Is Debt a New Form of Slavery?


Can the black church help African Americans overcome the disproportionately negative impact they've experienced in unemployment, income growth, home ownership, foreclosures and educational attainment during the recent economic crisis? That's the critical question explored in the 90-minute documentary, "Almighty Debt," hosted by Soledad O'Brien on CNN Thursday.

The latest in O'Brien's Black In America series looks at how black churches are combating the challenges caused by excessive debt and the erosion of wealth in the African American community. O'Brien focuses on the efforts of the Reverend DeForest Soaries, who has created a program designed to liberate the 7,000-member congregation of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, N.J., from debt. Soaries, who has also been involved with many civil rights efforts, calls debt "the new slavery."

While equating debt with slavery may be seen as a bit over-the-top by some, O'Brien says the metaphor is appropriate for people of any race. "It's going to have a lot of people saying, 'Gosh I know what that feels like to be in bondage to something that is beyond your control'."

A Systematic Approach

The documentary's stories of church members dealing with debt problems, foreclosures, unemployment and the high cost of education provide examples that people from any race or background can relate to. Through his church sponsored program, Soaries offers a systematic approach to dealing with most issues, starting with setting a budget and deciding what your goals are. "It forces people to understand that they can live a life of freedom if they can make the decision to clear off their debt," O'Brien says.

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The documentary suggests that the black church is uniquely positioned to deal with this problem because it has traditionally been more involved in the everyday lives of its members, providing support programs, recreational activities, community development projects and a base for political action – far more than just delivering a spiritual message every Sunday.

In the end, O'Brien says the black community's challenge to overcome its debt problems provides a valuable, albeit difficult lesson about self-reliance that should not be ignored. "The lesson is the same lesson I think I learned covering Katrina the first time five years ago... No one's coming to get you," she says. "If you want to save your community, no one is coming to get you, so you should probably get your neighbors together and decide that your community is worth saving."