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Buster Soaries

Spanning Church and State

by Elizabeth Terill

Chances are good that New Jersey’s new secretary of state won’t be corralled by his official job description. That just isn’t Buster Soaries’s style.

The Baptist minister and PTS alum (Class of 1989) was recently named to his position in the state cabinet by Governor Christie Whitman. It is an unusual job for a clergyman.

According to New Jersey’s constitution, the secretary of state is responsible for keeping “the Great Seal of the State,” which really means having a finger on the pulse of New Jersey’s cultural institutions, assuring accurate election tallies, and maintaining state records. The Martin Luther King Commission and the Many Faces, One Family program also fall under the secretary’s jurisdiction.

But the Rev. Dr. Deforest B. Soaries Jr. (“Buster” to most who know him) views his position as an arch connecting the State Department to grassroots New Jersey communities and churches. He sees no reason to narrowly define the good that can come from his appointment and plans to work toward the betterment of New Jersey’s citizens by making the position one of high visibility, rather than its traditional low profile.

For example, the 47-year-old preacher wants to increase awareness of and assistance for the many New Jersey residents who struggle against poverty and marginalization. He also hopes to be an instrumental liaison between the state police and the Black community while the police are being investigated for claims of unjustified targeting of Black motorists.

He’s already proven to be a key player in helping to smooth the racial tensions created when Governor Whitman’s former campaign manager recently made racial comments spurring a maelstrom of controversy. The comments were rescinded; Governor Whitman and her administration survived; and Buster Soaries emerged as a man who can effectively bridge two worlds.

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Buster Soaries

That should be enough to keep him busy. But while serving as secretary of state, Soaries will continue what he’s been doing since 1990 — shepherding the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens. When inSpire interviewed him on a Sunday afternoon, Soaries was fresh from preaching his third service of the day and preparing to guest preach at another congregation that afternoon. In a show of commitment to his church, Soaries just signed a ten-year contract to continue as First Baptist’s pastor, a position that involves preaching weekly and running the 100-plus-member men’s Bible study group, among numerous other things. High energy apparently accompanies Soaries’s high visibility.

When he came to First Baptist, the congregation lacked unity of direction and purpose. Since then it has grown to more than 5,100 members, begun a ten million dollar building project, and branched out to create six nonprofit organizations. Those organizations, including a neighborhood redevelopment corporation, a credit union, and a housing company, have done much toward revitalizing and building hope within Somerset County. Soaries has taken a leadership role.

It didn’t take long to see the connection between Soaries’s religious life and his work within state government. The two-hour February swearing-in ceremony that began his term was a religious service, a rarity for government events. Soaries later heard a high-ranking official say he’d heard the word “God” in the ceremony more times than he’d heard it in his life to date. The official wanted Soaries to know that was all right with him.

Soaries hopes people of differing religious, racial, social, and economic backgrounds can come to better know one another, becoming aware of and interested in each other’s needs and abilities. He wants to see less reactive behavior in response to expected discrimination, and more instances of potentially hostile groups working together to meet one another “where their need matches our need.” He explains a successful program in which churches find suitable candidates for a bank’s employment needs, recruiting among their members to match qualified applicants with the bank’s available positions. Soaries thinks cooperative efforts like this may help narrow chasms between groups that have an inadequate understanding of each other.

At home as at work, Soaries tries to foster a sense of other-awareness. He and his wife, Donna, strive to build an appreciation for others in their nine-year-old twins, Malcolm and Martin. To help offset the fact that the Soaries household is not an average family setting, the boys’ 1998 Christmas gift was a penpal relationship with two other little boys — twin seven-year-olds who live in an African nation. The children will correspond, each set of twins learning about the other, perhaps someday meeting in person. Soaries dreams Martin and Malcolm will grow up to be “normal people,” and longs to instill in them the values, ideals, and compassion he believes God sought when choosing Joseph as Jesus’ adopted father.

All in all, Buster Soaries probably isn’t going to be a typical secretary of state. But then, he’s not a typical pastor or father or businessman. So far, that seems to be working out pretty well.dot.gif (37 bytes)

Elizabeth Terrill is a 1998 M.Div. and 1999 Th.M. graduate of the Seminary who is searching for a call in pastoral ministry in the United Church of Christ. Her home is in Porter, Indiana.


Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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