CNN Explores Faith And Debt In Black Community

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One out of every three African-American families are at risk of falling out of the middle class due to unemployment, overspending and unexpected financial crises, according to a Pew Research Center study released earlier this year. And its a statistic at the center of the latest documentary in the award-winning CNN investigative series, Black In America. The program, titled "Almighty Debt," looks at how the African-American faith community is responding to the challenges of the economic recession. Host Michel Martin speaks with CNN anchor Soledad O'Brian about the series.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, the Barbershop guys are with us to talk about the news of the week.

But first, we are going to dig into some sensitive issues involving faith and finance. Now, many people have become familiar with the so-called prosperity gospel. And often, critics of this particular theology and practice come from outside of the church.

But now one prominent pastor, DeForest Soaries, is calling out fellow clergy who he says are preaching a false doctrine that encourages a fantasy about money instead of mastering the tools that people really need to thrive in this country. We will have a conversation with him in just a few minutes.

And his efforts are actually profiled in the latest installment of the award-winning CNN series "Black in America." It's entitled "Almighty Debt." It's reported and hosted by Soledad O'Brien, and here's a short clip of Pastor Soaries in that documentary.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Almighty Debt")

Reverend DeFOREST SOARIES JR. (First Baptist Church): One out of five of us has no bank account. We still do payday loans. We still do rent to own. But you see, we'll drive shiny cars, and we'll wear designer clothes, and we have all of the appearances of doing well. But we won't admit that we're broke.

MARTIN: Joining us now to tell us more about it, Soledad O'Brien. And she was kind enough to make it into our studio in New York despite a broken leg in a cast. So thank you for that, Soledad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Host, "Almighty Debt"): I'm healing, I'm healing. My pleasure, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get onto this topic?

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, we were really interested in looking for our third "Black in America" installment at the black church because it's such an important and powerful institution in the African-American community.

And we started there. We really weren't sure where our search would take us until we ran into Pastor Soaries. And we discovered his passion for really, trying to pull his congregation out of debt. And no matter what conversation we would have, it always came back down to debt. And he would say, you know, racism is less of a problem than debt - which was very provocative, obviously.

So we started focusing our documentary on and partly because, of course, the economy at the same time, really devastating to the African-American community -bad for everybody, but devastating to the African-American community. It seemed like a good opportunity to explore the role of the black church in what could be this next front in civil rights, which is economic parity and economic justice.

Some churches are doing it, I think, you know, well. And others are really missing the mark.

MARTIN: Well, the documentary follows three different families with three very different circumstances. And I think one of the things that I think will be provocative about this is that some people, despite very dire economic circumstances, insist on tithing - which is paying, you know, 10 percent of their earnings to the church.

And I think some people will say that that is an example of dysfunctional behavior. And in fact, some of the people who are still tithing go to Pastor Soaries' church.

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know what was interesting? I've asked them a lot about that. You know, I'm Catholic, so we don't tithe, and so the whole tithing thing is just very unfamiliar to me. And the idea that somebody when I talked to the Fields, for example, who are telling me that every month, they're $2,000 short to pay their bills.

And I said, well, what do you pay first? How do you decide? She said, well, you know, first we tithe. First we tithe. And when I said, well, tithe, wouldn't the church understand, you know, you're hurting right now; you can't afford this. She said, you know, this isn't to the church. This is to God.

And so it's been interesting to me to see in some ways how non-controversial it is for people who believe that, you know, the debt is less about the tithing, and more about if you can manage your money so that you can figure out how you can tithe to your church.

I've been where I've been stunned, I've been stunned that other people are not stunned.

MARTIN: And that was going to be my last question - is what kind of reaction are you getting to this? The piece premieres next week, next Thursday, on October 21st, on CNN. But you've been having screenings around the country - you know, despite, as we said, the hobbling with the broken leg. But and I'm interested in what reaction you're getting from people.

MARTIN: The reaction's been phenomenal, and I think part of it is Pastor Soaries, you know, here's a guy whose roots are really in the battle for civil rights - worked with Jesse Jackson. Here's a guy who's been doing this for a very long time.

And what he's saying now is that people have to start dealing with the things that they can control, and debt is one of those things. While there are these historic reasons for why African-Americans are far behind when it comes to accumulating wealth some of those reasons are, obviously, slavery, Jim Crow, you know, unfair practices in FHA, etc., etc., G.I. Bill - the current-day crisis really is going to require people to save themselves.

And one way to save ourselves - or themselves - is to focus on the thing you can control, which is lowering your debt - is what he's trying to get. He's so passionate about it, and his program is called dfree. He's trying to get his parishioners to embrace dfree - and really, I think, the world.

MARTIN: I'll be interested to see how I'm not going to give it away, what actually happens to these three folks that you profiled. And I'll be interested to hear after...

Ms. O'BRIEN: You've got to watch the documentary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Exactly. Soledad O'Brien is a CNN anchor and host of the network's investigative series "Black in America." It airs its latest installment, entitled "Almighty Debt," this coming Thursday. She is with us from New York. Soledad, thanks so much.

Ms. O'BRIEN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And of course, we wish you a speedy recovery.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Oh, thank you, thank you.

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