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Faith and Sports

From counseling the Rutgers basketball team to helping athletes gain financial security

Rev. DeForest Soaries recognizes that Sunday services compete with sports

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

When the Rev. DeForest Soaries heard that radio personality Don Imus had called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” he knew he had to act.

Soaries was the pastor to Hall of Fame Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer, the sixth-winningest women’s coach in NCAA history. His church, the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, isn’t far from the Rutgers campus. And at the time in 2007, he was the New Jersey secretary of state.

He arranged a three-hour meeting at the New Jersey governor’s mansion with Imus and the Rutgers team where Imus apologized. The team accepted.

“I mediated the peace and the apology and the acceptance of the apology,” Soaries said. “In fact, I was in the room when NBC fired Don Imus.”

It was that history-making moment that thrust the senior pastor of First Baptist Church into the intersection of faith and sports.

“We have a ministry to the Rutgers community,” said Soaries, who has been the senior pastor at First Baptist for 27 years now. “Last Sunday, the entire Rutgers football team, coaches and parents and players, were all at the church. We have a real connection to Rutgers sports program.

“African-Americans are absolutely in love with sports,” Soaries said. “Many of our heroes have been athletes: Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali. And sports has represented for us much more than a game. It represents economic opportunity. It represents community empowerment. When we look at LeBron James and what he’s doing as a role model outside of basketball, I think black culture and sports culture are really inextricably linked. And certain sports, like basketball and football — formerly baseball, and maybe baseball will come back soon in terms of attracting African-Americans — they’ve been inextricably linked.”

Soaries does not want his members to choose between sports and church. So he provides multiple services every Sunday.

“I have a huge congregation of sports fans,” he said. “I have enough sense to know that people are going to love their sports teams and support their sports teams, and I encourage them to pick the best worship hour to accommodate their need to go to their games or watch their games on television.”

Soaries begins his Sundays at 4 a.m. and hits the treadmill at 4:30.

“Then I shower and dress, and I get to church to preach at our 7 o’clock service,” he said. “Then at the end of the 7 o’clock service, that’s now 8:30, I get back to my area, change my clothes and get ready to preach at the 9 o’clock service. And then at 10:30, the 9 o’clock service ends. I come back to my area, I get a little bite to eat, change my clothes again and go out to preach at the 11:30 service.”

Besides juggling multiple services, Soaries has to juggle competing team loyalties in his congregation.

“Being in central New Jersey, we are halfway between the Giants and the Eagles,” he said. “So the first reality is that the pastor doesn’t take sides. Because if I take sides, I’m going to offend half the church.”

Soaries is not a fan of any particular team. But he recognizes the importance of winning.

“I like the winning team and I use stories all the time from teams, especially teams that are underdogs,” he said. “I like it when the underdog wins. And what I really like is the game where the losing team goes throughout the game losing and in the end they end up winning, because that’s such a metaphor for life. The role of the church is to embrace the concept and reality of resurrection, and although it looks like life has died for you on Friday, when you leave here on Sunday you should believe life has come alive again for you and your no has turned into a yes.”

Part of Soaries’ ministry is dedicated to debt freedom and money management. Soaries, a former high school basketball player, is the author of Say Yes to No Debt: 12 Steps to Financial Freedom. Soaries started a movement called dfree, which was profiled in the CNN docuseries Black in America. Aside from speaking to churches and organizations around the country about financial freedom, he helps athletes understand the importance of balancing their finances.

“Through the years, I won’t mention any names, but I’ve had numerous occasions to do one-on-one sessions with professional athletes,” Soaries said. “Either their team owner has called and said that they’ve got some guy that probably could use a talking-to or some college coaches have said, ‘Look, come and give a motivational speech to the kids.’

“The minimum wage in professional sports is as high as it is, but the bankruptcy rate is higher than the national average. It suggests that how much money we make is not really the solution to our issues, but how we handle the money that we make is really what we need to learn.”

He provides the athletes he counsels with his book and a curriculum to set their path to financial security.

“They have the potential to really be the owners and the developers of our future if they learn how to handle the reality of the high incomes. If you spend more than you make, you’re broke no matter how much you make. … It’s a business that you have to learn to be prepared for financially.”

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.