Prophetic Witness and a Homeowners Bill of Rights
by Pastor James Erlandson
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, St. Paul (an ISAIAH member congregation since 1995)
“I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry.” (Exodus 3:7)
One of the primary goals for the congregations and leaders of ISAIAH is to be a “prophetic voice” for all the people in our communities who face growing racial and economic inequities in their daily lives.
In 2011 ISAIAH leaders began hearing loud and clear the voices of people in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul who had lost their homes to foreclosure since 2008 – and how African Americans, Latinos, and other minority communities have been particularly hard hit.
In the fall ISAIAH and other community partners introduced this issue to the media in a public meeting held at St. James AME Church in St. Paul. Several residents who had lost their homes told their stories to St. Paul City Council leaders, who were asked to intervene with the banks that failed to work with homeowners and refused to offer mediation. In the succeeding months, this request went nowhere.
This inspired more ISAIAH leaders, including my congregation at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, to go out and listen to the voices of people in their communities, where so many have lost their homes. Our ISAIAH core team and Luther Seminary students did door-to-door visits in the Summit-University community in September and October of 2012. They were amazed at what they heard, and how many were affected in their own community. They heard how the national economic recession led to the loss of jobs, which left many people unable to make their mortgage payments. The lack of health insurance and rising medical costs also affected many people’s ability to pay their mortgages.
But mortgage servicers failed to respond to the crisis. Too often banks promised to work with homeowners, but simultaneously sold their homes out from under them (“dual tracking”). Homeowners could not talk to the same person twice when they called their bank, and servicers lost their paperwork. This was not only an issue for urban residents in the Twin Cities core – it was also true in the suburbs, in small towns, and rural areas across the state.
Redeemer leaders shared what they had learned from their community with state legislators in a public meeting at the church in December, 2012. Neighborhood residents gave powerful testimony to their experience losing their homes – and legislators listened.
The mortgage foreclosure issue is a genuine crisis – since 2008 over 141,000 Minnesota families have lost their homes. It has affected every district in the state. A statewide solution was required. What was needed was a Homeowners Bill of Rights, to give homeowners some protection and a process to follow when they face the prospect of foreclosure on their home. So ISAIAH partnered with Jewish Community Action, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and Occupy Homes to bring a bill addressing foreclosures to the 2013 legislative session.
Courageous legislators were found who had heard the same outcry from their constituents. Legislation was written providing basic protections, such as banning dual tracking, requiring a single point of contact, allowing a private right of legal action (when mortgage companies violate the law), and mandatory mediation for homeowners facing foreclosure.
The first hearing of the bill took place on Ash Wednesday, February 13, the first day of ISAIAH’s Prophetic Witness campaign at the state legislature. Following Ash Wednesday services, I brought ashes to the State Office Building, and stood outside the hearing room to put ashes on peoples’ foreheads as they entered the hearing room – as a sign of repentance for the sins of mortgage foreclosure. It seemed a fitting rite on this first day of Lent.
But despite the riveting testimony of homeowners who had experienced foreclosure on their homes, this legislation faced several obstacles. Banks lobbied strenuously against it. Some committee chairs were hesitant to hear the bill, due to the bank lobby and legislative leaders wanted to focus on the state budget, taxes and jobs. Pharoah’s heart seemed to be hardening against the people.
But ISAIAH leaders and their coalition partners would not give up. Many congregations brought people to the Capitol and visited their representatives and senators to bring this bill to their attention, and a prayer vigil was held outside Senate offices. Countless phone calls were made by people of faith to legislators and to constituents in counties throughout Minnesota, asking them to call their legislators and urge them to pass the bill. ISAIAH clergy led a “Way of the Cross” procession in a neighborhood in Brooklyn Park during Holy Week, calling attention to how the crisis had hit affluent suburbs. ISAIAH leaders and their community partners rallied at the State Capitol in the final week of the session, and powerfully called upon the House and Senate to “hear the bill.” For to allow lenders to continue forcing homeowners to lose their homes through foreclosure when there were common sense solutions that could keep them in their homes, would only perpetuate injustice. Clergy called upon mortgage lenders to “repent of their sins” of foreclosure, and for the Legislature to bring new hope to Minnesota families by passing homeowners legislation. And God heard the prayers of the people.
Through faith, hope, and this willingness to persevere against strong opposition, a great victory came to the people of Minnesota. The Homeowners Bill of Rights passed 61-1 in the House and unanimously (123-0) in the Senate, on the final weekend of the session. All the protections sought in the bill (except for mediation) were included. The Minnesota State Legislature indeed heard the cries of the people who had lost so much to foreclosure, and acted to pass new solutions to this crisis – giving renewed hope to homeowners in a challenging economy.
This story is a testimony to the rewards that come from hearing the cries of our neighbors in need, and acting courageously to address unjust practices – correcting them in ways that will benefit all people in our state: homeowners, renters, banks, businesses and mortgage lenders. God indeed has heard the cries of the suffering, and used faithful leaders in prophetic witness to bring justice to the people of Minnesota. In this way people of faith can be the hands, the feet and the voice of God.