Celebrating UTI: The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries calls for a new black church response to nip crisis of reckless personal spending habits

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The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, Jr., challenged the black church to come up with a model to guide African Americans (and others) to police their reckless spending habits in a consumerist culture that is taking advantage of them and destroying their capacity to live effectively. Dr. Soaries was lecturer and preacher for the September 24, 2013 Lecture and Worship Celebration of The Urban Theological Institute (UTI) of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

The Rev. Dr. Buster SoariesSoaries, former New Jersey Secretary of State and senior pastor of the 7,000-member First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, Somerset, NJ, was a major contributor to a CNN documentary called “Almighty Debt.” He tours the country attempting to wake consumers up to the perils of irresponsible spending. “We have more poor people today than in 1963. We spend money before we get it. We do not live within our means. We have no sense of delayed gratification,” Soaries said. “In Birmingham, AL, today the streets are lined with payday stores [where you can borrow money at high interest to get you to pay day]. There are more payday stores in America than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. You borrow money at 700 percent interest, and it is all legal.” He cited research that indicates it takes the equivalent of nine payday loans to pay off the initial debt. “I’d rather borrow from the Mafia,” he said, at one point vowing he would like to put such stores out of business. But a big problem, he reminded: “How do you set a captive (borrower) free if the captive does not know he or she is a captive?”

At one point, he referenced modern hip hop music as focused on personal image, such as Wiz Khalifa’s “Look what I got on …” “When the culture reflects frivolity and superficiality as what matters, one can ask, ‘Where is the church?’”

In the past, he said, the black “social justice in the name of Jesus” church had a model for dealing responsibly with complicated challenges. He pointed out that if a southern governor raises a Confederate flag over the state capital, “we have all the speeches written. When Trayvon Martin was murdered, so many of our pastors wore hoodies to church in memory of that event. But we have no model for this, and so it is appropriate if the black church is to remain alive and thrive for it to develop a model response. God does make a way for us. By the power manifest in Jesus anybody can rise above anything by that power.” And, he indicated that anyone who comes up with a model response to guide people from reckless spending will have come up with the brightest kind of light “in what has become a very dark world.”

Earlier in his talk, he gave praise to the seminary for “hitching its wagon” to the black church through developing its Urban Theological Institute initiative in 1980, some 33 years ago, and acknowledged the history of the seminary’s founding 150 years ago. The existence of the seminary points to a milestone in the evolution of Christian thinking, he said.

He said the seminary “punctuated its history by giving rise to UTI. People could say you are confused here. Are you Lutheran? Are you urban? Are you post-enlightenment? It looks at first like institutional schizophrenia. But if you look closer, this Lutheran has an intangible ‘it’ going on. The ‘it’ hinges on emphasizing urban and black church perspectives.” He said he believes, as an outsider looking in, that the seminary is one of the “premiere places” to look at the uniqueness of the black church. And yet, he indicated in remarks about Martin Luther, the seminary retains its Lutheran understandings of history and faith — its identity.

The Rev. Dr. Wayne Croft, Sr., LTSP’s Jeremiah A. Wright Sr. Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics in African American Studies, and a former student of Soaries, introduced the speaker warmly as having been a life-changing mentor. Other remarks came from President Philip D.W. Krey and UTI Director Quintin Robertson. All three were singled out for praise by Soaries.

The Rev. Dr. Buster SoariesDuring the evening part of the celebration at Enon Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Soaries plumbed the depths of Mark 14:3 in a sermon titled “Legacy Living.”

With profound rhetoric that was all at once soaring, evocative, cerebral, and instructive, Soaries involved deep perspective on the story of the woman who came to the home of Simon the Leper to anoint Jesus with ointment in advance of his anticipated burial while disapproving elders and disciples looked on. When they said the oil and the alabaster container were wasted rather than being sold to benefit the poor, Jesus tells the followers “leave her alone. She does this for me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me…”

“Jesus does not give compliments easily,” Soaries said. “And so when Jesus gives a compliment it stands out. In this passage Jesus elevates this woman and gives her a guaranteed legacy … as the one who will forever be guaranteed such a legacy wherever the Gospel is preached.

“The woman in this text has no name,” Soaries said. “We are prone to assume in modern culture that you have to have a name to have a legacy. We like celebrities. We are addicted to famous people. We are not into people without names. We are not concerned with the waiters and waitresses in our lives. We want to know the name of the chef. The celebrity culture engulfs us.

“But so often the people who have influenced our lives are not famous at all,” he said. “What about the woman who told you to be sure your underwear doesn’t have holes in it? What about the man who taught you that manhood isn’t about knocking someone down but picking someone up? What about the Sunday School teacher who taught you there is a God somewhere? These people are not ‘Meet the Press’ famous! Jesus in elevating this woman is violating something about our culture today. We need to inch our way past our discomfort and see what it takes to do legacy living.”

Soaries said for the woman to do what she did for Jesus required her to have unusual belief in herself. “She was unwanted,” Soaries said. “She was interrupting the club meeting involving Jesus and the boys. She could have decided to get away, but she pressed on anyhow. Without any doubt or fears concerning her cause. She said to herself, ‘I’m out here. I am a legacy liver. I’m healthy spiritually.' She was about being sure of what God was calling her to do. She kept her eye on the prize, blocking the naysayers. Put your eyes on the prize! And do what God tells you to do!

“We don’t think of ourselves as in God’s image unless we are wearing designer clothes,” Soaries moved on. “We try to buy significance. We’re somebody no matter what we wear! Our theology is shallow if you think of yourself by what you wear, if you spend more money on tennis shoes than you put in your savings account.

The woman had such confidence in herself she did not mind the name-calling, the rolling of the eyes, the talk behind her back. She was into legacy living. She didn’t care what the crowd does.” And, Soaries said, the anointing was costly and involved terrific sacrifice of something of value she could have used for herself.” She gave up a year’s salary to leave a legacy. Wherever the Gospel is preached this legacy, this guaranteed legacy of a woman with no name, will be celebrated — guaranteed by Jesus.”

Proceeds from donations at both events go toward endowing the Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr., Chair for African American Studies. The fund to endow the chair has reached $635,000, Robertson announced during his introductory remarks.

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