Civil Rights Debt-Busting

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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In his last sermon, delivered at a Memphis church the night before he died, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience that he’d been to the proverbial “mountaintop” and had seen the “promised land,” but he didn’t know if he’d live long enough to get there with them. He also advised people to open bank accounts.

This is one of many surprising details that the Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries shared when he delivered the annual Doll Lecture on Religion & Money at Princeton University March 12.

Soaries didn’t just preach the message he writes about in his 2011 book, dfree™: Breaking Free From Financial Slavery; he gave a personal testimony about how he and his church broke free of crushing debt themselves.

The pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, Soaries is also former New Jersey Secretary of State and former chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission. He is “shocked” to find himself traveling the country preaching about money management, he told The High Calling.

The Civil Rights-Financial Freedom Connection

Soaries' interest in the problem of consumer debt grew out of his decades-long civil rights work. In the 1990s, he was asking himself why African Americans “for whom Dr. King died” were still at the “bottom rung” of the social ladder. Looking at his own congregation as “a microcosm of the millions of people who were still wrestling with many of these same issues,” he embarked on a journey to find and implement solutions.

“The church actually functioned as an economic catalyst … for the entire neighborhood,” Soaries said in his talk. Among its many endeavors were health, youth, and community centers. And, yet, as the work expanded, it became clear to him that his fundamental question about why African Americans weren’t benefiting more from civil rights gains was left unanswered.

“We still had this undercurrent of failure and this undercurrent of pessimism that I just couldn’t put my finger on,” Soaries said.

At the same time, First Baptist pursued a plan to build a new sanctuary that would place it in the center of its neighborhood outreaches, “not only for symbolic, but for strategic purposes.” A project that was supposed to take 18 months and cost $14 million instead took six years and cost $19 million. The church took on a mortgage payment of $135,000 per month.

“It was just horrible, the worst time in my life,” said Soaries.

A Parking Lot Epiphany

One day in 2005, as he contemplated resigning as pastor of First Baptist, Soaries had an epiphany. He had arrived at the church for a budget meeting and saw a parking lot full of late-model and luxury cars. “Those cars began talking to me,” Soaries said. “Those cars represented to me a congregation of people whose lifestyles mimicked the lifestyle I had lived for 15 years of my life.”

Soaries had grown up in a multi-generational household in which his parents and grandparents saved for purchases and primarily shopped for needs, not wants. As an 18-year-old college student, he received his first credit card in the mail and then spent the next 15 years living paycheck-to-paycheck trying to manage the ensuing debt.

He began teaching himself and his congregation about sound financial management. It took him four years to get out of debt personally. Between 2003 and 2009, First Baptist paid off 50 percent of its loan through a combination of strategies, including people giving more and the church living within its means.

“We manage the church the same way we teach people to manage their lives,” Soaries told The High Calling after his talk. “We could use more staff. We could do more things. If we spent every dime that people gave us, we would still be $15 million in debt. But, we don’t. We live below our means. For every year, we have a surplus, but we take the surplus and pay down on the principal.”

A Cultural Theology of Compensatory Consumption

Soaries isn’t shy with his pronouncements as he teaches financial literacy. He says people who spend $5 for a cup of coffee or $250 on a cable television package shouldn’t complain about being broke, for example. Sometimes, he is accused of blaming victims of economic injustice for their problems, but income isn’t the primary factor in financial health, he said, noting that many professional athletes go bankrupt soon after they retire.

Our nation's cultural theology has become “compensatory consumption,” Soaries said, which means buying things that we think will compensate for our feelings of insignificance.

“By the end of the Civil Rights era, when we were focused on social justice and progress, there was a tidal wave that we were not prepared to swim in. And so, by the 1970s, we began this trek, collectively as a country, this trek towards being consumed by consumption,” Soaries said.

But, individuals aren’t swimming in this consumption tidal wave alone.

“The prosperity movement takes faith and makes it a weapon of consumer capitalism,” Soaries said. And, at least since the 1980s, corporate greed, enabled by government indulgence, has made the personal debt crisis exponentially worse.

Rev. Soaries Goes to Washington

Soaries was headed to Washington as a member the Center for Responsible Lending’s faith-based advisory committee the day after he delivered his Princeton lecture. The committee was going to meet with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau to raise concerns about predatory lending. It wasn’t his first trip, and he didn’t hold out much hope that it would be successful. The pay-day lending industry is so flush with cash and influence that politicians in both parties are loath to confront it, he said.

Soaries “bumped into” the predatory lending issue in the midst of helping a member in his own community avoid foreclosure. And yet, he told THC, “If Washington were to do everything we need Washington to do, the solution is not in Washington. The solution is in empowering people with biblical truth that has practical applications.”

“Joseph got out of jail by convincing Pharaoh that he could not spend everything he had, because when the famine came, he wouldn’t be able to survive,” said Soaries.

The church began its relationship with money by collecting it to care for the poor, he told the Princeton audience. Our faith should compel us beyond the self and toward others. At its core, it should redefine our identity. “If identity is connected to things, then I have to buy more things to be more connected to myself,” he said. Faith should free us from our addiction to consumption.

“The need is so great, the problem is so immense, and the response is so embarrassingly limited,” Soaries told THC. “I can’t even sleep at night over this crisis.” And so, as an outgrowth of his civil rights activism, the pastor travels the country delivering a message (primarily in Black churches) that he never expected to be delivering.