Oxygen’s latest reality series, Preachers of Detroit features seven prominent Motor City men and women of the cloth: Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, Pastor Tim Alden, Bishop-Elect Clarence Langston, Pastor Don William Shelby Jr., Evangelist Dorinda Clark-Cole, Pastor David Bullock and Bishop Corletta Vaughn. Vaughn, inspired by her entrepreneur mother and Reverend Dr. Jackie McCullough, is the first Black female bishop in Detroit. We spoke with her about bringing the church to reality TV, female leadership and the rise and fall of the city that’s home of the Motown sound.
EBONY: The church has always been a sacred space in the Black community. Was it hard for you to be a part of bringing the church to reality TV?
Bishop Corletta Vaughn: Not my particular church, no. Our church was not at all against it. We didn’t receive any resistance at all. There are people around us however, they are struggling. We recognize it. I’ve had several conversations on Facebook with other leaders of the city that are concerned, but our local church was 100 percent unanimous. It was a great opportunity to tell a story. We hope it blesses other people.
EBONY: You’ve done a lot of work around eradicating sexism within the church. How do you feel about the notion that feminism goes against ‘the Word?’
BCV: I think that when you try to categorize the struggle under the category of feminism, that’s when you’re going to have a struggle. I don’t see myself as a feminist. I’ve studied feminist theology. I do not believe that God is a woman. So that would disqualify me at the top. I’m not a feminist. Because I am a bishop, that doesn’t make me a feminist. Because I believe that 60 to 70 percent of our households are headed by women in our community, the city of Detroit and throughout America. That doesn’t make me a feminist. I am not a feminist theologian.
I am a woman of God and I believe that God is a spirit. And I believe that he can be anything He wants to be and He can use whoever he wants to use. I think when we try to categorize it, rather than just to look at it face on and say hey look this is a flaw in the message of the gospel, where we have now made it appear that God has cursed the woman or that God is against women. I’m very clear that God is spirit. I’m very clear that the Bible speaks very kindly about women, particularly in the New Testament. That doesn’t make me a feminist. I don’t embrace that. I do believe that God created male and female equal, in the beginning. And that He created them both to have dominion. I do not want to in any way to cast shade on the brethren. I think that there is absolutely a place for fathering in the church. So I’m not at all embracing feminist theology or liberation theology. I’m embracing bBblical theology that there is male and female. And that’s how God created it.
EBONY: It’s been said that Preachers of Detroit is more damaging than VH1’s now defunct show, “Sorority Sisters” because of commentary made by your cast member Evangelist Dorinda Clark Cole about women submitting to the leadership of men. How do you feel about that?
BCV: It didn’t say that Preachers of Detroit was worse. It simply said that the notion that she had introduced, that men are better leaders and that the content was worse, not the show itself. I shared it on my Facebook page and I must have gotten about 400 hits. In Evangelist Clark’s denomination, what she said was that she was raised to believe that it was a man’s church. She was raised to believe that and she’s very honest about it because it is across the board within that particular denomination [Church of God In Christ]. That it’s a man’s church and that men are leaders in the church. And that all the women submit to the men. That’s what her particular denomination subliminally teaches and overtly teaches. That’s how she was raised. I respect that, but I think that the view of that sometimes limits her openness to the fact that her denomination isn’t the only Christian denomination in the world.
So it creates a real narrow view. That was her testimony and I embrace it. We’ve been friends forever, but I never knew her real view. You can be in an organization, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you believe everything that a denomination teaches you. I know her to be the bread winner. I know her to be a strong vocal leading woman in her family. So I was stunned. I knew her mother. Her grandmother was a pastor. So I never thought that she really believed that it was a man’s church. That statement, I think is what set us back and really caused additional statements to be made in that episode, that shocked the world. Even young women of the same denomination have that mindset. Even to the fact that women are not the head. Women are not the head of what? What does that mean? If you take it outside of the marriage, you can’t make that kind of statement if you are in tuned socially, academically and if you know what’s going on in your culture.
That kind of a statement sets us behind I think 500 years. I really believe that we do such a disservice in training our daughters with that. We’re looking at a culture now where women are getting married much later.They have degrees. When you look at graduate school, the 43 percent average population is women. When you look at seminary, we have infiltrated these academic walls. And women are everywhere. Look at government and legislature. The majority leaders of the House, are women. I wanted to ask, “Where have you been living? Did you fly in from Mars? Have you seen the church lately?” You go to any church, I don’t care what culture, whether it’s African American, Hispanic or Caucasian, it doesn’t matter. You tell me what the majority population is and it’s women. I think that education and exposure will help to change those type of statements.
EBONY: During the second episode, you continued your conversation about women in leadership. At dinner with the first ladies and other women, you asked the question,”Would you vote for a woman president?” Many replied “No” and even laughed.
BCV: That was because they all pretty much come from that same religious background. Did you notice that some of the young women looked very oddly? Like what. At the luncheon that was called by Crisette Ellis, you have a very powerful woman sitting there. This woman is at the top of the game in Mary Kay Cosmetics. She’s a millionaire in her own right. Her daughter is vastly approaching that million mark in the same cosmetic company. One thing I did notice in the episode when I saw it, was that even Dorinda was stunned. Sometimes, it’s just lack of exposure. If you haven’t been to school or you haven’t been out and about or you’ve been protected and sheltered.
That’s why in the church we have got to be more than just spiritual beings. We’ve got to embrace the culture and our society, especially in Detroit, where we are looking at the failed fatherhood. A lot of our boys and girls do not know their fathers. When you’re looking at failed fatherhood and strong matriarchal leadership. The president of the city council of Detroit, as far as I can remember has been a woman. The culture that we serve, if women are ever going to find Christ, they have to be able to feel safe in the church. And they have to be able to see themselves, if they’re going to be drawn to Christ. I want them to see healthy womanhood and fatherhood. So that they can come in and know that they’re safe.
EBONY: Detroit is often depicted as a struggling desolate city ridden by crooked city officials and bankruptcy. How do you feel about those who think Preachers of Detroit perpetuates that stereotype?
BCV: Well I think you’ve only seen 3 episodes at the most. You’re going to see some tremendous strides that are being made. In my community, about 150 feet or so from my building theres something called the Packard plant, which has been dilapidated for over 20 years. You’ll see in one of the episodes that this is coming back in our area. Detroit is not desolate. We’ve had some challenges. No one denies that, but I can say that the church has remained constant. We’ve lost jobs and our major supplier of employment, which was the car industry. That’s no fault of Detroit, but they’re coming back. People are being called back to work. The biggest change that I think people will experience first is the emotional hopelessness that’s being restored. People are being employed again and there are programs for people who can’t be employed. They’re being retrained so that they can go back to work. There is certainly a community of poor people and that community where people have not recovered yet, but we’re getting to them.
I know in our church, most of our people are being called back after having being laid off for four or five years. Some have two jobs. So it is happening, but it is happening slowly. The president of the United States has really been helping Detroit with programs to help young African American men. We are seeing a turn around. It is slow, but Detroit isn’t desolate. That’s why I love Preachers of Detroit because you’re going to see that not everybody in our church is poor or asking for hand outs. We still have some teachers that are teaching and lawyers that are lawyering. Doctors that are doctoring. Dentists that are dentists. Detroit is a vibrant city that is on a come back. I believe that we are at our strongest right now because we eliminated some of the negativity. We have a tremendous mayor and a great city council. So that idea that we’re fighting in city hall now and we’re struggling, that’s gone. And we want to show that and highlight that the city is on a come back. I love Bishop Langston. He said we’re a miracle city and if you’ve been through what Detroit has been through and we’re still here. And God is still here. There’s an emblem over our city that says,”Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” And the spirit of God, through the churches, is still in Detroit.
EBONY: In the first episode of the show, Pastor David Bullock got everyone together to work on giving back to Detroit. How do you feel that the churches of Detroit have contributed to revitalizing the Motor City?
BCV: One of the things that I can say very clearly and I’m very firm on this. When the city government went bankrupt, the church did not. When administrations failed morally, the church did not. So in terms of holding up the faith of those constituents that practice their faith openly, the church has been constant in all of the rising and falling of Detroit. Note that the role of the church is first spiritual, not social. Our role that Christ has given us is to make sure that people can practice their faith openly, in a way that is informed and in a way that is inspiring. Not every church leader has the calling of a D. Anthony Bullock. If you listen to what he said in the first episode, he said pastoring is an extension of his calling. For some of us, pastoring is the calling and social activity is the extension. I think it just depends upon which church, which believer and what their calling and priorities are.
But to slam the church because we might not all be marching, we’re all serving. Bishop Langston just gave out free gas. And that was at a time when gas was five dollars a gallon. Those people needed that gas to get back and forth to work. We give out food, clothing and we’ve been serving in this community for almost 30 years. It may not make the news, but the people that we serve know we’re there. I know that Bishop Ellis has given out bicycles. We’ve done the same thing. Each church is contributing to the measure of their calling and ability. I’ve always supported Bullock and I support what he does. Am I called to do that, no. Is he called to do what I do? No, but we are serving the same city and people get blessed.
EBONY: During a meeting, the issue was brought up about Bishop Elect Clarence Langston not living in Detroit and amongst the people that the church serves. You do live in Detroit. How has living in Detroit impacted your ministry?
BCV: Tremendously! There is a set of people that want to see their particular pastor live near them. There are people who believe that their pastor should be close enough to touch. My congregation is about 600 to 700 people. My people see me in and out of the neighborhood all of the time. I’m in the city. I see members all over and in the grocery stores. So it has impacted our church very favorably. We have a church that is in the urban community. We have serviced people who are working class. Some are poor. Some are elderly, but we’re there. And we have established a presence within our community. I choose to live in Detroit because I’m a Detroiter. I have some other challenges. I don’t like driving far. After service is over, I like to go home.
I’ve never been robbed or raped. Our church has never been broken into. In the 29 years that we’ve been in the community, it is the community that has served as the armed guards of our church. We have never been broken into or violated. We’ve never had to call the police. I think that is stellar considering that people want to paint a picture that everybody here is a thug. No. People have protected me. I live there. They know me and they love me. Sometimes, when I’m coming out late at night, they scream, “Hey Bishop. We got you.” They watch my car. It’s never been broken into. That’s never happened. Does it happen? Yes. It just hasn’t happened to us. I think that for me being present and in the community has pretty much made a bond between me and my perish. And being a female, that means a whole lot.
EBONY: You mentioned that your husband doesn’t always want to share the stage with you.
BCV: When my husband and I married he said from the very beginning that “Hey, I’m a background guy. I’ll support you,” and it has worked really good for us. He’s never been the guy that would compete with me. When he married me, he said he wanted to be my husband and not to be my competition. So we kind of got all of that worked out 30 years ago. He’s a great community activist. He’s an older David Bullock. He’s always helping the disenfranchised and the poor. We’ve built and restored homes. My husband has taken the men of the community who were jobless and addicted and he has adjusted his own life and his personality to father them. He’s very okay with never having the microphone. It’s been really good for us. For the most part we ying and yang together.
EBONY: Was it hard for him to adjust to doing reality TV?
BCV: Yes! He was the one. Oh my God. He was like you know I don’t like the limelight. I said well honey would you do it for me. I had to use my wifely charm. The kids were like “Come on, Dad!” He was with me here the other day and he said something to me that I thought was real sweet. He said “I have to protect my investment. I put 30 years into this and I’m not going to let you go by yourself. I want them to know you have a husband. We have our challenges, but I want them to know that you have a husband and that I can support you because you have supported me.”
EBONY: It’s Women’s History Month. Who are some women in the ministry or otherwise who have influenced you?
BCV: When I was coming up my precious mother was my first and greatest role model. She was a good Christian woman, but she was an entrepreneur. She was the first African American that had her own beauty shop in the city of Detroit. I got those savvy entrepreneur skills from her. She was a fashion model. She made the best chicken and dumplings in the world. Then she could go down and press your hair and you never needed a perm. My dad was a beauty and barber supply salesman and that’s how they met.
Along the way I met other Godly women. Mother Estella Boyd. She’s home with the Lord now, but she was a great role model. She was about 70 or so when I met her, but she was still preaching and traveling. She would never let us call her reverend. She said just call me mother baby because the men don’t like that (laughs). Politically, there was a lady here in the city of Detroit named Erma Henderson. She was the first African American president of the city council. I absolutely loved and adored her. I got an opportunity to sit with her and watch her maneuver the city. We were under Coleman A. Young at the time, as a mayor. Cecelia Bryant, who is the wife of Bishop John Bryant. Elaine Flake out of New York, who was the wife of the senator at the time.
There are so many women, even in my academic experience. Dr. Marsha Foster-Boyd, who was the first African American female president of Ecumenical Theological Seminary, here in Detroit. Women that I’ve rubbed shoulders with. Powerful women who have really influenced my life and I’m better because of that.
EBONY: You mentioned your mother being the first African American that had her own beauty salon in Detroit. Did it happen to be located in Black Bottom (a prominent flourishing area in the city for Blacks during the 1930’s-1950’s)?
BCV: Oh my goodness! Well at that time, it was where what they called the West End. It was called Jessie’s Beauty Shop. When she met my dad, he had purchased a home in Black Bottom. He was one of the first Negroes, that was the term then, that had purchased a home in Black Bottom. At one point, it was never known as Black Bottom. It was a very White, Jewish community. We moved into the community and my mom put her beauty shop in the basement of our home. She ran a vibrant business. Mom would see 30 to 40 women a week.
I actually preached my first sermon at the beauty shop. I was four years old. She had the first licensed day care in the city of Detroit because the ladies would bring their children and mom came up with a plan to put the ABC’s and different things up on the reel. The kids would learn the alphabet and we would do things. One day, I didn’t have anything to do. I turned the piano bench around, got my Bible and I started preaching. I had a wading audience. The people in the beauty shop were just standing there crying. One lady said to my mom, “Corletta’s going to preach.” That was my first entry into the ministry. My mom was a phenomenal young woman. We actually did live in Black Bottom and we thrived there.
EBONY: Mental Illness in the Black community has recently been a hot topic in media. One of the go to solutions in the Black church is to “just pray about it.” How do you feel that the church can address mental illness realistically while simultaneously utilizing religion?
BCV: Faith is good for every area of your life. We do have a problem of mental health issues and emotional illness, two different dynamics. When you’re preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, you’re preaching to the soul. And in that soul, you have the mind, the will, the intellect and the emotion. I think we have not always known what to do with emotional and mental illness, but now because of the recent suicides, break downs and various displays a lot of us have gone back to the table and said hey listen this wasn’t a demon act at all. This is an emotional situation or mental health. Here’s where women in ministry come really handy because we can tap that. That is an area where I believe that women in ministry can be an asset because we touch it. We can mother it and be nurturing. And we’re more aware of the emotionalism in people. That’s where women are needed in the church. Sometimes, men don’t get it. Sometimes, the fathers don’t see it. But if there is strong female leadership in the church, I think that will produce a platform for a healthier believer. You can get all of those emotions and we can see and discern the need for sometimes counseling and other additional support. Sometimes medicine. But again, there’s a need for female leadership.
Glennisha Morgan is a Detroit-bred multimedia journalist, writer, photographer and filmmaker. She writes about intersectionality, hip-hop and the women in it, pop culture, queer issues, race, feminism and her truth. Follow her on Twitter @GlennishaMorgan or at www.GlennishaMorgan.com.