Our New Slavery

Our New Slavery

Whenever I read a book or watch a movie depicting the atrocities of slavery in America, I always thank God that I was born in a time and place where freedom is an inalienable right. It’s a tribute to the memory of our ancestors that today African Americans, like all other citizens of this country, are free to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered, our predecessors — slaves, sharecroppers, Jim Crow survivors, civil rights-era activists, and frustrated parents whose constant battles with “the man” and “the system” have created a generation of militant black boys and girls not quite sure why they’re so angry all the time.

Our freedom certainly has come at a very high price. So high, in fact, that nothing could ever cause us to relinquish our liberty. Well, almost nothing…

Many African Americans have, indeed, become slaves again, this time to a master shrewder and more powerful than before — and we’ve practically given him the bullwhip. Who is this cunning culprit, you ask?

His name is “debt.”

Rev. Buster Soaries

“Debt is slavery,” the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien during a recent televised broadcast entitled Almighty Debt. “When I’m paying last month’s bills with next month’s check, that’s slavery.”

The CNN program, part of O’Brien’s “Black in America” series, featured Soaries and several members of his church, First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, in a segment on the black church’s response to the pervasive problem of debt that is crippling many of our communities.

Statistics reported on the program were staggering: 81 percent of African American college students graduate owing back loans (with many at the $50,000-plus mark); unemployment for blacks is nearly double that of whites, even among the educated; and 75 percent of middle-class families are classified as “middle class” by income only (meaning they could be only a few paychecks away from being broke or on the streets).

All across America, people are struggling with debt. The economic downturn over the past several years has left many people suffering financially. It has affected people from all levels of society, businesses, institutions, and even the church. But African Americans — who have been historically locked out of wealth-building systems and are still trying to close economic gaps — suffer disproportionately.

For black people of faith, there is a strong belief that “God will make a way out of no way.” But, Soaries said, we’ve got to learn to put our faith in action, if we want to shed the shackles of financial slavery.
“Optimism has got to be connected with some action,” he told CNN. “Our Bible says, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ So I’m against optimism, if it’s not (supported) by some action.”

The “action” that Soaries has taken is to become an abolitionist and free his fellow man from the bonds of debt.

“The idea that we would be voluntary slaves is offensive to all of our sensibilities,” Soaries writes in his forthcoming book, dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery (Zondervan, 2011), scheduled to be released in January. “But when we continue to spend what we don’t have, charge what we don’t need, and borrow more than we can repay, then we must call the problem what it is: slavery.”

At his church, Soaries offers a dfree™ training program to help members learn God’s strategy for managing money, so that they can be free from debt, delinquencies, and deficits, according to the church’s program brochure available on its website.

Guided by the biblical principles of paying outstanding debt (Rom. 13:8), avoiding or putting limits on borrowing (Prov. 22:7), and doing strategic financial planning (Luke 14:28), the program takes participants through several months of intensive training sessions to help them learn how to do short- and long-term budgeting, spend and save properly, set goals, tithe, give, build wealth, invest, and minimize debt.

African Americans didn’t create the social situations that contribute to our big debt problem. As many social commentators have noted, we’re still playing a game of catch-up after so many years of oppression from slavery, segregation, and its aftermath. We suffer from systemic evil — some blatant and some covert — that simply won’t go away without lots of prayer and ongoing efforts to bring about social justice.

Still, we must confess some complicity.

Soaries’ program is just one way that the black church is continuing the legacy of leveraging its influence and resources to prop up the black community. It’s a good plan. But in the end, we must individually decide to work it. Soaries told CNN that he’s been “disappointed” over the poor turnout at the sessions, which are offered for free at his church.

And why aren’t these free sessions packed? I can’t say for sure, but I know we, as a community, have not always done the right thing when it comes to making financial decisions or fixing related problems. Sometimes, we’ve been the victims of predatory lenders, or guilty of going headlong into those sweet buy-now-and-pay-later deals, knowing that we should have only purchased what we could afford. (Can anyone say “subprime mortgage crisis“?)

I’m no financial expert, but I do know that a penny saved is a penny earned. We all know that, right? Even more so, we believers know that God admonishes us to be prudent in financial matters. God hates debt so much that He commanded the Israelites to observe debt-cancelation seasons, in which people were obligated to cancel all debts owed to them, so that no one would be enslaved to another child of God.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t typically value God’s system of doing things. But if we want to, we can experience jubilee. It’s just going to take some hard work.

The road to becoming debt-free is a long and arduous one for most people. It requires self-reflection, reeducation, discipline, and a commitment to allowing the transformative process to take place, no matter how much it hurts. We’re fighting (again) to be free from slavery. And no freedom fight is ever easy. But it can be done.

For more information about the dfree™ program, check out UrbanFaith’s video interview with Dr. Soaries above, and visit the website for First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens.

Bigger Than Madea

Bigger Than Madea

If we could forget for a moment that Tyler Perry’s latest film is a less-than-stellar re-envisioning of Ntozake Shange’s highly lauded, Obie-award winning 1970s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, we might catch a glimpse of the brilliance that initially made Perry so successful. Though he’s made over 20 films, a filmmaker he is not — but oh, I bet the man could pen an engaging play.

Back in his element with Shange’s material meant for consumption by a live theater audience, his For Colored Girls has the makings of a potentially fantastic modernized tale of the quiet, simmering desperation of black women everywhere. After all, this is his sweet spot. Perry’s made his bread and butter telling the stories of broken, abandoned, and often invisible black women who suffer silently until someone like him screams on their behalf before an audience.

The only problem is, Perry made For Colored Girls into a film. And unlike the original off-Broadway show that captured audiences by, as Shange described in her book, “enveloping almost 6,000 people a week in the words of a young black girl’s growing up, her triumphs & errors, our struggle to become all that is forbidden by our environment, all that is forfeited by our gender, all that we have forgotten,” this film is neither rapturous nor nostalgic. And that’s not all Perry’s fault.

By nature, most of the tropes that functioned well onstage — the anonymity of the girls identified only by color, the rhythmic recitation of poems, and the fluid movement of interwoven stories and dance — are lost when caged inside the restrictive confines of a motion picture screenplay. By removing identity from each woman’s narrative and extending the stories from Houston to Chicago, Shange universalized the experiences of black women, creating an effect of unity and strength that sent shockwaves through a post-civil rights and women’s lib America where black women were just tearing back their personhood. Though Perry tried to remain ambiguous, titling his version For Colored Girls, he ultimately squeezes his characters into a few blocks in Harlem, losing the crux of the impact of Shange’s work.

Perry also forfeits some of what’s garnered him tremendous success by operating from the base of Shange’s pre-existing text. While fans of his work won’t be surprised that his popular character Madea doesn’t make an appearance in this drama, they may be uncomfortable with some of the “spirit within” theology espoused by the characters. The rally cry at the close of the film shows the women finding consolation by drawing power from the feminine spirit within. As Shange wrote, “I found God in myself/and I loved her/I loved her fiercely.”

For Colored Girls does offer impressive performances by its cast, even with it’s tricky and often-awkward dialogue that constantly slips into poetic monologues where Shange’s words are woven into Perry’s script. Loretta Devine (Juanita/Green) glitters with her energetic performance and on point delivery of the monologue “somebody almost walked off wid alla mah stuff.” Kimberly Elise (Crystal/Brown) masters her role as the downbeat of the film depicting the extremes of domestic violence opposite Michael Ealy (Beau Willie). Other notable mentions are Anika Noni Rose, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and a spotlight performance from Macy Gray as a back alley abortionist.

This hybrid, For Colored Girls mixing spoken-word poetry and traditional filmmaking, is unsuccessful critically and likely won’t warrant the Oscar-buzz Oprah claims is encircling the film. As we noted with Why Did I Get Married Too?, Perry should deal in comedy, where his disjointed narratives and poor visual artistry will be less noticeable. However, For Colored Girls is still an enjoyable, though heavy, exploration of the struggle of black women. It’s worth seeing as an alternative choice at the box office.

Chicago’s Next Boss?

Chicago’s Next Boss?

There’s something interesting brewing in Chicago that just might change things on the political front across the nation. I can’t say that I am surprised; we’ve gained a reputation as of late for being in the center of the political with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And I think Chicago is about to be on the center stage of American politics again.

You see, now that the big midterm elections are history, the campaign to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley will kick into high gear. And there’s been no shortage of candidates jumping in for the Feb. 22, 2011, election. This historic race to replace a man who is not only a mayor, but also represents a dynasty almost 60 years old, has all the makings of a national story and a national conversation.

One strand of that conversation will undoubtedly focus on the evangelical pastors that are lining up to make a run. To this point, at least three pastors have tossed their hats into the ring: Rev. Patricia Watkins of Ambassadors for Christ Church, Rev. Wilfredo De Jesús of New Life Covenant Church, and Rev. James T. Meeks, senior pastor of the 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church and an early front runner. The fun thing about this is that all three of these pastors have credible resumes as church leaders and social/political leaders in this city. Their candidacies will surely challenge the establishment on either side of the equation.

So, how will they handle themselves? In a time in which the divide between conservatives and liberals in politics couldn’t be much wider, these pastors will be seeking election in a city that historically supports liberal Democrats for every office from the presidency to the lower house of the state legislature, the last election notwithstanding.

Each one of these individuals seeking to go from the pulpit to the 5th floor at City Hall already knows something about living the integrated public life as an evangelical minister and social/political leader in the community. But by entering this race, they are all stepping into another level of scrutiny both locally and nationally. Every word they’ve uttered publicly, every relationship, every opinion will be sifted through and used by others to build a case against them. To say the least, it could be a disaster. Will they leave off their conviction to pursue the office (after all, there is no conservative base to please like there is in national elections)? Will their convictions and faith sink their campaigns? Or will one of them emerge as a model for how an evangelical can win a big city?

And how will they be handled? I already alluded to fact that these pastor/candidates will be heavily scrutinized and severely criticized over the course of the campaign. But this is politics; that’s par for the course.

But what is fair game and what’s off limits? For instance, early on there were calls for Meeks to pledge to give up his position as pastor of his Southside megachurch if elected. Though Meeks initially refused, he recently announced that he would be relinquishing his day-to-day pastoral duties to his senior staff so that he could devote his full attention to the campaign and that he would pass full-time ministerial duties on to a colleague if elected.

The whole call for a pastor who runs for office to give up his ministry role seems unfair to me because there are several elected officials serving in important offices who have been able to maintain demanding leadership positions in secular jobs. In fact, since 2003, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, Meeks has been among the untold number of bi-vocational pastors who serve their congregations while working in other capacities. This is not an endorsement of Meeks, more a defense of the right that he, and any other pastor, has to seek elective office. As a bi-vocational minister myself, I must say that (by God’s grace) my full participation in the world of politics and community organizing and the life of my local Christian assembly are not mutually exclusive.

A more pressing issue, however, will be how Meeks and the others navigate social issues that would seem to collide with their beliefs as conservative Christian ministers. Meeks has already met with leaders of Chicago’s gay and lesbian community in an effort to overcome the perception that he’s anti-gay, and De Jesús had a similar meeting a couple years back when he considered a run for a city alderman position. Simply put, activist evangelical preachers probably say lots of things that will not play too well with a massive, diverse, and fragmented electorate like the one found in Chi-Town. But, on the other hand, only cities like Chicago can produce activist Christian leaders with the kind of street sense and mammoth constituencies that would allow them to consider running for top political positions.

All said, Chicago is likely about to treat the nation to yet another compelling political drama. And this one will be especially interesting for the Christian community — real-life evangelicals, running real-life campaigns, in a real-life metropolis. Get ready to tune in.

Campaign websites for: Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins and Wilfredo De Jesús.