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VOICE (Virginian's Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) Speech

[Video Background on VOICE]

I have served as part of the lead clergy team working with the Prince William County Mortgage foreclosure crisis.  To date, we have summoned, organized and channeled people's awareness and support toward bringing accountability to the three major banks responsible for the majority of foreclosures in the country: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and General Electric (who owned Country Wide and other lending institutions).  To date we have negotiated more than 150 million dollars in principle debt reduction, more than 1.67 Million in funding regional housing counselors to restore credit, and we are preparing to launch a 45 Million dollar community restoration program to increase home ownership in devastated communities and providing affordable housing.

Here is a the 'framing' speech I delivered before 600 people gathered in which we hosted representatives of each of the 3 major banks and Senator Mark Warner (D. VA).  

Good Evening Church!

 

I say ‘Church’ despite the fact that, tonight, we are in a school and not a sanctuary.  And I say it despite us not being all of one tradition.  But, let me be clear, tonight we are a ‘church’ because we gather together heart and soul for a collective religious purpose: and that is to hear a prophecy for Justice and bring righteousness to God’s people of Prince William County. 

 

And to talk about Justice, I want to invoke one of the Hebrew prophets – the prophet Amos.  Because on the topic of justice, Amos had a few things to say. 

 

Amos, you might remember was a poor shepherd and a farmer – which, is to say a good, hard working and loyal shepherd and farmer who, like most of the people lived under the debilitating forces of oppression and poverty. 

 

God had called Amos to go out of his home in Judea and travel to the kingdom to the north, Israel.  For it was known that Israel had strayed from the tenants of justice laid out by Moses and Joshua.  What was supposed to be a land of milk and honey, where opportunity and prosperity were shared, had become a land of the very rich and the very poor.  So it was up to Amos to return the kingdom to its nobility… to restore a land wherejustice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)

 

There is much the prophets of old would not recognize about our modern ways.  But sadly, one thing they’d recognize in an instant is that the ugliness of injustice is as dehumanizing to the poor and untenable to God as it was in the days of Amos. 

 

Last decade, when the financial powers finally recognized they had overinflated the housing market, panic and economic collapse ensued.  Housing prices plummeted.  Lenders cracked down hard on individual homeowners.  Many loans which had been written to fail – did fail.  Many people were left ‘underwater’ – owing more on their mortgage than their homes were worth.  This was definitely NOT the intended fulfillment of Amos’ prophecy… that “justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

 

The banking industry offered their own narrative about what happened.  It was carefully spun with technical financial jargon, excuses, justifications, projections… and very little in the way of compassion for the suffering of millions or accountability for the banking practices that brought about that suffering.

 

The crisis narrated from the point of view of individual homeowners was different.  It used terms that would have been familiar to Amos.  Terms like ‘heartbreak,’ ‘deception,’ ‘exploitation’ and ‘injustice.’   There were even a few modern terms Amos never heard of like ‘predatory lending,’ and ‘robo-signed’ foreclosures.

 

20,000 homes were foreclosed on in Prince William County.  Today, 5-7000 homeowners are, still, in immediate danger.  More than 30% of Prince William households are underwater.  Homes were abandoned and resold to slumlords seeking to profit from the tragedy inflicted upon the poor.  More than 550 million was lost in community equity.  And neighborhoods stripped of their vitality and dignity have shown increases in drugs and crime.  

 

This, church, is what injustice looks like in our times.  And this has been the calamity which has called forth an Amos from among our people.

 

Three years ago a prophetic call was heard by community leaders all over Prince William County.   A call to have a VOICE respond to this injustice.  Brothers and sisters, we are VOICE and we emerged to deliver that same message that Amos was asked to deliver: to “Hate evil, love good and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:15). 

 

Now, it’s worth explaining this passage a little bit.  In the ancient near east, in the time of Amos, ‘kingdoms,’ were protected by walls and a gate.  The elders of the city sat in the gate, watching for strangers or circumstances that might be dangerous.  As a result, political and social issues were settled where the elders sat – at the gate.  The idiom “in the gate” – from the Hebrew, (vasha’ar) – means “where the politically and socially powerful conduct human affairs.”  The phrase, “In the gate,” came to refer to that place where people who’d been exploited could find recourse, where the poor and powerless could resist their exploitation.

 

VOICE called together community leaders.  We met.  We wept.  We talked.  We organized people and organized money.  We forged a plan to restore and revitalize our neighborhoods.  And we took this plan to ‘the kingdoms of the North’ to be heard ‘in the gate.’

 

We asked them to provide timely and effective loan modification… principle debt reduction… credit restoration for victims of predatory loaning practices…  And – most important of all – we called for the funding to restore conditions that encourage long-term residents and home ownership.

 

What came out of those conversations?  So far, we’ve gotten $110 Million in principle and debt reductions for those who’ve tenaciously held on to their homes.  More than 900 families secured loan modifications.  We got Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and GE to provide $1.67 for non-profit housing counselors in Prince William County.  And we even helped to secure $8 Million from the Virginia Housing Trust Fund. 

 

What do you think?  Is this not testimony to a prophetic VOICE demanding justice?  Praise God!  These are significant achievements which deserve praise and thanks. 

 

BUT – we also recognized that having injustice addressed is not the same thing as having justice restored.   

 

So, VOICE went further.  We deepened conversations with Bank of America and got a promise for $10 Million toward affordable home acquisition.  We met with Jeff Immelt of GE who promised $5 Million toward the restoration of those properties.  And we met with Jamie Dimon and Frank Bisignano who said  $10 Million from JP Morgan Chase shouldn’t be a problem – IF – we could come to the table with the right people and a solid financial plan. 

 

So, we gathered great partners including the best local and national non-profits including UrbanMatters / NixDevCo – a development firm with a proven record of restoring blighted communities.  And TRF Development Partners – one of a handful of CDFIs with which JP Morgan Chase does business.   

 

We gathered power across the political spectrum highly motivated to restoring value and stability in neighborhoods… Like Senator Mark Warner, Virginia delegates Lingamfelter, Anderson and Senator Colgan. 

 

And fashioned a solid fiscal approach based on the successful revitalization partnerships in Baltimore  

 

We went back to the gate, excited, because we knew these were good plans that would bring hope and justice to families and neighborhoods – IF – the promises made were honored.  Our excitement increased when Bank of America confirmed they’re in.  We heard last week – and will confirm tonight – that GE is in! 

 

Now, everything comes down to this last piece – JP Morgan Chase – keeping their promise.  With them – everything works… hopes for justice restored.  Without them the plan falls apart and all the work we’ve done in the gate is lost. 

 

It is interesting that the one thing that the prophet Amos railed against hardest was what he referred to as religious posturing.   When those in power pose well and promise justice… but then fail to show up and DO what justice requires. 


Over and over JP Morgan has dragged their feet.  Delayed our call to meet us in the gate.   We’ve been told to wait.  Told they’re trying.  Told that it’s almost time.  We’re so tired of hearing it’s “Almost” time.  Tonight, brothers and sisters, it’s “Amos” time. 

 

Brothers and sisters, tonight we are standing in the gate with those Kingdoms of the North.  We have their attention.  We have their promises.  We even have their presence.  What we don’t have is THEIR money in OUR communities.  Or, more accurately, what we don’t have is OUR money BACK in OUR communities.   Tonight we stand ready to celebrate a prophecy fulfilled.  To have justice restored.  To know the day that Amos lived and died waiting to see… the day when “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”   For that, friends, will be the day when all God’s people say, “Amen”

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