Payday lenders have been in the news a lot over the last few years, and rarely for good reasons. Whether its being accused of ‘grooming’ children with catchy adverts, or driving people to suicide through excessive interest rates, payday loan companies have attracted criticism all the way up to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, Justin Welby’s famous ‘War on Wonga’ led to the government introducing a cap on how much could be charged and how much debt people could get into through high-cost borrowing. But how have local churches been responding to the Archbishop’s call and the trouble caused by exploitative lending – or usury, in biblical language – in their own communities?
Well, we’ve seen a victory this week. A group of churches in London are celebrating a remarkable win against one of the biggest payday lenders in the country – Speedy Cash. The story starts at the end of last year, when churches in Brixton started expressing outrage at the way the local Speedy Cash store was luring people in with advertising slogans such as: “You are not aloan, we are here for you”, and store wore Kangaroo costumes to hand out balloons to local children.
The churches decided to take action along with other local faith groups who were involved in a community alliance – Lambeth Citizens. Just before Christmas we organised a public ‘action’, which involved more than 40 people singing cleverly altered Christmas songs – think: “O Speedy Cash, O Speedy Cash, your marketing is way too brash,” to the tune of O Christmas tree. One church member in our group dressed as Father Christmas and presented the Speedy Cash store with a bag of coal, along with a letter to the chief operating officer, asking for a meeting to discuss how they might change their marketing.
The story was picked up by the Daily Mirror, and within two weeks, we had a response from Speedy Cash offering a meeting. A month later a dozen local leaders sat down with Mike Charles, COO of Transatlantic Limited, the parent company of Speedy Cash. They presented the complaints, told stories of local people who had got into trouble through borrowing with Speedy Cash, and offered to help advise the company on a more responsible marketing strategy. Unfortunately, these offers were met with a polite refusal – “we don’t change our policies as a result of community feedback, but only if the regulator tells us we have to”.
This was of course a major setback, as the negotiations ended without any serious progress having been made. But we were undeterred. We started exploring ways to engage with the relevant authorities to make an official complaint. A few months later a lawyer who had heard of the campaign got in touch with an offer to draft a complaint to a local authority. The complaint argued that the “You are not aloan” slogan deliberately targeted those who were likely to be vulnerable, and claimed “we are here for you if you need us”, was designed to make people believe they would be offered helpful advice and support, rather than simply extortionately priced loans.
The complaint was submitted, again with a public action and a story in the local newspaper. And this time it did the trick. Just three days after the Council sent an inspector to visit, the signs began to disappear from Speedy Cash shops across London. The company had obviously decided that it wasn’t worth waiting to be told that they had to change their behaviour, and so pulled the plug themselves.
Of course it remains to be seen what Speedy Cash will do next, and whether this slap on the wrists will lead to a real change of heart. But whatever happens, this volte-face represents a significant victory for a small number of committed churches pitting themselves against a multi-million pound corporation. Their secret? An ability to act publicly alongside others and to draw attention to a clear injustice, thus amplifying their voice and changing the normal dynamics of power in what could be described as political jujitsu.
It’s a story that the Old Testament hero Nehemiah would’ve been proud of, as it echoes many of the same tactics he employed more than two and a half thousand years ago in taking on exploitative lenders within the community in Jerusalem. And it’s a story that should inspire many other Christians today who might be coming across structural injustice in their community, but feeling powerless to do anything about it.