Sharing the Gospel of Health
This Baptist minister works with a Catholic hospital to make sure people get the care they need.
Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries is a spiritual leader with a tough-minded understanding of his community’s practical needs.
DeForest “Buster” Soaries was a teenager when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, and the news hit him hard. It set him on a path that family influences had already helped to chart: toward his own career as a civil rights leader. But Soaries—who years later became Reverend Soaries—discovered what Dr. King had learned: that fighting discrimination wasn’t enough. To be fully free, people had to have a fighting chance at a good life.
“I was raised with service to others as a core principle,” recalls Soaries, now 64 and married with twin sons. “My dad was a schoolteacher in Newark, and we had a Christian home. I worked for the Rev. Jesse Jackson for a number of years. But by the mid-1970s I realized that civil rights protest by itself didn’t fully address the needs of African Americans.”
A good life requires good health, but statistics on illness, disability and mortality show that urban African American neighborhoods remain underserved when it comes to health care. This Baptist minister is working with Saint Peter’s University Hospital, a Catholic institution, to change that.
Rev. Soaries is well known throughout the state. As pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, he is famous for the Central Jersey Community Development Corporation, the redevelopment agency he started more than 20 years ago that has helped to bring new vitality to troubled neighborhoods. As Secretary of State of New Jersey from 1999 to 2002 under then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman, he created V-FREE , a statewide youth violence prevention program, and other initiatives to help the needy. Vital as it is to quality of life, health care was a natural next focus—and Saint Peter’s turned out to be a perfect partner.
“In 1993, the church led a planning effort to identify strengths and weaknesses of the neighborhood, and a glaring weakness was inadequate access to health care,” says Rev. Soaries. “There are several hospitals nearby, but the lack of easy access to transportation—coupled with low income levels and a widespread lack of insurance coverage—have made it difficult for many to access quality care.”
Rev. Soaries’ nonprofit real estate agency bought an empty warehouse in the area and Saint Peter’s refurbished it as a healthcare space. Now known as the Family Health Center, it offers screenings, workshops and information sessions. “The people at the hospital invested so much in it we ultimately sold it to them,” he says. “We also have a seniors’ apartment building, and Saint Peter’s is the primary health education resource for its more than 200 seniors.”
First Baptist and Saint Peter’s are planning more joint ventures. “Across the street from the senior citizens project we hope to build apartments exclusively for veterans,” he says. “The hospital will have a clinic on the first floor, because most veterans have some kind of physical or mental health need, or both.” And his church is teaching community members “life skills”—such as appropriate job-interview dress and conduct— and referring them to Saint Peter’s and other prospective employers.
“It’s obvious that sick people need care,” says Rev. Soaries. “Less obvious— but still critical—is the need for preventive care. Early on, Saint Peter’s University Hospital saw the benefit of being on the front end in prevention and education.”
He says that other hospitals offered to work with his church, but he chose Saint Peter’s because “we are both faith-based institutions. Even though they are Catholic and we are Baptist, the differences are minuscule. The hospital has a genuine faith and appreciation for spirituality and health. That’s important to us.”
Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and the creator of dfree®, a financial freedom movement that includes a strategy that addresses the cultural, psychological and spiritual influences on financial wellness. He is the author of dfree®: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery (Zondervan) and dfree® Lifestyle: 12 Steps to Financial Freedom (UMI).
To find out more about Saint Peter’s University Hospital and ways to help support it, please call 732.745.8600 or visit saintpetershcs.com/foundation.