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.

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