Wells Fargo and Easter

By Richard Smith
Posted Apr 13, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] You wouldn’t know it by talking to Wells Fargo, but the Easter season has arrived. The austere days of Lenten fasting, of skipping things like chocolate or tequila, or doing the hard work to mend broken relationships — these have given way to Easter egg hunts for our kids, daffodils on the kitchen table, and laughter at each others jokes. (Yes, in some Christian traditions, people actually gather in church during Easter just to swap their favorite jokes.) It’s an amazing and joyful season. And one that Wells Fargo is, sadly, clueless about.

On Monday of Holy Week, with families back home shopping for Easter egg decorating kits and preparing our homes and churches for Easter, several leaders of citizen groups from around the country met in Des Moines with John Campbell, Wells Fargo senior vice-president for corporate social responsibility. Our groups are highly respected: National Peoples Action, PICO National Network, New Bottom Line, Enlace International, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Take Action Minnesota, and SEIU (Service Employees International Union).

We told Mr. Campbell some of the all-too-familiar stories of families losing their homes, barely surviving under crushing debt, because Wells refused to reset the principal on their underwater mortgages to present market rates. We pointed out to him that anyone who has paid more than zero in income taxes has paid more than Wells Fargo and suggested that maybe it’s time for them to pay their fair share. We told him to discontinue Wells Fargo’s shameful payday loan product that lures in the most vulnerable people and then slaps them with 120% interest. We told him to stop funding politicians who want to deprive people of color of their right to vote, and to stop distorting our political processes with their army of lobbyists. (In 2011, Wells Fargo spent $7.82 million on lobbyists, and since 2008, it has paid these guys more than $18.4 million. These hired guns are now at work fighting things like the Homeowner Bill of Rights now before the California State Legislature.) Our suggestions to Mr. Campbell came out of the bitter tears of the people in our congregations and neighborhoods.

Perhaps most movingly, two young Latinos told Mr. Campbell of being pulled over by police for minor traffic violations, then being hauled off to one of the Wells Fargo-funded detention centers where undocumented immigrants are held, sometimes interminably, for deportation. There, cut off from their families, they were publicly strip searched, forced to eat from garbage bins, denied medical treatment, and, when they complained, thrown into solitary. We suggested that Wells stop investing in such cruel institutions.

John Campbell said no to every one of our suggestions. And here we see Wells Fargo’s idea of Lent. As far as they’re concerned, you can put the chocolates and the tequila back on the top shelf.

Unlike the real Lent that awakens and enlivens us, culminating in the joy and laughter of Easter, this Wells Fargo pseudo-version has brought only heartache and financial ruin to many hard-working Americans, torn apart many immigrant families, kept at risk our still-fragile economy, and left many of us living as indentured servants. It has diminished the spirits of far too many of our people.

Just a few weeks before the Des Moines meeting, on Ash Wednesday, 45 San Francisco clergy had sprinkled ashes in front of the Wells Fargo corporate headquarters. It was our way of inviting them to repent and begin repairing some of the damage they caused. This was simply Ethics 101 at work. Since we ourselves were entering the season of repentance, we thought we’d invite them along.

We never heard back. Guess they decided not to join us. Then in Des Moines, Mr. Campbell confirmed our worst suspicions by cavalierly dismissing every constructive idea we put before him.

Judging from Mr. Campbell’s words, Wells Fargo never got the email about Easter and how it’s time for them to stop imposing their harsh pseudo-Lent on the rest of us.

On April 24, Wells Fargo’s shareholders will hold their annual meeting here in San Francisco, and I, with my newly acquired share, will be there along with many clergy from around the country. By then, the Easter season will be in full swing, and our town will be awash in cherry blossoms to prove it.

But as we look ahead to that meeting, will my fellow shareholders get in sync with this amazing and beautiful Easter season? Will they, unlike Mr. Campbell, really hear the pleas of millions of their fellow citizens to reduce the principal on underwater mortgages, stop funding inhumane detention centers, pay their fair share in taxes, and stop distorting our political system by bankrolling politicians who want to deprive people of color of their right to vote?

Or will Wells Fargo finally take responsibility for their actions, and begin to repair the damage they have caused? Will they at last stop imposing their cruel “Lent” on the rest of us, and get in sync with the joy and laughter of this Easter season?

—The Rev. Richard Smith is priest associate at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco.

Statements and opinions expressed in the commentaries herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.


Comments (16)

  1. David Yarbrough says:

    You TOLD – not ASKED – a corporation you do not own to do business a certain way? And TOLD them to take a political standpoint? This is immaturity beyond belief. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

    The appropriate approach if you want to serve the poor is for the Church to make resources available – doing such things as instituting self-help credit unions to alleviate any need to do business with banks – not by supporting poor stewardshp in trying to sustain homeownership among persons who do not have the financial, emotional, or mental wherewithal to be successful homeowners.

    “(F)unding politicians who want to deprive people of color of their right to vote”? The issue of voter identification doesn’t involve depriving anyone of their rights, but of assuring that the standard of one person, one vote, is properly administered.

    And I would note that the SEIU is hardly the paragon of a “highly respected” institution. Research the long history of criminal activities of this organization before you make such a statement. Association with such an organization taints you.

    It is beyond my comprehension that The Episcopal Church News Service chose to propagate this story – indicating that these activities are supported at a level equal to doctrine. While the Church has a responsibility to the poor (which my parish is active in fulfilling), I wholeheartedly disagree with your methods (including the rather sacrilegious casting of ashes).

    1. J Buck says:


    2. Paul Garrett says:

      “In the squares of the city,
      In the shadow of a steeple;
      By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
      As they stood there hungry,
      I stood there asking,
      Is this land made for you and me?”

      If the world is God’s Temple then overthrowing the money changers in the temple would be perhaps exactly what Jesus would do! Kudos to Fr. Smith. Freedom from tyranny is never given it has to be boldly fought for. Obsequiously asking corporatists and bankers for fair and humane business practice that values people above obscene profits is a laughable suggestion.

      As for your judging those who have lost their homes to the tender mercies of Wells Fargo or BoA you seem to display either deep ignorance or heartless duplicity.

      Some, perhaps many, may have over extended themselves financially (but no one put a gun to the bankers’ heads and said give them a loan) but more were deeply responsible and were truly robbed by these banks. Scores of thousands of families have been forced to short-sell or forced into foreclosure and are still being made homeless. Every week someone comes to my church looking for assistance. They have had to go through life savings, cashing in IRA’s, cashing in life insurance policies, running through unemployment benefits and when all of that has been absorbed by banks refusing to refinance (despite government programs we have paid for) they are thrown out on the street like a squeezed out orange rind.

      You, sir, come across as heartless as the bankers. I suggest you take a close read of Matt. 25:31-46. These banks and people like you who share their attitude/praxis are putting this nation under judgment … and that judgment isn’t going to be pretty.

  2. The Rev. Robert W Harvey says:

    I’m embarassed that Wells Fargo is the financial institution that is responsible for collecting my monthly mortgage payments for Edward Jones who holds my mortgage which I was able to refinance with them at 4.875%.
    I will look at other possibilities later this year unless I learn that Wells Fargo has mended their ways.

  3. Kathleen Kuczynski says:

    Probably your biggest mistake was expecting Mr. Campbell to go against the Corporate Greed Model. If ever there were a case where “What Would Jesus Do” was appropriate, this is it.

  4. I commend Mr. Campbell’s patience. Had I been in his place, I would have thrown these people out of my office for their sanctimonious arrogance alone. Judging by his tone, one assumes that once Rev. Smith got back to California, he resumed doing something at which he seems to be outstanding. Thanking God that he is not as other men are.

  5. Thomas Andrew says:

    “…the Easter season has arrived. The austere days of Lenten fasting, of skipping things like chocolate or tequila, or doing the hard work to mend broken relationships — these have given way to Easter egg hunts for our kids, daffodils on the kitchen table, and laughter at each others jokes. (Yes, in some Christian traditions, people actually gather in church during Easter just to swap their favorite jokes.) It’s an amazing and joyful season. And one that Wells Fargo is, sadly, clueless about.”

    My word! Granted mending relationships is difficult work, but skipping chocolate and tequila are austere? No wonder such sacrifice gives way to chocolate bunnies, pastel eggs and cherry blossoms instead of Christ smashing the gates of hell.

    Mega-dittoes to Mr. Yarborough. I thought Episcopalians were supposed to be intelligent…don’t check their brain at the door stuff. While I most certainly would not expect a corporation to understand Easter, it appears that neither does the Rev. Mr. Smith.

  6. Rev. Canon Dick Gillett says:

    Wells Fargo Bank is one of seven “megabanks”, identified in the book 13 Bankers, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. (Pantheon Books, 2010). The authors have carefully assembled both the historical response of these banks to the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, and have documented their tremendous wealth and power. Their record of greed, deception, and dogged adherence to the “bottom line” regardless of the impact of their decisions on the wider community desperately needs our attention. The conclusion of this book is that the large banks need to be broken up. (The wealth of Wells Fargo, for example, is the equivalent of 9 % of the nation’s GDP).

    No less an ardent capitalist than former chairman Alan Greenspan of of the Federal Reserve Board, in a speech delivered in October 2009, said of the megabanks: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.” Our task as followers of Jesus must be to make such large institutions responsible to the communities they serve, or cease to be megabanks. I think many would agree that the banks will resist such moves with all their lobbying clout and more. Therefore, the protests of people of faith and community citizens at stockholder meetings and other venues are entirely in order.

  7. carl jacobs says:

    So let’s consider hypothetical home-owner Bill. It seems Bill purchased a $600,000 house knowing full well he couldn’t afford it. He got a fancy financing deal with a huge balloon payment in five years time. Bill had a simple objective. He would live in the house for a few years and then sell before the balloon payment came due. He expected the value of the property to appreciate in the interval to (say) $700,000. When he sold, he would reap a big capital gains reward of (say) $100,000. Good plan, but like all pyramid schemes it depends upon a constant influx of new buyers. When the buyers go away, Bill is stuck in a house he can’t afford and a looming balloon payment he can’t make.

    In the present market, Bill’s house might sell for $200,000 but Bill still owes $600,000. That would be the money he borrowed from the bank that is currently in the pocket of the previous owner (and his bank) who bought the house at $500,000 and sold at $600,000. The Bank wants its money. What is Bill to do? Well, The economic denizens at TEC have just the answer. The bank can write off the debt above the market value of the house. Why should the bank do this? Well, I suppose because it’s a bank and it has infinite supplies of money which it evidently prints in its vault. That’s the level of economic thinking at TEC.

    So would the bank get the value of any house for which it holds a mortgage if the value of the house appreciates? Well, no. So TEC is essentially telling the bank to indemnify Bill (and everyone else like him) against the risk of his investment going bad. It wasn’t Bill’s fault, you see. He didn’t know the housing market would crash when he agreed to borrow $600,000. He just wanted to make a cool $100,000. Was that so wrong? I guess Bill didn’t make such a dumb decision after all. At least in the eyes of TEC.


  8. Fred LaVancher says:

    Sounds to me that TEC has joined Occupy Wall Street.

  9. Tim Giangiobbe says:

    Until you live it you may not feel it.
    I was living in a house at 531 Wallace in Vallejo.
    I watched as the owner was sold a bad loan.
    The lender sold the note to a firm that diced and sliced the loans and put them in bundles.
    The local lender agreed to a payment deal and the house was foreclosed upon anyway.
    The house was appraised a few times, and the last one for 400k was absurd.
    That was 2002.
    We left in 2005 when the house was sold for 350k on the court house steps.
    The house sold for 108k in 2011.
    The buyers after us were screwed good.
    We watched as realtors courted Asian couples from the city.
    Most of the buyers lost their homes.
    Some stay underwater.
    I have had a bad six years.
    It is about to end.
    I will have VASH housing soon.
    I am a disabled veteran. I have resources.
    I have been humbled.
    I am now an advocate for life for homeless Baby Boomers.
    I pray the citizens I see scrounging for food in refuse receptacles talking to people who only they see have the same dignity ASAP.
    The Social Security Act of 1935 has failed way too many citizens.
    Austerity measures imposed on the poverty-stricken are evil.
    Imagine working for thirty years and succumbing to dementia and needing help only to find the services have been occupied by addicts for the thirty years you were working.
    And they have tenure in the soup kitchens.
    The safety net is leftovers from the Drug War.
    Even broke Oakland has a new green shelter.

  10. Grace Burson says:

    “Sacrilegious casting of ashes”? So I presume Jesus was sacrilegious in throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple?

    Did you actually read every document you were presented at the closing on your house? No? Didn’t think so. Until you can claim to have done that, how about you stop accusing other homeowners of irresponsibility and deception? Have you noticed that a lot of people have lost their jobs in the last four years?

    God bless anyone who calls to account the huge, unaccountable, predatory corporations that increasingly call the shots in this country, to the detriment of government by, for and of the people, while selling the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6).

    1. David Yarbrough says:

      Ms. Burson, in answer to your comments:

      1. The story of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple is a story of abuse of the TEMPLE by the moneychangers. A secular institution which does not operate in a religious setting is hardly the same thing. Casting ashes at them is a puerile exercise at best, and sacrilegious in operation.

      2. I have closed three mortgages (two new loans and one refinancing) and sold two houses. And I DID in fact read the related documents which were provided to me prior to the closings.

      3. Yes, I am aware of workforce reductions, having been laid off myself. However, I didn’t buy a house I couldn’t afford, and after a lifetime of hard work my wife and I have paid off our mortgage.

      I continue to assert that it is not a Christian response to attack secular corporations. Focus your efforts on providing resources that actually help – such as starting a self help credit union.

  11. Wells Fargo is a bank, a profit-making institution. It seems that it is now widely accepted by most people in the Western world that profit is the one and only acknowledged and, indeed, sanctified guide for any action or behavior taken by such institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently, (and notoriously, in my opinion) validated this poisonous assumption by ruling that these same corporate institutions should enjoy all the privileges of private individuals while being held to little or none of the same ethical, moral, democratic, or community-based values.

    How can anyone deny that such corporations are wreaking untold misery, despair, and harm on so many people? Who will speak up for these victims? Does Wells Fargo, the institution, need the protection of the Christian church? I don’t think so. Do those individuals working within these institutions need to be reminded that they are fellow human beings, that they supposedly value a democratic society, that, according to their ads, they recognize the need for responsible civic-minded action, that they may even claim a Christian faith, a religion that holds love of God and love of neighbor as the basis for all actions? I most emphatically think so.

  12. Melissa Murray says:

    This is Melissa M. from Wells Fargo. We wanted to respond to the article above as we were disappointed in Rev. Richard Smith’s commentary. Just to set the context, Wells Fargo met with The Citizens for Community Improvement and other constituents to listen to their concerns about some of Wells Fargo’s business practices. We think the best way to gain perspective is to have these open, honest conversations. We may not be able to agree to everything our stakeholders ask, but we’re always willing to have conversations and to listen. Unfortunately, the structure of this meeting prevented a full discussion of the concerns from the community groups. In fact, we shared more information about our policies and practices with the Citizens for Community Improvement. Excerpts from that letter included below should clear up any misinformation that was included in the article.

    We need to keep doing the right things for home owners as we continue to work through this historically difficult time in our nation’s housing market. At Wells Fargo, we work hard to keep our customers in their homes when they encounter difficulties –92% of our home loan customers have remained current on their loans — and we view foreclosure as a measure of last resort. We know there’s a lot more work to be done, and more customers to assist with home preservation. Our commitment to helping customers stay in their homes is stronger than ever.
    * Our total delinquencies are at 7.63% versus the industry average of 10.7%.
    * Over the last 12 months, fewer than 2% of the owner-occupied loans in our servicing portfolio have proceeded to a foreclosure sale.
    * We’ve encouraged 80% of our customers who are 60 days or more behind on their payments to work with us. And when they do work with us, we have been able to help approximately seven out of every 10 of those customers avoid foreclosure.
    * Over the last 6 months, customers who completed a foreclosure were, on average, 16 months past due on their payments.
    * We have helped nearly 5.6 million customers secure new low-rate loans for home purchases or to refinance existing mortgages between January 2009 and February 2012.

    Since 2009, we have:
    * Participated in more than 600 home preservation workshops
    * Opened 27 home preservation centers
    * Conducted more than 728,000 active trial or completed mortgage modifications

    In that time we have also helped more than 129,000 customers through $4.1 billion in principal forgiveness; $0.9 billion in forgiveness customers can earn through on-time payments over three years, and $2.2 billion of deferred principal on Wells Fargo-owned and investor-owned loans (information through January 2012). We use principal reduction as a tool to help create affordability along with term extension and interest rate reduction. For the nearly 70% of our servicing portfolio owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, principal reduction is not allowed.

    In addition to our home preservation efforts, we want to help cities reduce excess available housing stock to spur local economics. We recently launched a new pilot program in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Phoenix called NeighborhoodLIFT™, through which we work with the Wells Fargo Foundation, other nonprofits and local governments to provide sustainable home -ownership initiatives in cities deeply affected by the housing crisis.

    Private Prison Divestment
    Wells Fargo does not own shares of the GEO Group or Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), nor have we invested our own assets in either company.

    Wells Fargo Advantage Funds are not currently invested in CCA, and include only a small holding in the GEO Group, which we administer as a Trustee on behalf of fund shareholders; Wells Fargo is not the owner. These shares are owned by various Wells Fargo mutual funds. Wells Fargo is not a beneficial owner of these mutual funds, but serves as an adviser. These types of client investments are frequently published on websites, in public filings, and through other mediums and can give the incorrect impression that Wells Fargo is an owner of a company’s stock. We are not.

    Payday Lending / Direct Deposit Advance
    Every responsible business that complies with the law has equal access to consideration for credit at Wells Fargo, including companies in a variety of financial services industries. Our total loan commitments to these customers represent a small percentage of Wells Fargo’s commercial lending portfolio.

    We always do business in a responsible way, keeping with the highest standards, and we expect no less from our customers. We put our commercial payday lending customers through our due diligence process regularly, as often as every three months and at least annually. Our payday lenders and check cashing clients are put through an additional level of scrutiny – a separate, distinct compliance and credit process that includes on-site visits in most cases and review of their business practices.

    Wells Fargo’s Direct Deposit Advance service differs from a payday loan in several important ways.
    We believe Direct Deposit Advance is a less expensive alternative to a payday loan. The industry average on payday loan charges is $17 per $100 borrowed, compared to our $ 7. 50 Advance Fee per $100 borrowed. Customers can’t extend or “roll over” the advance because the advance and the advance fees are automatically repaid with the next qualified direct deposit.

    We only offer the service to customers with established Wells Fargo consumer checking relationships and recurring direct deposits. It is designed to help our customers get through emergencies like major medical events, car repairs, emergency travel expenses, etc., by providing short term credit quickly. It is an expensive form of credit not intended to solve longer-term financial needs.

    Political Contributions
    Wells Fargo does not use company funds for any candidate campaign funds, including candidate campaign committees, political parties, caucuses, or independent expenditure committees. We are members of various trade associations across the country, but consistent with our policy, we inform these organizations of our policy prohibiting the use of membership dues for contributions to candidate committees, independent expenditure committees or other direct or indirect contributions to election campaigns, and expect them to adhere to it. This has been our policy since 2004, and we state this policy on our website, along with our annual PAC contribution totals.

    Corporate Taxes
    Our company supports our communities and the economy by paying taxes. We are proud to be a responsible corporate citizen and honor obligations at the federal, state, and local levels, providing support for the communities where we serve our customers. Like other corporate and individual taxpayers, the amount of income taxes paid each year will vary based on the level of income subject to tax. Wells Fargo (including Wachovia) paid more than $33 billion in state and federal income taxes over the past 10 years, and paid more than $3.8 billion in 2011 alone. Wells Fargo paid more than $2 billion in property, sales, and payroll taxes in 2011.

  13. Tim Lilienthal says:

    We are entering the fifth straight year of a mass foreclosure crisis. Foreclosure is not some mere financial transaction. Talk with anyone that has lost their home or who is struggling to pay their mortgage and they will tell you that foreclosure is a profound financial and psychological blow to families. The advocacy group First Focus just released a study estimating that over 8.3 million children – 1 out of 10 American children – will be adversely impacted by this crisis. Mass foreclosures are a sure sign of a failing economy and a society that has been unable to provide basic economic security to its citizens. We should no more tolerate mass foreclosures as we should contagious diseases or catastrophic floods.

    But it’s not just those facing foreclosure who are suffering. EVERYONE is now being affected by this crisis. Foreclosures are the main reason that housing values continue to fall. The depressed housing market is the number one drag on the economy, keeping unemployment high. And the depressed housing market is pushing more and more homeowners into negative equity. One out of four mortgage holders are now underwater on their loans, which is preventing millions from being able to move to find a new or better job, not to mention the fact that they are shipping off billions of dollars of their own wealth every year to help build the profit sheets of the already very, very profitable banks (Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf earned $17.9 million this year).

    And there is no foreseeable end in sight to the crisis. Six million families have already lost their homes. Respected firms such as Amherst Securities report that between 7 to 9.5 million homeowners are still at risk of default. We are not yet even halfway through the foreclosure crisis. It is highly likely that someone (probably multiple people) reading this post and who is current on their mortgage today will lose their home before this crisis is over. With the economy continuing to wobble, it could happen to anyone.

    So, if the laundry list of items that Ms. Murray from Wells Fargo mentioned were indeed actually working, then why does the crisis persist? Why are experts predicting that 2012 will be see another massive surge in the number of homeowners falling behind? After all, Wells Fargo is the largest mortgage servicer in the country. Their actions should have outsized influence on the market. But nothing is changing.

    The truth is that Wells Fargo continues to put up obstacles to truly helping families keep their homes. Wells Fargo employees themselves recently reached out to the media – anonymously so as to avoid repercussions – to document these obstacles. Read this article to learn more. http://on-msn.com/JfSWc8

    When the robo-signing scandal broke in the fall of 2010, Wells Fargo was the only major bank that refused to put a moratorium on foreclosures, claiming that it did not engage in this practice. But a report from the HUD Inspector General later turned up evidence that Wells Fargo does engage in robo-signing and that Wells Fargo employees tried to cover it up. Wells Fargo employees told HUD investigators that they regularly signed up to 600 documents a day without attempting to verify whether any of the information was correct, and that they notarized more than 1,000 documents a day – including sworn statements that purported to verify the bank’s legal right to foreclose on a home – often without having witnessed the signature of the documents. During the course of the investigation, Wells Fargo tried to restrict investigators’ access to just five of a list of 14 affidavit signers and notaries. Why? Here is what the HUD report states: “Wells Fargo told us we could not interview the others because they had reported questionable affidavit signing or notarizing practices when it interviewed them.” And this is just a small sample in a very large bank. Think of how many families who have needlessly lost their homes due to such inadequate protections in Wells Fargo’s foreclosure processes. If it had happened to you, then you would understand how devastating this is.

    In recent months, more and more servicers have found that writing down mortgage principal and keeping people in their homes actually makes good business sense. Ocwen has begun a program to systematically write down principal, doing so in more than 20 percent of its modifications. Even Bank of America has pledged to reduce principal balances by up to $100,000 for as many as 200,000 underwater homeowners. But Wells Fargo continues to pretend that they do not need to get more aggressive with principal write-downs.

    After Fr. Richard and his clergy colleagues protested about the bank’s failures in February, Wells Fargo responded by saying that they planned to give out $655,000 in grants to housing non-profits in the Bay Area. This figure amounts to the combined lost wealth of just a handful of foreclosed borrowers. Meanwhile, the top 5 Wells Fargo executives raked in almost $50 million in one year. It is difficult to not see Wells Fargo’s response as anything but a sign of total disregard for the much bigger concerns being raised.

    For too long, we have allowed the inaction of big banks like Wells Fargo to delay a real solution to this crisis. As a result, the crisis has only gotten worse and worse, affecting more and more borrowers, and holding back broader economic recovery. It is time for this to stop. As a faith community, we cannot – and will not – stand by idly and watch mass foreclosure continue to tear apart families and communities and further undermine our economy.

    Tim Lilienthal, PICO National Network

Comments are closed.