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"I Cannot Eat Your Prayers": How Student Debt Changed One Woman's Mind on "Christian Charity"

From an evangelical home to over $100,000 in student loans and healthcare debt, one writer faces the ways in which even progressive Christianity comes up short.
 
 
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 I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the story of a good girl from a quiet town who prayed, studied hard, said no to drugs, and otherwise did everything she was told—and then went on to become Sallie Mae’s bitch and lost just about everything. This story is mine.

I grew up in an evangelical home, and was an earnest “liberal-evangelical” into my early twenties. Now I think that my former religious faith—not unlike my faith in the U.S. higher education system—gave me a warped sense of optimism about the way the world works. I believed in faith-based platitudes, plus a few secular ones. Examples:

  1. God has a plan for my life.
  2. My whole future is ahead of me.

Until a few days ago, I was too ashamed to talk publicly about what happened to me. That’s when I saw Natalia Antonova’s incredibly brave piece at Alternetdetailing her pending student loan default. This issue is so cloaked in shame and humiliation that many of us stay silent. Check out Natalia’s post-articleblog post if you don’t think stigma and shame are deeply intertwined with defaulting on debt out of necessity: she has been contacted by people who say they hope her lenders drive her to suicide.

This attitude is deeply engrained in many of us. Financial struggle is associated with sloth in this country. (Thank you, Newt Gingrich, forreminding me of that so frequently these days.) I have a very low credit score, and this means I have had trouble finding stable employment. So I go from temporary job to temporary job and write as many freelance articles as I can convince anyone to pay me for.

My daily schedule right now is as follows:

  • Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.: Edit scientific research for consulting gig.
  • Monday through Friday, 2:30 to 3 p.m.: Eat lunch while driving home.
  • 3 p.m. to midnight: Write freelance articles.
  • Saturday and Sunday: Churn out articles. No breaks. No friends, from the time I wake up until the time I fall asleep.

Tell me again how lazy I am. I never stop working, and I will not clear $20,000 of income this year. My relationships with friends and family have deteriorated because I cannot afford to take an hour or two off on weekends to hang out. The only friends I speak to nowadays are journalists who are professional contacts.

My name is Kristin Rawls. I am thirty-one years old. I am not a drug user. I am not an alcoholic. My crime is that I went to school, and then I got sick. Today, I cannot even rent an apartment on my own without a co-signer. And the way things are going—the more things are deregulated—I’m not optimistic that that will always be enough.

*

I’m among America’s brightest and best educated. If you came across me in a social setting, you might mistake me for a middle- or upper-middle-class person. This is because I “pass” pretty well. However, I am not able to get jobs that match my skills, because employers assume based on my credit score that I’m lazy and incompetent. I have never done anything irresponsible except having gone to school. I am the new face of financial ruin in this country.

It’s not that my education hasn’t given me anything. It trained me to think critically. It gave me the confidence to articulate the problems I see and make effective arguments. Because I “pass,” it may be easier for me to secure an advocate (e.g., a lawyer) even though I have nothing to pay. I also have access to publications like this one.

I do have a few things going for me, in other words. That’s the crux of the shame, I think. I am smart and well educated, and I shouldn’t be in this kind of trouble. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone deserves to be in debt slavery, but people’s expectation is that smart and highly educated people will also be financially well off.

I am not telling you these things to facilitate a bonding experience or to bare my soul. I am coming to believe that refusing to be silenced by shame is the first step in fighting predatory student lenders. I am so deeply ashamed about what I’m about to share that I’ve only told a handful of people about it until now.

But I’m tired of hiding. At this point, I realize that coming out can’t hurt me more than my lenders have already hurt me, and the only way to decouple financial struggle from shame is to normalize it, one person at a time. This is my attempt.

*

I was raised by parents with solidly working-class roots in the suburbs of one of the most affluent towns in North Carolina. My parents never taught me how to manage finances, and neither did the parents of my peers teach them. In my town, we were all trained to be optimistic about the future.

Every adult mentor of the boomer generation that I ever had urged me to follow my dreams no matter what they cost. So I took out loans. First, because as a well-above-average high-schooler in an affluent town there was never any doubt that I was going to college—and then because “following my dreams” meant attending graduate school.

Every older mentor that I ever had also told me that student debt was the best kind to have, that it was a great way to build a credit history, that it was altogether worth it because it would give me so many opportunities to “follow my dreams.”

I did well as an undergraduate at UNC, and I really hit my stride as a graduate student in international relations in Washington, D.C. My tuition was covered by scholarships there; so again, all of the older mentors in my life assured me that this was a financially sound investment.

None suggested that I turn down this offer due to the high cost of living in D.C. It was going so well that I decided I wanted to be a professor. I loved the academy, and I was good at asking tough, big-picture questions that got to the heart of things. I was at the top of my class, and I was physically healthy. I have never been a big spender. I saw no reason that I couldn’t live on the paltry stipend of $14,000 per year that I would receive from the PhD program that admitted me in Pennsylvania.

I knew it was risky, but I saw it as a bet on myself. I trusted my intellect. It had never let me down before. With much bravado, I told one professor/mentor that “I could fucking compete with anyone,” and back then, I was right. This was important, since I do not come from a wealthy family—there would be no cushion if I didn’t fast-track my way to tenure. I remained at the top of my class until my health began to deteriorate.

A few years ago now, not long after I began my PhD program, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease called lupus. Of course I had health insurance, but it was designed for young, healthy people, not people who developed serious diseases in their late twenties.

Penn State—yes, that Penn State—is not a healthy place for vulnerable people, and I became vulnerable when I became sick. For over a year, I suffered through a major lupus flare. I could not lift my arms for any more than a couple of seconds without excruciating pain. I remember sobbing while I stood under the shower, barely able to tend to basic personal hygiene. My mobility was affected. I had trouble getting around—that is, walking around campus—which meant that I was late to the morning classes I taught.

Meanwhile, I was taking out astronomical amounts of loans from Sallie Mae and Citibank. Why? Because my insurance did not sufficiently cover my healthcare expenses. And what else can you do when the doctors tell you that you could have “vital organ involvement that leads to premature death”? Do you worry about the cost, or do you worry about your vital organs? I got all the tests done. I did whatever my doctors suggested. I didn’t want to die. I took out as many loans as I had to.

Then, because Penn State would not allow me to leave for one semester with health care or the promise that I could reenter the program, I dropped out of school. Today, Sallie Mae and Citibank own me. I have more than $100,000 in debt due to student loans. I do not have any other substantial debt. Yet the damage done to my credit is not something I can ever recover from. As things stand now, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to purchase a home. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford to raise a child.

In the event that you wish to defend the criminal syndicates corporations that have stolen my future, let me tell you about the monsters deregulation hath wrought: Sallie Mae repeatedly “lost” paperwork that I sent and re-sent for a forbearance. Oh, and they conveniently changed the rules and forms every time I applied, to be sure that I would be missing some crucial piece of paperwork every time.

“Yes, we’ll be happy to help you with that,” the chirpy customer service rep always said.

When they get fed up with the fact that I don’t answer phone calls, they start harassing elderly relatives. I sometimes think I’d have been better off borrowing from the mafia.

If I could afford a high-powered attorney, I could probably get some kind of justice. But I can’t, so I won’t. How do I feel about the future? Well. I’ve decided that my only ways out are:

  1. Steal an identity and leave my real life. (Which clearly I will not do now that I’ve discussed it here.)
  2. Get involved in the underground economy somehow.
  3. Write a crap novel like Twilight that will make me very rich very fast.

How do I feel? “Pessimistic.” That’s the box I’d tell my therapist to check if I could afford a therapist. I understand why so many people who are mired in this sort of debt contemplate suicide. I’m not suicidal, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to run on rage indefinitely.

*

So, I don’t have any time or energy for religious platitudes. That’s the rub, when it comes to interacting with evangelical Christians.

About six months ago, I encountered many evangelical Christians in an evangelical setting, my first such experience in about eight years. I was reporting on the evangelical-emergent Wild Goose Festival, focusing on the degree of affirmation afforded LGBT people, and the whole thing made me want to gouge my eyes out. It felt like a microcosm of the way the outside world treats people with financial trouble—but on steroids.

I am beginning to understand why that event was so painful. Maybe it’s because we’re nearly three months into the Occupy movement. It wasn’t the treatment of LGBT people, though that was part of it. It wasn’t the near-complete absence of feminist analysis, though that was certainly part of it too. It wasn’t even the lack of intellectual rigor that lots of people associate with evangelical Christians, though that made me twitch a lot. It was about class, stupid.

This will likely come as a shock to the small crowd of 1,600 who attended Wild Goose and to those who have followed career evangelical-liberals like Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren. They like to go on at length about how they have a tendency to neglect LGBT issues and reproductive rights because they have prioritized what they call “social justice.” “The core of their calling,” they say, is “economic justice.” That’s what they say.

But these are not class warriors. I know; ten years ago, inspired by people like Campolo and Wallis, I seriously considered becoming a Sojourners intern after I finished college. Instead, I served in Beira, Mozambique, with theMennonite Central Committee. I cared about poverty. Knew nothing about it, but I cared, in any case.

The thing is, these guys—and they are all guys—are pretty open about their not-at-all liberation-oriented worldviews. At a recent speaking event, Campolo acolyte Shane Claiborne offered a non-endorsement of the Occupy movement, saying he was “sympathetic,” but calling for more unity because “God cares for the 100% … The Good News is good news for everyone!” What’s more: they’re consistent. Though journalists keep holding them up as torchbearers of the “religious left,” they have long disavowed the political left. Wallis was a charter signatory of the Christian right’s  Evangelical Manifesto.

Mennonites love Wallis and Campolo. Even in their more liberal incarnations, Mennonites often square pretty closely with these guys when it comes to religiously motivated politics. They’re anti-war and generally supportive of measures that aid the poor. But they’re also anti-choice, anti-feminist, and very often anti-gay. Not every single solitary one of them, mind you, but in general.

But back to social class: I know what Wallis/Campolo/Mennonites—and their offspring, the evangelical-emergent folks at Wild Goose, preach about poverty, and it ain’t class warfare. It’s not even sustained class critique. That’s why it’s important to turn a critical eye when Wallis opportunistically takes up the Occupy cause.

Occupy Wall Street is not perfect, but it is the first sustained critique of class injustice in this country in my lifetime. And it’s important to note: the “evangelical-liberal” career Christians we know today are not always allies in class struggle. During the 1970s and 1980s, as Mark Hulsether notes atReligion Dispatches, Wallis “was standoffish toward many forms of liberationist theology.” Tony Campolo, in a recent sermon at a fundamentalist university, said, “There’s only one way to end poverty, and that’s to create jobs.” He went on to plug charities like World Vision, as if faith-based organizations are a comprehensive solution to world poverty. There was no mention of restructuring an unjust economic system rigged against all but the most privileged. And in the forward to the brand new Left, Right & Christ, Wallis stresses that he isn’t “a man of the left” because “[we] should be Christians first and foremost.” He goes on to state that “our vocation as people of faith” is to “defend the poor” rather than to defend and uphold justice.

The premise of this book? It sets up a debate between Tea Party dominionist D.C. Innes, and Sojourners staffer Lisa Sharon Harper. There’s a presumption that both offer legitimate points of view, and that we can—and should—come together in unity because “we all love Jesus.”

Tony Campolo has also rejected ideological disagreement and vigorous debate in favor of “unity” talk. In a June interview, he rejected talk of restructuring institutions to change unjust balances of power. Instead, he suggested that justice could be achieved through “love.”

Notwithstanding the fact that “love” is perhaps the vaguest, most unhelpful political prescription of all time, this kind of thinking removes any analysis of power from the conversation. It falsely presumes that we all enter the conversation on equal footing. Indeed, everyone is so busy preaching “unity” and “loving one another” that there is never any interrogation of privilege or power. It’s a bit different out in mainstream society, but the message is clear:Love your oppressors. “Love” rhetoric is less pronounced in secular society, but we are accustomed to being silenced because we have a “mean tone.” We’re asked to speak more respectfully so that we can earn a hearing. We’re taught to submit to our oppressors. We’re being angry and irrational, and it’s our job to make everyone comfortable.

The way they spoke of poverty at Wild Goose, all of the big name speakers—Wallis, Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren—you know, the guys who neglect “the gays” and “the women” because they “care” so deeply for the poor, have, among other things, never heard of intersectionality. They simply do not grasp the fact that it’s not possible to differentiate poverty from femaleness or blackness or queerness or illness. All of these things can make us more vulnerable to poverty. (And I would note that Wallis’s support for the Stupak Amendment is no way to “care” for poor women.) Thus, as theologian Adam Kotsko recently noted, this “third way is effectively right wing.”

*

Here’s what I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to the people at Wild Goose this summer: You speak of poverty as if it is something “outside,” something “other.” It is never “us.” “We” are upwardly mobile, well-educated people who grew up in the suburbs.

You insist on praying for people like me, but you haven’t the slightest idea that I walk among you. I have conversations with you. I hold my own in arguments. I call you out on your bullshit. I am unlucky, but I don’t think “downtrodden” describes me very well. I’m not downtrodden. I’m pissed off. So, no, I do not want your prayers. I do not want an invitation to your church, and I’m not interested in discussing “the poor” as if they are some kind of abstract concept. The things you had to say—the things you’ve built your careers on—are irrelevant in the face of actual poverty. It was shameless, the way you paraded a few token “poor people” around for kicks.

If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dismiss me as “bitter.” That’s the evangelical Christian’s favorite insult. Do it.

I am not bitter. I am outraged. I want “fellowship” with people who are outraged with me and who practice solidarity by showing up when it matters and advocating for real economic justice. I want you to use your clout and influence to help shut down predatory lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank. When I say, “fuck your prayers,” I say it with teeth.

I meant that figuratively, but seriously: I cannot eat your prayers, and it’s a struggle to buy food these days.

I want to turn the “shame” machine back on you, and I want to invite others like me to come out and stand up against your paternalism. You are not helping me. You do not speak for me. I am the new poor. I wasn’t supposed to be. I did all the right things, but we’re seeing the systematic erosion of the bourgeoisie here in America, after all. It started with home foreclosures.

Now, it’s student debt. Occupy Student Debt just released a video suggesting that one in five new graduates will default. One in five. We have no bankruptcy protection, usually meaning that our credit is ruined for life. And credit is tied to everything in this country. In some states, you can actually lose your driver’s—or professional—license for student loan default. We’re talking about a large segment of our generation losing our future.

And we’re being blamed. We had so many opportunities. How could we squander them—and then turn around and blame our lenders? Without them, we could never have gone to school! And we shouldn’t have, in any case, if we couldn’t afford it. We’re thieves! We’re irresponsible! I think these kinds of insults reaffirm our certainty that these awful things could never happen to us. One of my goals here has been to show you that they can. They are done to us by others.

If you feel that this is solely my fault, that I should have known better, and that the predatory lenders in question bear no responsibility, I invite you to stop calling yourself my “friend.” Which you won’t like, because evangelicals really love that word, “friendship.”

Here’s the thing: I almost never experience you as people who understand what real-world friendship is about. Friendship, true friendship, doesn’t come in the form of paternalistic charity from the powerful to the weak. I don’t want crumbs from your share of the non-profit industrial complex charity, I want you to fight with me for a world where I don’t need charity.

So stand up and join the class war, please, or get out of my way. Do not expect me to be grateful for your prayers. I have survival to worry about, literally.

Kristin Rawls has a useless MA in ethics and international relations and an even more useless one in philosophy. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Religion Dispatches, Bitch Magazine, Global Comment, and elsewhere online.