In the shadows of San Francisco skyscrapers, forty-five clergy from various faith traditions and neighborhoods stood as one.
With news cameras rolling and Bay Area reporters scribbling, at 10 a.m. Wednesday, February 22, the Reverend Gloria Del Castillo stepped up to the street pulpit.
“I am the Reverend Gloria Del Castillo, from La Iglesia Episcopal del Buen Samaritano in San Francisco’s Mission District. After many years of working hard and saving money—and of being a loyal customer of Wells Fargo Bank—I am about to lose my home. This is my story.”
Businesswomen and men, clutching steaming cappuccinos, paused on the corner of Montgomery and California streets to catch a glimpse of what the cameras were capturing in front of Wells Fargo National Headquarters.
“I came to this country from Peru thirty-three years ago, and for many years I was a teacher in the Richmond Unified School District. I worked with small children and their parents in Head Start programs. Then, 13 years ago, I became a priest working in the Latino communities here in the Bay Area.
“Whether I was advising the parents of the children I cared for or preparing young couples for marriage, I have always given them the same financial advice my father gave me: Never spend what you have not earned, and always save a little each month for a rainy day. Because I always followed my father’s financial advice and paid all of my bills on time, I was proud that I always had a great credit score.
“Eight years ago, as I was approaching retirement, I bought a home. I wanted to acquire some equity in a home where I could live out my golden years. My home has also been a place for my parishioners and their families to gather for fellowship and for Bible classes. As a single woman, I was so proud to become a homeowner; able to take full responsibility for my own financial future and provide a welcome place to the people I love and care for. I was so happy.
“At first, Wells Fargo and one other bank held the mortgage for my new home jointly. The initial monthly payments were well within my means. What no one told me was that after two years, my monthly mortgage payments would jump by 50 percent.
“As soon as I learned that this huge increase was about to occur, I immediately went to Wells Fargo to ask for re-financing. I explained to them that I had been a loyal Wells Fargo customer from the day I had arrived in this country 33 years before, and that I had always paid all my bills on time. I pleaded with them to check my record and see for themselves. They said they would not help me, and they gave no reason why. A few months later, my mortgage was taken over by another bank and, a few months after that, my monthly mortgage payment jumped from $2400 to $3500. This meant that almost all of my monthly paycheck would now have to go to make my mortgage payment.
“But even still, I made all of my payments. I was able to cut back all of my expenses, including food, to successfully make every mortgage payment. Eventually I went to Wells Fargo to ask them again to refinance my mortgage. By then, the interest rates had gone down a lot, so I asked if they could help me reduce the monthly payment. They said that my house had gone underwater and that they would not help me.
“The bank that now held my mortgage told me they could not refinance my mortgage because my house had no equity. Then I received some bad news: Because of the recession, my job at the church was being cut back to a part-time position. My monthly income was cut to less than half. Now I would have enough money only to pay property taxes and homeowners insurance, with little left over for food and other necessities. I would not be able to make my monthly mortgage payments and survive. For the first time in my life, I would not be able to pay all of my bills in full and on time.
“I went back to Wells Fargo again. I reminded them that I had been a loyal and perfect customer of theirs for 33 years. Because they again refused to help me, I decided to move my money out of Wells Fargo and put it in a different bank with better practices.
“Now, each month I am receiving several letters from the bank that holds my mortgage. My credit record is ruined. The bank says that I have fallen into arrears and that, if I do not pay up, they will take my house away. I am sad to say that over the next six to 12 months it looks like I will be forced out of my home.
“This is my story, but it is not mine alone. Millions of my fellow hard-working, tax-paying citizens have put our trust in institutions like Wells Fargo. We bailed them out in their hour of need. Now, on Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, we ask why they continue to be so unwilling to help us keep our homes.”
With that, the Rev. Gloria Del Castillo bowed her head and stepped back to where the other clergy stood in a semi-circle behind the pulpit. Moments later, to close out the clergy press conference, with her bare hands Rev. Gloria scooped ashes out of a clear container and sprinkled them cathartically onto the cold concrete in front of the Wells Fargo ATM.
As she indicated, the Rev. Gloria’s story is not unique. After a multi-billion dollar taxpayer bailout, mega-banks like Wells Fargo continue to refuse to help families stay in their homes through writing down underwater mortgage debt to current market value. Overall in 2011, the nation’s banks earned $119.5 billion, a $34 billion increase over 2010 and the largest increase since 2006. (See: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Matthew 18: 21-35.)
Earlier in February, a government report found that 84 percent of foreclosures studied in an audit of 382 San Francisco homes from the past three years violated at least one state foreclosure law. The report states that the foreclosure process is “utterly broken.” However, because new policies and practices have yet to be enacted to fix the foreclosure system, it’s people like the Rev. Gloria who are left with no shelter from a broken foreclosure process.
For this reason, in addition to a call for widespread principal reduction, people of faith all over the U.S. are calling for a foreclosure sabbatical until government policies and corporate practices can catch up with the facts of this broken system. Until these changes take place, individuals and congregations all over the country, through PICO and the New Bottom Line Coalition are committing to move their money out of bailed-out mega-banks and into smaller, community-oriented banking entities. San Francisco congregations and non-profits have joined the nationwide movement by committing to transfer 10 million dollars, to date, out of SF-based Wells Fargo.
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us of the roots of this commitment to justice: “The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis we use, or in human compassion, or in any direct experience we ourselves may have of poverty. These are all doubtless valid motives that play an important part of our commitment. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love (1).”
—Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, M.Div., lives in San Francisco with his wife Natalie, and works as a congregation-based community organizer with the San Francisco Organizing Project, a part of the PICO National Network. Read the first installment of his series: On Mission and Chavez.
- Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Orbis Books. Revised Edition, 1988. Page xxvii.