Some people are outraged by Oxygen's new reality show, Preachers of L.A. for the poor image of Christians and pastors they think it perpetuates. I, however, do not believe in “Christian respectability politics," the idea that the image of Christians portrayed on reality television or anywhere else has to be “perfect,” for Jesus’s sake. In fact, the point of Christianity is that God is so gracious to us imperfect people that He gives us His unconditional love and mercy freely because it is impossible for us to be able to earn it. Rather, the more imperfect you are, the more opportunities God has to show you grace and mercy. It’s a beautifully imbalanced system of exchange that many imperfect people, including me, find downright comforting, and a platform like reality TV could be a great place to put that on display.
That being said, Preachers of L.A. is a hot mess and I hope it is canceled soon.
First, the show is chock full of bad doctrine. From the spinning rims (in 2013? Really?) to the mansions and pinky rings, these prosperity pastors are wrongly conflating salvation with material wealth and then blaming critics for noticing it, saying, “You see the glory, but you don’t know my story!” Well, whose fault is that? We can only see what’s dangled in front of us –and it aint Jesus. For Bishop Ron Gibson, it’s his admitted “shoe fetish.”
In episode 3, we learn about Bishop Gibson’s love of shoes when he takes former gang member Rick Dogg shopping for a new pair to match his newly redeemed soul. Granted, when Christ cleans you up, you absolutely should have a new talk and a new walk and a confidence that comes from knowing that God has freed you from the mistakes you made in your past. But while new clothes and shoes can help you feel like your outside appearance matches the change on the inside, it's certainly not a requirement. God is concerned about the change to your soul, not your wardrobe, and would accept you if you were barefoot. But based on what we’ve seen on this show, I’m not sure that the come-as-you-are message was received by the brother Bishop Gibson introduced to Christ. When Rick Dogg saw Bishop Gibson display the desired walk, his exclamation was not, “That’s the walk of a saved man,” it was, “That’s the money walk, right there!” And that's a problem. The peace and joy that comes with being in right-standing with God is infinitely more satisfying than some new kicks and a shoe shine, but that message is swallowed whole in this episode.
Bishop Gibson isn’t the only culprit bogged down in trivialities. Licensed minister Myesha Chaney, wife of Pastor Wayne Chaney, spends most of episode three trying to plan a tea party for the right kind of pastors' wives, saying, "I have to be very selective of who I invite because first impressions are everything." This comes after she posts a giant picture of herself on the wall of her office. The first impression she'd make on the viewers seems to have been an afterthought.
Minister Chaney follows the tea party with a shopping spree with newfound friend and fellow preacher's wife, Christy Haizlip. Mrs. Haizlip is so overwhelmed and excited by Minister Chaney's friendship that Mrs. Haizlip declares she wants to be a "blessing" to Minister Chaney. Minister Chaney responds with, "Oh, well I'm going to let you buy me something then. Go on and bless me!" And the audience is left to wonder whether these ministers have any clue at all that "blessings"—from God or anybody else—do not have to be monetary.
Though Bishop Gibson’s wife LaVette is a bright spot on the show, (she is kind, inviting, motherly and full of Bible-based advice) the only couple that comes across in a positive light is the White one: The Haizlips. In the second episode, we see Pastor Jay Haizlip reaching out to a transsexual member of his church, David, who used to be April. Pastor Haizlip is conflicted about how to interact with David because he’s never before interacted with transgendered or transsexual people and is concerned about doing so in a way that is loving and respectful to both David and to God. That’s a real church issue.
Watching Pastor Haizlip’s interaction with David, seeing his love for David and his words of encouragement to David were powerful moments in Christian television. The issue of whether it is disrespectful to God to address David as David when God created him as April was not resolved on the show and I didn’t expect it to be. But what Pastor Haizlip did to treat David with respect and love and encourage him to continue coming to church and to continue to know that God loves him was impactful and necessary and more people should have seen that and learned from it. We shouldn't have had to wade through the shallowness that is the rest of the episode to see it.
The next time we see the Haizlips in episode three, they are ministering to a clearly emaciated woman named DJ who is out walking her dog in the park. Pastor Haizlip introduces himself to her and asks if there is anything he can pray about with her and she just unloads her burden onto them, telling them of her suicidal thoughts, panic attacks and serious depression. I cried watching it and hearing Pastor Haizlip say, “I am here as a direct result of God saying, ‘DJ, I love you.’ And I want to pray for you.” That is what pastors—Black and White and every other race—all across this country are doing for the hurt, the broken and the poor. Christians are hungry for that kind of reality show and would support it. But just like when cast member Deitrick Haddon tells Bishop Gibson to wrap up leading Rick Dogg and another former gang member through "the sinner's prayer," Oxygen seems to believe it's only useful to show these powerful scenes once per episode.
Instead, Oxygen zeroes in on Haddon and his then-fiancée (now-wife) Dominique’s insistence that the Bible says nothing against people living together who aren’t married (it does), or divorced Bishop Noel Jones’s musings on whether God really intended for men to be monogamous, while he strings along a woman "friend" for 16 years, or Bishop Clarence McClendon's insistence that traveling with an entourage is necessary in order for him to be an effective preacher.
Is Oxygen leaving the actual ministering the Black pastors are doing on the cutting room floor, in exchange for shots of the bling rings in order to further perpetuate stereotypes of Black extravagance? Or are these distractions all that these particular cast members have to offer? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the show is enjoying record-breaking ratings for the network, so don't expect the formula of foolishness to change.
In fact, don't expect any changes at all from this show. While the profile of these preachers and their wives will no doubt grow, with or without Preachers of L.A, people who think poorly of pastors, Christians or the Church will continue to do so. People who love their pastors will continue to do so. Christians who look for excuses not to join a church will continue to do so. Absolutely nothing at all will be changed by this show's existence. And, as a Christian, that’s how you know you’re doing it wrong.
Brooke Obie writes the column "The Spiritual Life" on EBONY.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.