Critics of the payday lending industry say it exploits its customers; proponents say it provides an important service. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

The Rev. Frederick Newbill is not the typical face of the payday lending industry. 

Recruited by Florida’s largest small-dollar lender, Amscot, the senior pastor at First Timothy Baptist Church in Jacksonville was among several faith leaders to visit the state’s capital this year to lobby for a bill loosening payday regulations. 

The group helped secure a victory for an industry known for its high-cost, short-term loans that had been under assault by federal regulators for years. Their efforts also opened a rift among some of the state’s most influential faith leaders, many of whom had spent years opposing the spread of payday loans.

“They don’t understand,” Newbill, 68, said of the industry’s critics. “If you are pastoring, like I do, you know that sometimes people come up short and need a little help.” That type of help, he said, is easier to secure through a payday lender than a traditional bank, which may be reluctant to lend small amounts and require pristine credit scores.

Amscot paid for some of the pastors to fly to Tallahassee by private plane, though Newbill drove instead and said he received no compensation from the company.

Black churches have become an unexpected battleground in the national debate over the future of payday lending. The Trump administration is reviewing a federal rule that threatens to cripple the industry, while payday lenders find themselves enmeshed in battles in multiple states over their business.

The debate often pits clergy against one another. Payday proponents in the church say the industry provides an important service after years of national banks pulling back from offering loans in regions with large minority or poor populations and black-owned banks all but disappearing.

Longtime opponents of payday lending have sometimes been blindsided by the advocacy of their religious brethren. They say that payday proponents are misreading not only the financial realities of borrowing at dangerously high rates but also biblical teachings — and are being co-opted or bought by an industry with a long history of exploiting African Americans. 

“We lost the battle, but the war is not over,” said the Rev. James T. Golden, pastor of the Ward Temple AME Church in southwest Florida. The faith leaders who sided with payday lenders make up a sliver of the state’s faith community, said Golden, who is helping mobilize a coalition to block the Florida law from going into effect next year, including enlisting ministers and pastors who have yet to pick a side.

That effort, he said, will not include trying to change the minds of those who have spoken on behalf of the industry. “The fact that you have chosen to voice your support of an immoral, unethical, abusive process, that is between you and your conscience,” he said.

In the middle are ministers such as the Rev. Gary Johnson, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Miami. Johnson said several minister friends convinced him of the importance of the payday lending bill. Two weeks later, Amscot paid for him to fly to the state capital and lobby for the bill. 

But, Johnson said, he soon began to have doubts, and he turned down an offer from Amscot to fly to Washington to talk to congressional leaders about payday lending. “I heard that some of these guys take advantage of people in the black community,” he said.

The battle could affect the 12 million Americans who take out payday loans every year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. Estimates suggest that between a quarter and a third of payday borrowers are black.

Many traditional banks shied away from offering small-dollar loans after deeming them unprofitable and time consuming, industry analysts say. One of the industry’s most powerful regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, took steps last month to encourage banks to compete directly with payday lenders again, but the industry is not expected to rush in, analysts say.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has spent years developing industry regulations addressing concerns that borrowers were being trapped in debt. In response, some payday lenders have sought to build support for their business by forging relationships with black churches. Black churches have a long history of helping congregations find financial footing, historians say.

While the efforts of some black pastors to support payday lending have been most visible — and successful — in Florida, similar efforts have popped up elsewhere.

In Ohio, the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, registered as a nonprofit last year, has submitted testimony in favor of payday lending to a committee considering a bill to tighten restrictions on the industry and showed up at legislative hearings with T-shirts saying “Protect Access To Credit.”

“The banks left us years ago. The credit unions left us years ago. Payday lenders are the only ones stepping up to fill the need,” said Aaron Phillips, a pastor and the group’s executive director. Phillips said that his group has partnered with the industry on providing financial literacy seminars in the community and other job-creation measures but that he cannot divulge whether donations were made to his group from lenders.

The group is supporting the lenders, he said, “because it’s what is best for our community, not because we have any financial support from them.” (Other members of the coalition referred questions to Phillips.)

Most of the state’s other faith leaders oppose the coalition’s efforts. “Jesus calls us to stand with the least of these. It is part of our calling to help the poor,” said the Rev. Carl Ruby, pastor of Central Christian Church in central Ohio and leader of Ohioans for Payday Loan Reform.

“We hear stories from people who become suicidal because of these loans.”

Most of the pastors interviewed for this story said they received no compensation for their support of payday lenders, though several said the industry’s donations to local nonprofit and advocacy groups they supported had endeared them. One minister acknowledged that a payday lender had given a small contribution to his church.

Amscot, the Florida payday lender, said its paying to fly several pastors to Tallahassee was done for convenience and not in return for their support

In Arizona, where payday lending has been blocked for nearly a decade, the Rev. Jarrett Maupin says he will launch a fresh effort to open the state back up. Maupin, a community activist who occasionally has offered consulting services to companies, says he is not receiving money to support payday lending.

“I am not justifying the interest rates. I am against the interest rates,” he said. “But a loan with a high interest rate is better than no loan products at all.”  

Others in the church say he is being disingenuous.

“The faith community is always united. He is just a charlatan,” Warren Stewart Jr., pastor of Remnant South Phoenix Church, said of Maupin. 

If someone is in dire need of money, the Bible says that their church should take up contributions on their behalf, Stewart said.

Maupin said he understands the criticism but is trying to be realistic. “At least in the black community, our churches do what they can. But they can’t help thousands of people,” he said.

In Florida, Amscot was so concerned about new federal regulations that it stopped its expansion plans in 2015. It helped launch an aggressive lobbying campaign to find other ways to do business in the state, seeking the state’s authorization to make loans that would avoid the new federal rules.

Consumer advocates and major church organizations fought back. “These are not products that help consumers in the long run,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection.

Ian A. Mackechnie, vice president of Amscot, said he began holding town-hall-style meetings with faith leaders in Florida. 

Among them was Newbill, the Jacksonville pastor, who says he was initially skeptical. “One of my cousins had lost their car because of a title loan,” he said.

Still, two years ago, Newbill gathered about 35 pastors in his church to hear from an Amscot executive. The loans Amscot described, he said, were better than the toxic versions he feared.

Newbill’s church has long offered small loans and gifts to financially strapped members. But, he said, there are times when the church, which has 800 members, can’t come up with the money. “I know that people are desperate for just 150 dollars. I have seen that too many times.” 

Now, when congregants approach Newbill about help, he sometimes asks whether they have thought of reaching out to Amscot. 

This year, Newbill said, he joined more than a dozen other ministers in Tallahassee to speak to lawmakers on behalf of payday lenders.

Their efforts quickly drew protests that the pastors were being used to shield the industry from criticism.

“I can pull people off the street that may be ordained but that doesn’t mean they represent us. . . . It’s smoke and mirrors,” said the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin of the Center for Responsible Lending. “Despite what they say, we have faith traditions, and payday loans don’t align with those traditions.”