CNN's 'Almighty Debt' brings together religion, personal finance

DeForest Soaries preaches how to rid your life of debtCan religion help you get out of soul-crushing debt? Somebody say AMEN!

When DeForest Soaries Jr. was in his twenties, he went to work in his father's church. A committed social activist, he told the elder Pastor Soaries "Let's cut a deal: You get people to heaven, and I'll do the earth piece."

On Wednesday, October 13, a packed audience at Harlem's Convent Avenue Baptist Church erupted in laughter as Soaries reminisced about his early days as a religious leader. The Reverend's determination to care for the physical as well as the spiritual needs of his flock had led him on a long path from Chicago, where he worked alongside Jesse Jackson, to the Secretary of State office in New Jersey, where he served for three years, to the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, a massive 7,000-person congregation located in Somerset, New Jersey.

On this night, it also led to Convent Avenue, where CNN reporter Soledad O'Brien was screening part of "Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special" for a church full of parishioners, community leaders and reporters. Documenting Soaries' efforts to help his flock work their way out of debt, the program focused on three stories of financial hardship that were all too familiar to the audience -- and to many Americans.

For Doug and Mary Jeffries, two members of Soaries' congregation, the recession has led to falling wages and an increasingly desperate attempt to keep from losing their home to foreclosure. Two other parishioners, Carl and Lynette Fields, are trying to make ends meet after 58-year-old Carl lost his job. And for 17-year-old Fred Philps, tough economic times have translated into a relentless struggle to pay for college.

O'Brien's documentary weaves these stories together with Reverend Soaries' efforts to minister to the physical needs of his congregation. For the reporter, this documentary gave her an opportunity to explore the role of religion in the black community. In an interview with WallePop, she explained "We wanted to do a documentary on Black churches, then we met a pastor whose obsession is debt, and who is working to bring his parishioners out of debt and into wealth. His passion was a relevant story."

For Reverend Soaries, helping parishioners on the road to financial health is more than a passion; it's a vocation, and a fundamental part of his work as a pastor. In an interview with WalletPop, Soaries emphasized that his decision to help his parishioners with their debt problems was part of a longer, broader struggle for social justice.

In 1996, First Baptist focused on children with "Harvest of Hope," a church organization that placed over 700 children in temporary foster care and ultimately helped church families to adopt 220. Soaries' church has also worked to rebuild impoverished communities in New Jersey through the Central Jersey Community Development Corporation, a church-run organization.

Reverend Soaries notes that this call to social justice is a strong tradition in the African American church, and in Christianity as a whole: "Jesus followed this same balance; He often fed his followers, and focused both on their temporal needs and their future salvation." While the Reverend argues against church involvement in "politics for politics' sake," he emphasizes the role of religion in elevating the value of the individual: "Worship juxtaposes the human to the divine. When people see themselves as divine creations, not political accidents, they are less tolerant of abuses imposed by political institutions."

A big part of First Baptist's efforts has been an attempt to help other communities replicate its successes. After establishing Harvest of Hope, the church created a guide for adoption services, which they distributed to other churches. Following his work with economically devastated members of his church, Reverend Soaries followed the same path, writing a book that outlines how other churches and organizations can help struggling members of the community to work through their financial problems.

While noting that financial issues are especially devastating for the black community, Reverend Soaries emphasizes that debt slavery is a problem that cuts across racial boundaries. For that reason, he chose to revise his book in order to make its message more widely applicable: "The book was done, but we decided to delay its release for three months so that we could widen the audience to include whites, Hispanics, and other people who are dealing with debt. We wanted to make sure that the message had integrity." The book will be released in January 2011.

As for Soledad O'Brien, she hopes that her documentary will inspire a broader discussion about the role of money in American society: "We want to spur conversations. Black Americans -- for that matter, all Americans -- don't speak bluntly about money. This is an important message for empowering people, and we hope that pastors will get together around this issue and help turn the method that Dr. Soaries has used at one church into a national strategy."

CNN's special Almighty Debt will air on October 21 at 9 PM (EST).
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