mk. 12:38-44
Thank goodness Melissa Mercogliano was at home that July morning. You see, Melissa lives across the street from her cousin Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire in suburban Boston. And that July morning Melissa could not believe her eyes as she looked across the street and saw a crowd of about thirty strangers gathering on the front lawn of Jennifer’s home. Melissa ran over to find out what was happening. The person leading the group––it was an auctioneer––said that it was simple. Wells Fargo was foreclosing on the property and in a few moments the sale would commence. Neighbors came running. Panicked phone calls were made. Because of all the sudden chaos around the house, one by one the buyers began to leave. No one was willing to bid in the middle of the uncertainty. And so, instead of being sold at auction, the house was foreclosed, Wells Fargo took possession, but the family remained in their home for the time being.
Now here’s some more of the backstory that led to that day. The Voltaires had owned that home for about four years. And made their payments faithfully. Then Jennifer’s husband had his hours cut back. And their payments were now just out of reach. So they then did what many did, which was to apply to the Obama administration’s loan modification program, so that they could keep their home while making lower payments. They filled out the paperwork and sent it in, all the while making those lower payments during the trial period. Several times they faxed in to Wells Fargo the information required––proof of income, tax documents. But somehow the paperwork never seemed to make it where it was supposed to go. It was always lost in transit. And every time, Jennifer sent it again, phoning the call center to make sure that everything had arrived like the bank had asked.
But somehow, that fateful summer day, Wells Fargo still sent representatives, attempting to sell the house right from under the Voltaires. What the Voltaires were later told, is that it was all because of one missing tax document. That a Wells Fargo representative had confirmed receiving. By this point the Voltaires sought legal advice and found that they were not alone. Scores of homeowners had been denied legal loan modifications because of “lost paperwork.” From Wells Fargo’s perspective their hands were tied. “We were never able to obtain the documentation required and as a result, unfortunately, we needed to do a foreclosure sale,” a Wells Fargo spokesmanexplained.
This might seem familiar to Christina King of Neenah, Wisconsin. When the Kings bought their home the interest rate they received from Countrywide was over ten percent. Which was doable until her husband’s hours were cut back as well. Now through the Home Affordable Modification Program their interest rate would have dropped down to around four percent, making their monthly payments possible. Same principle, just lower rates, where the market was at the time. When she applied to the program through the Bank of America, though, her paperwork just kept getting lost.
Eventually, BofA foreclosed on her house because they said that she had missed payments during the trial period of the program. Even though she had copies of the cleared checks. Apparently there was nothing the bank could do, they changed the locks on the house and Christina King, her husband and their eight children were forced to move out, thankfully to their local church’s rectory. It was over a year later, after a Wisconsin winter that flooded the basement, ruined the furnace and destroyed much of the ground floor, that the King’s received a letter from BofA stating the following, “We told you that your loan was not eligible for this program because you missed a trial period plan payment. However this was incorrect. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.” Inconvenience. Friends, these stories are not unusual, they are systemic. And by the way, Bank of America, because of tremendous losses in segments of their corporation, including legal services department, “eked” out an $85 million profit for the year while the King’s foreclosure process was ongoing. Wells Fargo exceeded expectations during the time the Voltaires were being foreclosed, making $3.9 billion in profit that quarter.
One of the recurring themes throughout the Law and the Prophets centers on the concern which God expresses for the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. Remember that the widow in the culture of Naomi and Ruth’s time was almost universally vulnerable. In a culture which placed near total importance on the pater familias, and the relationships that extended from it, a widow, separated from that relationship, had no support. They owned no property. They often did not have a way to make money. On occasion, her deceased husband’s family would take pity on her and she could live with them, but this was not the standard practice. Often, widows were at the mercy of those around them for survival. The Greek word used to describe the poor widow in Mark’s Gospel is not the word for someone who is poor and doesn’t have a steady job. It is the word used for one who begs. It was for this reason that our sacred text is clear that it is paramount for the People of God to care for widows, those who are vulnerable.
Since this was the case, for those widows whose deceased husbands owned property, sometimes an arrangement was set up so that the estates of these widows could be managed. For in this context, an elderly woman, or women in general, couldn’t be entrusted to manage their own affairs right? So, who might you turn to in a situation like this? Who might society trust to act ethically and honestly? Those who have studied the Law since childhood, those with the long robes of authority and with seats of honor. Yes, the scribes. It was a practice known as scribal trusteeship and it existed into the 1st century. Now it may not come as a shock to hear that the scribes earned a percentage of the estate as compensation for their efforts. Someone has to be compensated. And, as you might imagine, without rigorous oversight even the most pious of individuals can be tempted. Contemporary scholars have found 1st century documents that show that there was, indeed, abuse of this system. The very funds that were meant to care for the most vulnerable often ended up in the hands of those in charge of the system. (Derrett, “‘Eating up the Houses of Widows’: Jesus’ Comment on Lawyers?” NovTest, (1972) 14, pp. 1ff.)
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” (Mk. 12:38-40)
Our word hypocrisy comes from the Greek. Hypo, or under and krisis, or decision, judgement. Underdecided. Our colloquial usage, though, comes from the Greek stage. A hypokrites was an actor who plays one thing to our face, when in fact is doing another altogether. If you hadn’t guessed yet, Jesus has little patience for hypocrisy, especially when it comes to those who are vulnerable and on the margins.
To be clear, his judgment of the scribes is not universal, though it may seem that way. No, his judgment is reserved for those who like, who desire looking pious, respectable, honorific. Over time they have come to need the greetings of respect. When they come to the synagogue, they take the best seats, literally in the Greek, the first couches. At a banquet they seek the places of honor, of power, of prestige, as if entitled to them. These things are called trappings for a very good reason. It is to those scribes that this teaching is directed. Because they have failed to live up to the trust which was placed in them. Outward appearances to the contrary, these same used these places of honor and responsibility to systematically dominate and exploit the weak.
Why? Why did some of those scribes choose to oppress, to devour those whom they have been taught to protect? Why have some, though clearly not all, in positions of power in these enormous, too-big-to-fail banks, why have some engaged in this deceit and exploitation? Because they can. And because often those who are caught in these traps don’t have the resources, the connections, the where-with-all to challenge a multi-national corporation who repeatedly loses your paperwork. What is one person or one family against the aggregated might of a Wells Fargo or a Bank of America?
Friends, these structures were created to aid those who need to borrow in order purchasing a home (that’s most of us), lending to us even as they earn the interest. And yet this very system is actually serving to consume some of those it was designed to assist. For in the settlements that various individuals and governmental authorities have extracted from several of the national banks, especially Wells Fargo and the Bank of America, from these recent settlements we have learned of the reprehensible hypocrisy from which they operated. Even as these banks had been working with many homeowners like Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire and Christine King, indicating that they were agreeable to loan modifications and that their applications were being reviewed, (though somehow that paperwork never got here), at the very same time these same financial institutions were proceeding to foreclose on the homes. Friends this is a moral injustice. This temple, as it has been constructed, cannot stand.
All Souls Parish began our banking relationship with Wells Fargo Bank at least as far back as 1928. It is well possible that our relationship goes back further. But because of the participation of Wells Fargo in these deceitful and destructive practices, the Finance Committee and the Vestry of All Souls felt that we could no longer contribute or participate by being customers of this banking institution. Earlier this year, All Souls Parish ended our relationship with Wells Fargo and we moved our money, every penny of it, to a local, privately owned bank.
This fall, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation began a national campaign called Move Your Money. It’s a simple campaign and one that nearly all of us can participate in. To end our complicity with this injustice––so much as we can––congregations, businesses, families and individuals across the United States are moving their money as a practical and theological statement. They are finding local banks or credit unions, interviewing them about their practices and then choosing where best to steward their resources. If you haven’t yet moved your money, please consider it. And if you have already, consider being a resource, a guide to those hoping to do the same. Many, including those in leadership here at All Souls have found this to be liberating. It may well be seen as small change amidst the billions, but acts like these just might be the way that change begins.
The Rev. Phil Brochard is a partner, parent and priest. He spends some of his waking hours as the Rector of All Souls Parish in Berkeley, California.