Personal Finance: Almighty Debt

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Michelle Singletary
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 11:14 AM

In an economy where there aren't enough jobs and families are struggling to pay their bills, can churches help people pray away their debt?

The Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr., the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., believes it takes prayer, individual responsibility and personal action to go from being a slave to debt to financial freedom. And this pastor, like so many others around the country, is using his pulpit to lead people to debt-free living. At his church, Soaries created the "D-Free" program to encourage his congregation to become debt defeaters. The "D" in the program stands for debts, delinquencies and deficits.

What Soaries is doing for his flock caught the attention of CNN. He is the central figure in the cable network's latest installment in its Black in America series. Tonight at 9 p.m., CNN will premiere "Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special," hosted by Soledad O'Brien. Following the documentary is a panel discussion that starts at 10:30 p.m. I took part in this can't-miss conversation with the well-known and wonderful Bishop T.D. Jakes; Terri Williams, author of "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting;" and Cornell Belcher, a top Democratic pollster.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, CNN's O'Brien says "When Pastor Soaries says debt is worse than slavery, that debt is a kind of bondage, [others I talked to] would nod and say, 'yep. I feel like I'm in bondage because I can't pay my mortgage.' So as much as I think he was being provocative and a little bit over the top, I think he also believes that racism is something that is external to you and that debt is something that you can manage all on your own."

Here's a clip of the documentary, which explores the difference between income and wealth.

"You can be middle class by income, but not by wealth," Julianne Malveaux, an economist and president of Bennett College tells O'Brien in the documentary. "If you're middle class by income, anything will knock you over. If you're middle class by wealth you can basically survive a couple of storms."

Although O'Brien focuses on the black church, the message should resonate with all Americans. We have become a nation of debtors and one way many are people trying to kick the habit is by turning to programs offered by or at their churches. I know my own church, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland, has provided financial classes for years that have helped hundreds of people get out of debt and become better money managers.

I know there is a lot competing for your attention, but I hope you find time to watch this documentary. You may see yourself in the stories of people struggling with their almighty debt. You may, I hope, be motivated to make some changes in how you handle your finances.

You can find several preview clips of the show on CNN's Web site.

After you watch, tell me what you think. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line, put "Almighty Debt."

Young, Gifted, and Not In Debt

I'm a huge fan of Ralph Jones Jr.


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