'Almighty Debt' Explores Blacks' Bondage to Almighty Dollar

After all this time, more than 400 years later, African Americans are slaves again. This time, however, the enslavement is largely of their own making.

“There’s no question to me that debt is a bigger problem than racism,” declares Pastor DeForest “Buster” Soaries, the impassioned leader of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., and eloquent focus of Almighty Debt, third in the series of CNN’s Black in America specials premiering at 9 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Oct. 21) on the cable news network.

“We still do payday loans, rent-to-own,” the minister chides. “When I’m paying last month’s bills with next month’s check, that’s slavery. When I’m writing a check hoping that it doesn’t bounce

then I’m living in financial bondage.”

The softly measured, thought-provoking 90-minute documentary, anchored by Soledad O’Brien and particularly salient for major urban cities like Detroit, examines the role the black church can play – and in Pastor Soaries’s case, is playing – in helping to free the black community from the shackles of economic impotence during the worst fiscal era since the Depression. And with African Americans on average having $75,000 less in wealth – the value of everything you own, minus your debt – than whites, the challenge is daunting.

“We knew we were going to focus on the black church” during the Black in America series, O’Brien said by phone Wednesday. “We just weren’t sure exactly to what degree and what our story would be until we met Pastor Soaries and discovered his passion for debt and finance. It made perfect sense in this down economy, which is hurting everybody but definitely black Americans.”

The special could have been set around any black church in any city, but Soaries, a onetime assistant to Rev. Jesse Jackson and former New Jersey Secretary of State, caught the fancy of CNN producers. “I will brag on my team, because that’s what we do,” O’Brien said. “We find great people who are great characters who tell great stories.

“We were looking for months and months. Part of the job is to go out and talk to people and try to figure out what is the story we’re trying to tell and who is the character who best embodies it. Is it somebody you want to watch for two hours on television? Do they have a great story but aren’t great talkers? Are they a great talker but don’t have a great story? That really is the critical question.”

Soaries isn’t the only tentpole of Almighty Debt; you’ll also meet a cross-section of his parishioners. There’s Mary and Doug Jeffries, a middle-aged couple whose lavish commissioned-based lifestyle dried up with the economy, leaving them perilously close to eviction from their dream house; Fred Philp, a high school graduate weighing the reality of plunging thousands of dollars in debt to continue his theater education in college; and Carl Fields, a former insurance company VP whose faith in God remains unshakable despite being unemployed more than two years. The omnipresent Julianne Malveaux and other talking heads of color provide expert insights along the way.

“What I thought was most interesting was for all the Black in Americas that we’ve done, we’ve never really had a chance to put into context slavery, and Jim Crow,” O’Brien noted. “And in this one we’re able to really talk about it very organically. Because where we are in 2010 is a direct function of the fact that historically as slaves, African Americans were not accumulating wealth. They were somebody else’s wealth accumulation.”

The documentary, which includes a cameo performance from Detroit’s CeCe Winans, will be followed by a 30-minute roundtable forum on the issue, moderated by O’Brien and including Bishop T.D. Jakes, syndicated financial columnist Michelle Singletary, clinical social worker and PR executive Terrie Williams and Soaries.