The Rev. Dr. DeForest Buster Soaries Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., is fed up with what he calls a “culture of debt” in the African-American community. Under his Dfree initiative, he is arming his congregants with spiritual, educational and motivational tools to combat generations of poor financial management.
As a first step, he asks his parishioners to take to church all the credit card offers they receive in the mail, thus removing the temptation from them. He notes that one-third of all Americans are deeply in debt, one-third are moderately in debt and another third have some debt. While the income rate within the African-American community continues to rise, more money is being lost due to high interest rates that eat into earnings and savings. “I am asking members to make a commitment to live debt-free, to learn how to live within their financial means. To be debt-free also means to save money,” Soaries says. Members also are asked to establish an emergency account, to save six months of living expenses and to invest in items with growth potential, such as real estate, instead of items that depreciate, such as cars.
Dfree, according to its Web site, www.mydfree.org , “is a holistic, member-focused, process-ministry of economic empowerment.” Based on the principles of “no debt, no deficits and no delinquents,” it also is a model for other churches in encouraging parishioners to become financially independent. The three-step process includes planning, implementing and sustaining specific actions. In the planning stage, the church’s senior pastor creates or prioritizes goals and objectives; the senior leadership meets formally to support the vision; leaders receive Dfree introductory training; and create/customize Dfree products.
Soaries began to set the stage for financial independence by organizing a credit union where members might save. He boasts about the credit union’s success in accessing $10 million to help members refinance their homes and pay off their debts. Every fourth Sunday at First Baptist is “Dfree Sunday,” with a portion of the service dedicated to celebrating the eradication of debt. “I will stop the service and someone may publicly say they paid off a $3,000 credit card or a car note. It is a time for testimony and celebration,” Soaries says.
Classes and special events are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “We are not going to develop community empowerment if our individual families are drowning in debt,” Soaries says.
The congregation has been overwhelmingly receptive to the Dfree initiative. “They feel better about the church,” Soaries says. “First Baptist is not a place where only the preacher prospers; the focus of the Dfree ministry is on the membership.” Prior to the initiative, many parishioners did not know their credit score, knew nothing about mortgages and did not have a budget, he says. That has changed. He sees positive results in parishioners’ personal sacrifices, with the number of tithes increasing by 29 percent within one year. “Because so many (members) no longer have bad debt, they have become more generous in giving to the church,” Soaries says.
Soaries is quick to reference Scripture on matters of money and debt, citing its description of a debtor as a “slave.” Participants in the Dfree initiative take the Dfree Pledge, in which they agree to apply biblical principles to financial management. “What we say is to manage your money God’s way; my
dfree.org lays out the principles and the strategy,” Soaries says.