Oh, No! No More ‘O’

Oh, No! No More ‘O’

Oprah Winfrey

Countless people have calculated—or rather, miscalculated—when the world would end. For many Oprah Winfrey fans, that apocalyptic event arrived at precisely 4 p.m. Eastern Time yesterday (Thursday, May 26, 2011) when, for the first time in two and a half decades, they sat in front of their TV sets and got the local news instead of their daily dose of wisdom and inspiration from the indomitable “O.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show ended its 25-year run this past week with three farewell episodes that combined to capture all of the grandeur, sentimentality, and congeniality that have come to epitomize the show and its iconic host. The first two final episodes featured a star-studded surprise guest list that regaled Oprah and thousands of her admirers who packed out the United Center in Chicago. The last show—episode number 4,561—was done in a much smaller, more intimate setting back on her usual stage at Harpo Studios, where she spent her last hour thanking fans, sharing thoughts on God, and recounting her best learnings from her years on the show. 

Though I am not a diehard member of the Oprah Winfrey fan club, I must admit that I got a little misty-eyed watching the final episodes of her long-running talk show. I haven’t been a regular viewer of the show for many years now, only occasionally catching an episode whenever she had a must-see topic or guest. But in the early years, I was among those who were glued to the tube, checking out this fascinating woman—whose hair, lips, nose, and hips looked like my own and those of the other women in my family. For this black girl, transplanted from the inner-city to the suburbs, the idea of a black professional woman with the charisma and influence that Oprah wielded was foreign. She seemed larger than life. And in the minds of millions of people today, she is.

As her mentor and friend Maya Angelou would say, Oprah is a “phenomenal woman” who exemplifies the spirit of an over-comer.

The first black woman billionaire, Oprah created a veritable media empire in the span of just one generation. Besides her Emmy Award-winning, top-rated talk show, Oprah has started her own television network, a magazine, a bestseller-making book club, produced major motion pictures and TV movies, and even launched the careers of other household names, like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suze Orman. A bighearted philanthropist, Oprah has raised millions of dollars through her Angel Network to send deserving children to school, financed college educations for hundreds of young black men, built schools in Africa, and more. She has blessed millions of people with her servant’s heart, extreme generosity, and her uncanny ability to bare her soul and profoundly connect with just about anyone.

Over the years, Oprah has consistently motivated people to live their best life ever, teaching that anyone could achieve success regardless of past or present circumstances. She empowered people to pursue their calling in life, and encouraged them to look for life-changing “aha moments” and to be their authentic selves. If you want to make it happen, all you need to do is look within yourself, work real hard, and you will get it. That’s the Oprah way.

For that, people truly love Oprah—and some of that “love” borders on Oprah worship, according to many critics.

Many evangelical Christians have condemned Oprah for her brand of church-free spirituality that focuses heavily on self-empowerment, leaving very little room for the God she claims to know. In fact, Oprah has been called one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America because of the way people respond to her views on life and spirituality. And her talk show has given her the perfect pulpit from which to preach what some have referred to as “the gospel according to Oprah.”

Despite repeatedly giving thanks to Jesus Christ for her many years of success—including on her final show—Oprah has publicly advocated a pluralistic view of salvation that says all paths lead to heaven and God. That means that whether you accept Christ as your Savior and Lord or prostrate yourself before the Buddha, in Oprah’s way of thinking, you can be saved. Clearly, many biblically minded Christians take issue with that perspective, since the Bible teaches salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ and Him alone.

Though Oprah never intended to become this maharishi to the masses, it is what it is. And many still worry about the impact of her spiritual vagueness and emphasis on seeking a God-consciousness on the eternal souls of her followers.

Very telling is the fact that audience members have had what looked like real religious worship experiences on her shows. They’ve done the ugly cry, shouted, danced for joy, praised their guru, and raised their hands in a fashion very similar to that of worshipers at a Sunday morning church service. One woman dissolved into tears as she shared how putting on an old pair of Oprah’s shoes (purchased at a charity garage sale) keeps her from slumping into a depression.

That’s a mighty powerful influence—one that I doubt will end simply because the show has. Oprah is so embedded in the hearts and minds of those who follow her that they will simply pursue her into her next phase of her career—and whatever else she decides to do after that.

Whatever it is, Oprah clearly demonstrates that it is possible to be a good person (maybe even a better person than some Christians) without being explicitly “Christian” in the evangelical sense. She has done what none of her peers could do. She has risen beyond superstar status to become a true American idol. And, whether you are fan or foe, you have to recognize that Oprah has it going on and the lives of millions of people will never be the same because God allowed a little black girl from Mississippi to pass their way.

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.

Change Your Seat!

Change Your Seat! for urban faithWhen my usual pew was filled, I was almost panic-stricken as the usher led me to a different section of the church. Little did I know, I needed a change in perspective.

Some years ago, I walked into my church late and could not find a seat in the house. Actually, I could not find “my” seat in the house because all of the seats in my usual section were taken.

I felt uneasy, as I followed the usher to an open seat on the other side of the church. I had been so used to sitting in “my” seat that the thought of parking in a different pew — especially one on the complete opposite side of the church — actually bothered me. It was as if I was in a foreign country.

But as the service progressed, I was suddenly aware of the new level of freedom that I had as I praised and worshiped God in this strange, new location.

At one point, I was the only one standing and worshiping God with my whole body and with the words of my mouth. As I continued to shout praises to His name, others in my new seating area began to worship the Lord with me. Soon, we were swept up in a spirit of worship that seemed to last forever.

After the service, a brother and sister in Christ told me that they were glad that I sat in “their” section because my praise was infectious and they were encouraged by it to forget about their inhibitions and worship God even more. I was inspired by their testimony, and grateful to God for using me to encourage them and others in that section to worship Him with their whole beings.

As I drove home, I realized the Lord had allowed these circumstances to get me to see how silly it was to have “my” seat in church anyway. It’s not a restaurant, a theater, or a football stadium. It’s the house of God, where all are welcome and urged to gather together to praise and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It is a place where there are no “Big I’s” or “little you’s” because God does not regard a person’s status or outward appearance, but looks at the heart and a person’s commitment to Him. It is a place where the focus should be on exalting the Lord for who He is and all that He has done.

The very next Sunday, I intentionally found a different place to sit and have done so ever since. Sometimes I’ve thought about those people who were encouraged to praise the Lord because I changed my seat. Maybe they got a breakthrough on some problem they were having. Maybe that day ignited a flame in them that the world and troubles could not extinguish. Maybe they were inspired to seek a more meaningful relationship with God. Maybe that Sunday changed their lives in some way. I may never know. But I have wondered, What would’ve happened if I had sat in my old seat instead?

Do you have a favorite spot to sit in church? Are you upset when you can’t sit in “your” seat? I encourage you to break that tradition. It may seem like a simple thing, but I’ve discovered that it’s often the simple things that lead to my most profound moments of growth as a person — as a Christian. Take a chance and let God move in you by moving yourself. When you walk into church this Sunday, make up your mind that you will Change Your Seat!