Don’t want the government to cancel student loans? Then your church should.

(RNS) — I try to avoid mentioning that I’m a pastor when I meet new people because the conversations immediately get weird. I experienced one of these awkward turns while on vacation with my family and sharing a pool with a 70 year old woman doing water aerobics. After learning about my profession, she began to lament her grandchildren’s absence from church before turning to her hope for a political candidate claiming America for God.

The desire of younger members of our family to share our religious convictions and beliefs is normal. Unfortunately, the desire for our beliefs and convictions to control society is also predictable.

In Luke’s account of the announcement and birth of John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel told John’s father, Zacharias, that the message John conveyed would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children.” When John began to preach and prepare people to behold Jesus, he told those who had two tunics to give to those who had none and to do the same with their food. He referred to this work as a means of “bringing forth fruit in accordance with repentance.” The First Nations version of the New Testament says, “When people heard these words, they began to have hope.

I can’t say I was shocked when I heard the backlash at the news of last week’s announcement of student debt cancellation.

I was raised in a tradition that praised the virtue of neighbors taking care of their neighbors — and believed they could do so in ways the federal government couldn’t replicate. It is in this spirit that the church I serve launched an initiative in 2020 called Equitable Healing Reparations Initiative. The purpose of the work was to pay off black therapists’ student loan debt in order to reduce the disparities that exist in mental health access and care as well as the growing wealth gap between black and white Americans.

I had recently heard Jemar Tisby’s lecture on his book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” During the conference, he explained some of the realities that challenge Black representation and access to mental health care and the need to fix the systems perpetuating these challenges. He also suggested financial reparations as a way for mainstream American churches to repent of the inequities their institutions have helped create and maintain.

Bringing these ideas together, we created our initiative and over the past two years, over 100 people from 12 states (and one handsome Canadian) have donated over $84,000 towards Black Therapist Debt Payments. Our small, low-budget church also pledged to give monthly to repair these broken systems and donated $18,000 to the initiative, bringing the total to just over $100,000. One therapist’s debt has been fully repaid and we are about to repay another. We are also nearing the launch of a black-led foundation that will continue and expand this work.

An unexpected fruit of this effort was that young people – many of whom had left the church or Christianity altogether – were filled with hope at the thought of a church moving in financial repentance towards a more equitable society. The hearts of grandparents, fathers and mothers were awakened to the harsh realities of a young generation of students. Several people in their twenties and thirties told me that it was the first time they felt good giving money to a church. The fruits grew because of repentance.

If the reason for your opposition to last week’s debt relief program is that it comes from the federal government, I would like to offer this method to you as a means for you to enter into the work of proclaiming a a realm where there is no debt and everyone is ready to thrive. If you think the best way for this to happen is for neighbors to take care of neighbors, why not ask your church to start paying the debt of neighbors who have been crushed by predatory lending and the unsustainable costs of continuing education?

I don’t know if my children will believe what I believe about Jesus, but I’m convinced that if they do, it will have more to do with institutional repentance than with institutional certainty. I think that was the key element that Jean-Baptiste offered to those who gathered around him and began to have hope.

The woman in the pool with me that day really wanted her children and grandchildren to experience a God who knew and loved them. She was eager for them to want this love, but the systems she had invested time and money into weren’t pushing them towards her view of their world.

Jesus spoke these words when he rebuked those who considered themselves children of light who sought security and comfort in their money and possessions: “The children of this world are shrewdest in their dealings with their own generation than are the children of the light.” Last week, the United States government offered a more hopeful proclamation of the gospel to those under the weight of debt than that offered by a great part of what is called the Church.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard older Christians calling for revival. For them, revival meant that those who disbelieve come to terms with us and our institutions. I have yet to see such an event take place, but I wonder…what if all the money for territorial expansion and church planting was instead for debt relief and racial justice?

Reverend Danny Bryant. Courtesy picture

Could such an act fill people with hope and prepare hearts for the righteous reconciliation offered in the body of Jesus?

(Danny Bryant is a priest of St. Mary of Bethany Parish in Nashville, Tennessee. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Jerry B. Hatch