“Prosperity Preacher ”– a New York-based Black pastor, has “fallen on hard times” and now must see his mansion, built with funds from his congregation, for less than what it is valued at. How much do you wonder? 1.8 million, instead of 2 million dollars. Supposedly, the preacher who is also a New York Times Bestselling author, simply cannot keep up with the cost of the lavish estate, after it lost its tax exemption status.
Stories like these always force me to contemplate why the heck Black people hand their hard-earned cash to these fools who are self-serving and readily display their greed. Then I think about my mom’s quest for finding a church to belong to some years ago, and I am forced to be less judgmental.
I remember when I was about 10-years-old and my mother dragged me, along with my two other siblings, to a church recommended by her cousin. A hard-working, single-parent of three children, it had been awhile since my mother had the luxury of worship. She was extra excited to have the weekend off to attend, even if her kids didn’t share in the excitement. But we didn’t have a choice in the matter, we had to make mom happy.
Already completely unenthused by the idea that I would have to sit around for a 3 hour (yes, you read correct: 3 hours) service, I grumpily stomped behind my mother, slowly trailing her until we arrived at the entrance to the lavish building. It was a magnificent structure, with a long awning spanning the entire road to it’s front, where members of the congregation gathered to sing and welcome newcomers and old members alike.
“Welcome to the light!” they bellowed, while clapping in unison “we’re so glad you came!”
I inched closer to my mother, trying to fully take in the scene in all of its grandeur, but feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. Then, the whirling sound of a chopper buzzed overhead like a gargantuan bumble bee.
“We’re gathered here today,” the choir continued,” To pray in Jesus’s name!”
I followed the loud humming noise to a building across the street, where a helicopter was in the process of landing. A few men rushed out of the chopper and b-lined towards a very fancy and shiny car. The choir began to sing and rejoice with more vigor.
“WELCOME TO THE LIGHT!” they shouted, as the car snaked its way along the road between the building across the street and the church, where it made an abrupt stop. A man in his mid-40s jumped out of the car, with a wide, charming smile and waved to the crowd who still continued to sing and followed him into the brightly lit, 3-story mega church.
My family trailed behind them. I was in absolute disbelief: Was this man a pastor or a celebrity? The lines between the two were blurred. He was a bit of both and completely unafraid to flaunt it. He made his way to the pulpit, as the congregation took their seats, and started to deliver his sermon.
“Mom, can we go now?” I begged in a whisper, as we took our seats near the front. She was still smiling, hopeful. As a woman raised staunchly Catholic, who went to a religious school, she missed the daily prayers and rituals that made her feel safe in childhood. She missed having a God to turn to for answers and guidance. She gazed up at the pastor and hoped he could fill that missing void; the church become a new support system for her.
Then it came time for tithes.
“5 percent!?” the choir questioned.
“No, that’s not enough,” the pastor implored.
“15 percent?! The choir sang.
“We almost there,” the pastor responded.
The numbers rose until, it was agreed that each member of the congregation should give thirty percent of their income to the church. The congregation exclaimed “hallelujah!” and passed around little baskets with envelopes in them to make donations. My mother pressed a dollar each into my sister, brother and my hands and we waited for our turn to make our small contribution. We threw our dollars into the basket and quickly passed it to the right. I could sense a little hint of shame in my mother’s demeanor. She couldn’t contribute what they were asking her. She had three mouths to feed.
Week-after-week, we continued this same routine, but as time passed, my mother’s excitement waned.
“Ma, I don’t want to go back there,” I complained one day after service.
“I know it’s a bit much sometimes, but it’s nice to go to church with you guys,” she responded tiredly.
I could tell she really wanted for us to have a safe space. I knew she needed the support. I heard her cry herself to sleep so many nights, wondering how she would make ends meet. I saw the exhaustion in her eyes. She needed something to believe in. I didn’t want to take that away from her, so I hushed my complaints.
Nevertheless, the last straw came when the pastor announced that he sent his wife on a $10,000 shopping spree for her birthday.
“The lord has blessed my wife with the gifts that she deserved!” he exclaimed to a rowdy congregation who screamed thanks and praises.
After that day, we never returned.
It was hard to watch my mom succumb to the idea that the church could be a predatory place of greed. That she would not find the support she needed there and perhaps maybe not anywhere in a country built on capitalism and materialism. It was hard to witness my mother finally accept that the only person she could really depend on was herself. The Sunday when my siblings and I started to get dressed for church and she told us we were no longer going, it actually hurt me a bit. Not because I wanted anything to do with that place, but because it had robbed my mother of her innocent, naive faith in humankind’s commitment to God foremost.
This is not to argue that there are not many fantastic, Black religious institutions. However, too many Black churches have undermined the innocence of the Black community in the most egregiously exploitative ways. Too many Black churches were in cahoots with the racist banking system to push subprime mortgages onto Black families. Too many Black churches use their congregation for personal gain.
As Black women, we need to stop making these men rich off of our vulnerability. After all, it is better to believe in oneself than to put blind faith into an institution or individual that is only after self-preservation.