Ronald E. Keener
CE Interview: DeForest B. Soaries Jr., Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, Somerset, NJ.
When “Buster” Soaries awakes at 3:00 in the morning, unable to sleep, he says he is usually “trying to figure out new ways to convince people to accept God’s plan for their lives. All of my work requires that people want something better for their lives.” This senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ, says “My burden is that so many people have settled for less quality in life than they could have. In that sense I am totally focused on how to impact the culture.”
That’s now his quest for his 3,000 worshippers, and was earlier when he was New Jersey Secretary of State. In that latter position he was the first African American male to serve as a constitutional officer of the State of New Jersey, appointed to an unexpired term by Republican Gov.
Christine Todd Whitman and unanimously confirmed by the NJ State Senate.
But political affiliation hasn’t mattered much to Soaries, 60; rather, it’s the issues he can focus his considerable abilities in helping the quality of life for people. Working both sides of the aisle has been his style, and the reason for his success. “I have been a Democrat and a Republican. But my involvement in politics and government has been focused less on partisan politics and more on very specific issues including poverty, education, youth, foster care, urban and community development and minority concerns.
“Party affiliation is never more important than one’s position on issues. I have worked with members of both parties towards solutions to problems and have earned the respect of both parties for the same reason.”
Share a bit about the location of the church.
New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in the country, and our church is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state. When I arrived at First Baptist, the neighborhood had the highest crime rate, the highest school dropout rate, the worst housing and the most poverty in our region of the state. Despite our neighborhood’s proximity to Johnson & Johnson’s corporate headquarters, and the main campus of Rutgers University, the neighborhood surrounding the church could be described as the “Bermuda Triangle” of economic and social deprivation. There was prosperity all around it but no significant development in this neighborhood for more than 50 years.
Our church made two strategic decisions soon after I arrived. We decided to build a new church facility to house our operations. And we decided to build the new church structure in the same location as the old building and use the project as a catalyst for economic and social revitalization for the entire neighborhood.
We conducted community meetings and neighborhood surveys, and we formed a planning partnership with the municipal and community leaders in the neighborhood. That process produced a plan to address the needs of the entire neighborhood. Our role has been to coordinate the revitalization process and to actually develop certain projects for which we could find no sponsor or developer.
And today, what does the area look like now?
Eighteen years later the results have been remarkable. We have almost 1,000 new units of new affordable housing; a state of the art primary care health facility, a branch of the community college, a supermarket, a $180 million dollar high school; two new bank branches; two new parks; and a new worship facility for the church.
Our nonprofit entities actually sponsored some job training and youth programs, built some of the housing, revitalized three commercial properties and formed a community development credit union. But the primary role that we have played has been to lead the effort and advocate for the neighborhood. This entire vision has been pursuant to Acts 1:8 where Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them power to be his witnesses starting in Jerusalem. We believe that our Jerusalem is the three square miles that surround our church. We call it the Renaissance Neighborhood.
You’ve spoken about your affection for the black church. Can you share what is different about the black church in helping our predominantly white pastor readers understand that importance?
There are two important distinctives that belong to African American churches. First, they generally expect their pastors to provide leadership that is not limited to the spiritual realm. Historically, African Americans have relied upon the clergy to be active and instructive in areas that include politics, economics, education, social justice and cultural affairs. In fact African American clergy are likely to be subjected to criticism for not being active enough in community affairs that impact their memberships and communities. The history of slavery and segregation produced contexts for African American social development that they found required advocacy and agitation from within its ranks. The clergy have been the most visible, credible, literate, articulate, charismatic and independent personalities in the community. Chief among the roles of the clergy were leadership and “spokesmanship” on issues related to justice and fairness. The black religious tradition required that black preachers function as both Priest and Prophet.
The second unique aspect of African American churches is the historic synthesis and compatibility of the social and spiritual nature of the Gospel. The schisms that emerged in mainstream Christianity as a result of Enlightenment scholasticism and criticism never took root in black churches.
And Post-Enlightenment theological tensions did not really affect black churches much.
The nature of scripture, the Gospel and the role of the church have always been a kind of hybrid for blacks. On the one hand blacks have always taken the Bible very seriously — literally if you will — as it related to its authority and its authenticity for setting moral standards for Christian living. On the other hand blacks have also creatively appropriated Biblical stories and characters to shape our responses to injustices heaped upon us by others who identified themselves as Christians. Black people not only identified with the salvific role of Jesus but also the liberating images of Moses.
The profound genius and majestic miracle of the black church is that it has been successful in retaining a vibrant Christian witness among African Americans despite the unholy alliance that existed between institutional white racism and institutional Christianity. Although Christianity was the religion of our oppressors, we were able to see beyond the oppressive actions of the people and identify the authentic God that they worshipped.
Almost every major branch of Christianity was formed as a result of a theological or Biblical issue. But black Christianity in North America has its unique beginnings in a quest for social justice.
You’ve been outspoken on the prosperity gospel, and critical of Pastor Eddie Long, writing in The Wall Street Journal that Long’s “brand of theology has contributed to a troubling trend among black churches in America.” In what way?
There have always been preachers and churches that have deviated from the core messages of Jesus about salvation, love, justice and sacrifice and replaced them with a focus on material gain and personal success. What is different today is that the skillful use of media has made what had been considered aberrant doctrine, movements and practices become perceived as mainstream and legitimate religious practice. When turning God into a Cosmic Santa Claus becomes normative and self-denial, cross bearing followership becomes viewed as faithlessness, the church is in deep trouble. The so-called Christian prosperity movement is the greatest threat to Biblical Christianity in America.
One of the dangerous aspects of the so-called prosperity gospel is that it promotes the notion that God wants people to have material things that they cannot afford but that God will miraculously provide for them. The proponents of this so-called gospel place such an emphasis on material possessions that one’s faith is often tied to the degree to which one gains ownership of more possessions. There is certainly no Biblical prohibition to gaining financial wealth. But the purpose of wealth and any other blessing bestowed by God is to be a blessing to others and not to put on display as evidence as having been blessed due to our faith. The current economic recession is causing many people to re-think this understanding of Jesus and scripture. The church needs more servant leaders and fewer celebrity leaders.
What do African Americans see in prosperity gospel and how is it attractive to them?
The history of injustice has left a legacy that finds African Americans represented in disproportionately high numbers in almost every significant social statistic in this country. Proportionally, blacks are the most unemployed, the most incarcerated, the most impoverished, and therefore we are the most vulnerable to schemes — religious, political, economic — that appear to offer relief. Blacks in Texas, for example, spend $1.1 billion on lottery tickets every year hoping for economic deliverance. The prosperity message is like a religious lottery where people are throwing money at preachers hoping to win the heavenly lottery. It is shameful.
But you teach another kind of “prosperity plan” to your members?
I teach Biblical truth and common sense. To begin we teach that genuine prosperity is foremost spiritual — what Jesus refers to in Luke 16 when he clearly differentiates between worldly wealth and “true riches.” Jesus said that God wants to assess how we handle money to see if we qualify for true riches.
We also teach Biblical principles of handling money and building wealth. We call our ministry dfree. This ministry teaches and helps our members live without debt, delinquencies and deficits, and leads them into deposits, dividends and deeds. Our goal is to create a community of wise consumers, skillful money managers and willing workers.
If we spend more than we have, live above our means, fail to place ourselves on budgets, ignore the need for insurance, and generally live sloppy financial lives, we are ignoring the teaching of Jesus and undermining our financial futures. There are no gimmicks or tricks involved in dfree.
There are four phases of our strategy: Get Started, Get Control, Get Ahead and Give Back. This is a church-wide effort and a priority of my ministry.
What “awakening” did you have for getting a grip on one’s financial future?
A few years ago I noticed that many of our members were driving expensive, late model cars. Closer analysis revealed that these cars had been financed with loans that had extremely high interest rates. That led us to a review of home mortgages and other financial relationships that our members had. It became clear that the church had a tremendous challenge to address in the area of consumer debt and financial management. The leaders of our church joined me in making a commitment to helping our members get out of debt and begin saving, managing and investing our money wisely. And we included the church itself in that commitment. Not only do we want debt free members — but we also want to have a debt free church after having borrowed $19 million to build a new church facility.
You have Dfree Sunday? What happens then?
Debt free living requires more than Biblical and financial information. We live in a consumer culture that promotes spending as a social virtue and shopping as emotional therapy. Therefore, we have learned that reckless and irresponsible spending is more an emotional, psychological and spiritual problem than it is an informational problem. Therefore, we believe that it takes the support of others to break the cycle and culture of debtwith which we are plagued.
So in addition to the classes and workshops that we sponsor, we have a church-wide campaign that includes celebrating with our members when they completely pay off any debt. Dfree Sunday is when that happens. We pause during each of our worship services and give our members an opportunity to testify about any bill or bills that have retired during the previous month. And the entire congregation then gives a rousing applause for that accomplishment. We are trying to popularize debt free living and offer the worshipping community as cheerleaders in the process.
Beside the debt free ministry, what other programs are you working hard on?
I believe the other high impact ministry in our church is our foster care and adoption ministry, called Harvest of Hope. Through this ministry we have trained almost 400 families to become licensed foster homes and they have taken in 800 foster children; 255 of these children have been adopted and now have loving Christian homes that provide for them for the rest of their lives.
Foster care has become a feeder system for juvenile incarceration in this country. If churches would engage in similar work, we could literally end the foster care system as we know it and Christians could care for the 500,000 children in foster care. Not only would this steer thousands of at-risk youth away from the lure of criminal behavior, but it would ultimately same millions of public dollars that are currently funding failed strategies maintaining this child welfare system.
How would you like to be remembered when you leave the active ministry?
I would like to be remembered as a pastor who loved his family, cared about people and used his gifts to serve others and solve problems.
Engaged with state government
Pastor Soares is “Shermanesque” about his future in politics: “My political days are completely behind me. I will neither seek elective office nor accept an appointive office. Nor will I endorse any candidate for public office.” His church is involved, however, in various ways with current Governor Chris Christie and his administration:
- Foster care and adoption
- Community development
- Special needs housing
- Affordable housing
- Hosted an event, “Fugitive Safe Surrender,” led by the Attorney General where 3,901 fugitives peacefully surrendered to law enforcement officials at his church (with Mrs. Christie attending);
- Keynote speaker for the Governor’s Faith-Based conference in September.
Dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery is a blueprint not only for managing one’s way out of debt but also for changing one’s life. Author Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr. says “My hope is that this book can become your personal emancipation proclamation.” (Zondervan, 2011)