Khalil Abdullah, New America Media
WASHINGTON —The audience’s gasp of disapproval was audible. On screen, a teenager had just confessed to “not wanting to know” about her parents’ dire financial situation, while estimating her wardrobe expenses at “four-hundred-ish … a month.”
At another point, the Rev. Dr. DeForest Soaries, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J, declared that debt poses a “bigger problem than racism” to the future stability of the African-American community.
The forum for these provocative comments was an advance screening in Washington, D.C., of a new CNN documentary, “Almighty Debt—A Black in America Special,” due to air tonight. The predominantly African-American audience—invited by CNN in collaboration with The Washington Informer, a weekly newspaper celebrating its 46th year of publication this month—was generally positive, but also sometimes shocked.
Soledad O’Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent, narrates the documentary, which will be followed tonight by a televised half-hour panel discussion on how debt, foreclosure, and job loss are affecting the African-American community. O’Brien’s special report focuses on members of Soaries’s First Baptist congregation, to capture three compelling and often poignant narratives of the intersection of faith and financial pressures.
Immediately after the screening, O’Brien, Soaries (photograph above), and Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor at Columbia University, joined the Washington Informer’s publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes, and Washington Post financial columnist Michelle Singletary in an animated question-and-answer session about the extent of personal responsibility and the need for increased financial literacy in the African-American community.
In a vignette that sparked dismay in the D.C. audience, Maya Jefferies, an academically solid high school student and promising tennis player, said she aspired to attend a college like Georgetown, Princeton, Columbia, or Yale, while remaining unaware that her parents, Doug and Mary Jefferies, were struggling to stave off a bank sale of their dream house. The 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom home with a three-car garage was built from the ground up with earnings from the Jefferies’ commission-based incomes.
Doug is a luxury car salesman and Mary a “high-end’ real estate broker. Their earnings nosedived as the economy deteriorated and, as they met with a lawyer, even Mary’s faith-based optimism seemed momentarily daunted by the realization they had missed over two years of monthly payments and now owed more than $100,000 on their mortgage.
“I really don’t want to know,” responded Maya Jefferies to O’Brien’s gentle probing. “I don’t want to focus on negativity.” She said she prays that God will help her and parents through their financial ordeal, whatever it may be.
But, said Soaries, “Optimism has got to be connected to action.” Throughout the documentary, he cites Scripture as he admonishes members of his congregation to live within their means and to realize that pursuing lavish lifestyles means “living in financial bondage.”
O’Brien said “Almighty Debt” took about a year to complete. She said producers took a variety of factors into consideration—First Baptist’s size, its geographical location, its denomination, and Soaries’s “passionate” feelings about debt—before deciding on the church as a platform through which to examine the issues.
O’Brien praised the willingness and courage of church members to open up to the CNN crew, despite the painful memories and risk of embarrassment.
The special report also contains analysis from writers and economists, including Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux. In one sequence, Malveaux explained that most middle-class African Americans achieve that status because of income, not other sources of wealth. Real wealth, typically accrued over generations, can enable a family to weather a few storms, she said; but in families that have only a middle-class income, when a disruptive event or unforeseen financial emergency occurs, “anything can knock you over.”
After the screening, Alix Montes, a Haitian American from Miami who is a student at George Washington University and president of its Multicultural Business Student Association, said “Almighty Debt” was a “good place to start,” but hoped that O’Brien would follow up with a special on entrepreneurship.
Tiffany Rose, special assistant to the president of Destination D.C., agreed, saying she was hard pressed to understand why Carl Fields, a 25-year veteran of the insurance industry profiled in the documentary, had not started his own business after losing his vice president position almost 20 months ago. Of his job search, which has included more than 300 applications but yielded only three phone interviews, Fields said, “I’ve been out of the ‘picky’ mode for quite some time,” Of his inability to secure a steady paycheck to support his family, the 59-year-old Fields said, “You feel less than a man.” Rose said it was time for Fields to take another path.
O’Brien said that the intensity of the public’s reaction to her documentary suggests that more should be done by media to address the issue of debt.
Barnes, the Washington Informer’s publisher, agreed. Her paper, based in one of the city’s poorest sections, also serves adjacent Prince George’s County, Maryland. “It’s been devastating, what’s been happening in the county,” Barnes said of foreclosures and job loss. “People are embarrassed, afraid … don’t know where to go for help.”
Indeed, Soaries said one of his abiding frustrations is the reluctance, even among members of his congregation, to seek help and counsel. “It’s honorable, it’s noble, it’s cool to go for help,” he said.