True freedom comes from serving community, and God

“They shot Dr. King.”

That terrible day, of course, was April 4, 1968. I was just a kid, so I didn’t know much about Dr. King yet; I just wanted to know why my grandmother was crying.

My parents and I lived with my grandmother until I was in sixth grade. She was a domestic worker, and like so many black women of her generation, she earned very low wages for working long hours. Her husband refused to work, although they had eight children to feed, but somehow, she always had money. And she made the best sweet potato pie in the world. 

I knew Dr. King must have been a great man indeed, if learning of his death a thousand miles away could make my grandmother weep like that. And since that day, I have strived to live a life that would mean as much to just one person as Dr. King’s life meant to my grandmother. 

My quest to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps began in the 1970s after the major civil rights demonstrations had ended. I soon discovered that while fighting for freedom could be both dangerous and invigorating, using freedom wisely was an entirely different challenge. By the time I arrived on the scene, the legislative battles largely had been won. My task — as I saw it — was to motivate people to take advantage of these hard-won opportunities and to resist the temptation to give up.

By the 1980s, I was traveling the entire country, and beyond, still trying to persuade people to embrace the possibilities for which Dr. King and others died to make available to them. And always, I found myself asking, “What is going on with us? Why aren’t we making more progress?”

By the 1990s, I decided to try a different approach. I became the pastor of a little church in the poorest region of central New Jersey. Instead of focusing on the entire nation, I decided to direct my attention to one congregation. Rather than trying to “save the world,” I set out to discover what would happen if a local church focused just on loving our neighbors and solving the problems in our community. If we could transform this one little place, we reasoned, then maybe that transformation could spread.

We had plenty of problems to choose from. Crime was high, and our neighborhood’s young people were filling the county jail. Drug dealers had the run of countless abandoned buildings, and shootings were so common that we found ourselves picking up bullet shells in the church parking lot almost every Sunday. Despite the country’s overall economic growth, unemployment, lack of access to quality health care, and lack of affordable housing made our town an island of poverty in a sea of prosperity. And, perhaps most disturbing of all, there was a surge of pregnant teens checking into hospitals under false names, giving birth, and then abandoning their babies.

My leadership team and I held public meetings and took door-to-door surveys, learning all we could about these problems from the people themselves. We spent 18 months developing a strategic plan to tackle each one aggressively and methodically. We began by purchasing an abandoned warehouse and — in partnership with St. Peter’s Hospital — converted it into a primary care health facility. This facility now treats 2,000 patients each week, at least half of whom are uninsured.

Next, we took over a partially completed condominium complex that was being controlled by drug dealers across the street from our church, got rid of the drug dealers and created affordable home ownership opportunities for community members. Then we convinced a bank that was about to sell its building to a pornography distributer to sell to us instead for $1.00. There, we created a youth center, a community college and a facility for other neighborhood activities. In response to a special request from the governor, our church also began recruiting families who could take in all those abandoned babies. We started out with about 57 families. Today, we have trained more than 435 families to take in 1,400 children, hundreds of whom have been permanently adopted.

Our church functioned as an economic catalyst and a planning agency for the entire community, and as we had hoped, the transformation has spread. We created a manual for each of our projects, and we still give those manuals to other churches so they can replicate solutions for their own communities. I am extremely grateful that this work has brought hope and renewal to so many. But even in the midst of this success, I still found myself asking the same questions I had two decades earlier: “What is going on with us? Why are we so much less passionate about making use of our freedom than we were about winning it in the first place?”

I found at least part of the answer in the church itself, but not in the way you might expect. During the course of all our community development efforts, our congregation swelled, and we needed a new building. In one sense, this was just another project: We hired an architect, got our permits and loans, and broke ground in 1997. Unlike our community efforts, however, what should have taken 18 months went on for six years and went $5 million over budget. Suddenly our monthly mortgage payment on the church building was the same as our entire annual budget had been the first year that I pastored.

The church board was understandably unhappy, and I was fully prepared to hand the reins to someone younger who might be able to dig us out of the financial mess. I had been so successful on the community development side that I couldn’t fully comprehend how the construction of the church building could get so out of control. But the morning I drove up to the church to resign, the sea of cars in the parking lot caught my eye in a way it hadn’t before. For a moment, it was almost as if those Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Cadillacs and even a single Maserati were speaking to me.

You could be forgiven for thinking that all those gleaming luxury cars were talking to me about how far we had come as a people. My father was a preacher like me, but he also taught school to pay the bills, and my mother was a secretary. They could never have afforded any of the cars I saw in front of me that morning. But those sedans and coupes weren’t congratulating me on how far we had come; they were rebuking me for how far we had fallen because most of their owners couldn’t afford them either. Our church project was over budget, but so were far too many of our families.

My parents couldn’t have bought a BMW, but they felt no need to buy one either. They paid first and used later, whether it was our house that they saved up for while we were living with my grandmother, or a new dress my mother needed that she put on layaway. Like my grandmother, they bought items for functionality and value, and they never used credit for anything. My grandmother herself left real estate to each of her children and her oldest grandchild, while my generation—including many of the owners of those cars—was poised to leave our children nothing but bills.

Things had changed, not just in the black community, but in the nation. Thanks to unprecedented prosperity and a burgeoning advertising industry, we were encouraged to buy products not because they worked well or lasted a long time, but because they would make us feel youthful, attractive, rebellious, or — in the case of an overpriced luxury car — worthy of respect. Staring at those cars in that parking lot, I was forced to confront the possibility that, after working so hard to gain our freedom, at least some of us had just traded one set of oppressors for another.

This is nothing new, of course. Proverbs 22:7 cautioned us thousands of years ago that “the borrower is slave to the lender.” That morning revealed our new master to me in all his savagery. And it wasn’t the bank who held the car note as much as it was the false promise that material consumption will lead to fulfillment. This lie can be as vicious a master as ever lived, when coupled with the extension of credit, including by predatory payday lenders whose interest rates the prophets surely would have condemned as usury.

Of course, this master’s slaves are hardly confined to the black and the poor. The middle class indulges in “retail therapy,” at the cost of their long-term financial freedom. And many of the wealthy have been caught playing fast and loose with credit, but usually with other people’s money. Instead of defaulting on a single loan, they bundled countless bad loans together and sent the entire country into a recession. 

Programs that focus on financial literacy often neglect both the spiritual and psychological reasons for overspending. Rich, middle class and poor alike engage in what I call in my book “Say Yes to No Debt” “compensatory consumption”: buying things to compensate for feelings of insignificance. The more we accumulate, the more we want, because our spending never satisfies us the way the master promises it will. Instead it creates overwhelming stress that takes a serious toll on marriages and families. I’d love to say that the American church has stepped up with answers, but unfortunately, one of our fastest growing segments is full of prosperity preachers who go on television and tell people that God actually wants them to have things they can’t afford.

Today, I spend a lot of time trying to free people of all income levels from the self-imposed oppression of compensatory, conspicuous and confused consumption. I start with a simple and unglamorous principle: There is a difference between what you need and what you want. God will supply all your needs. You have the responsibility to prioritize among your wants because none of us gets to have everything he wants all at once.

After my parking lot epiphany, I knew I had to do more than just get our church budget in the black. I created a special program to help our members free themselves from the new oppressor. Their collective debt burden decreased and subsequent giving increased to the point where, within a year, our church could easily afford the new mortgage payment (although this was never the goal of the program). To date, our seminars have helped thousands of families control their spending, save and invest for the future, and live debt-free. And they have done so by first reclaiming the liberty that was available to them all along.

The political fight for freedom was difficult and costly; men such as Dr. King paid with their lives. But in the aftermath of that victory, some of us lost the liberty that people like my parents and grandparents had cherished in the midst of legal oppression. My grandmother might not have had the opportunity to go to college or drive to a white-collar job in a Mercedes Benz, but she was freer than many today because she felt no urge to buy stuff she didn’t need. She didn’t have to get every new dress or pair of shoes she saw to value herself as she went about her day. She was secure and content in who God made her. When Dr. King led the March on Washington, he wasn’t asking for anyone to change the way we felt about ourselves. He was demanding that the laws of the United States of America and the attitudes of its people catch up with what God has said about us from the beginning — that we, like all human beings, are made in His image and likeness and are worthy of equal protection and respect. Security and contentedness in who we are is not something that anyone but God can give, but, in an age of prosperity, that is what defines true freedom.