The Real Preachers of LA County
Telegraph, Feb 2014
They drive fast cars, live in mansions, and have their own reality TV show. But are America’s ‘for-profit pastors’ taking their congregation for a ride? Meet the stars of Preachers of LA.
Also at the Telegraph
In Gonzales Park in Compton, Los Angeles, a former Crip gangster gets out of a gleaming black Mercedes. He’s wearing a black leather trench coat, dark glasses and a black wide-brimmed hat. When he takes off his black leather gloves, his fingers sparkle with gems.
“I brought Mr Glock just in case,” he says, pulling a gun from his briefcase and ejecting the clip. “Fully loaded. So if anything happens, we got nine rounds.”
Ron Gibson, 58, could pass for a hitman. But he’s not – he’s a bishop, one of six on a new reality show that debuted last year called Preachers of LA from the Oxygen Network. Five are African-American like Gibson, and then there’s a token white guy (introduced at the insistence of the network). But all are outlandish characters who preach the prosperity gospel, that quintessentially American strain of Christianity that maintains that you can pray yourself rich because bling and blessings are one and the same… And it’s OK to flaunt it too, all the better to advertise what God can do.
“People see my glory but they don’t know my story!” says Gibson, trotting out one of his favorite lines. So we sit at a bench on a chilly morning and he tells me his come-to-Jesus story – how he grew up poor, joined a gang and would routinely go to the Hollywood hills to mug people. “White people,” he notes. “We didn’t rob black people. And I didn’t steal from houses. I’m no thief. Thieves hit you when you’re not looking but I’d jack you to your face. My mom taught me values.”
He became a drug addict, and might have ended that way had he not been saved. And now, thirty years on, he is a millionaire pastor, married to his childhood sweetheart whom he grandly calls “The First Lady LeVette”. And it all started here, in Gonzales park, where he used to deal weed and angel dust. That’s why we’re meeting here, and not at his church, some 50 miles away in Riverside.
“It’s actually convenient,” he says. “I’m getting my Ferrari detailed nearby, so after we’ve finished, I’m going to pick it up, drive to Rodeo Drive and buy my wife something nice. Maybe some jewelry.”
It’s high time the Prosperity Gospel got its own reality show. If the Amish, polygamists and “ice road truckers” merit the reality treatment, why not the for-profit pastor, as American an archetype as a Texas cowboy? Certainly the Preachers seem remarkably well suited to the genre, what with their outsized egos and gaudy wealth. The show is shot in the familiar style of the Kardashians and Real Housewives, with the same choppy edits, peppy music, and a camera that glamorizes and trivializes in turn – one minute it’s ogling their mansions and Bentleys, the next it’s zooming in on their petty squabbles and domestic bickering. Think of it as the Real Preachers of LA County. Perhaps if season two is greenlit we may see a city-by-city franchise, as with the Housewives, from New York to DC to Atlanta.
Of them all, Bishop Gibson is the most cartoonish, given “Mr Glock”, his fleet of vintage cars and his fondness for rhyming catchphrases like “I’m not new to it, I’m true to it!” But the competition is tough. The once-divorced Bishop Clarence McClendon travels everywhere with an entourage of assistants to carry his designer suits. Bishop Noel Jones, the 62 year old brother of the singer Grace, managed to get an X-factor contestant pregnant while preaching “no sex before marriage”. (He still lives as a bachelor in a Malibu mansion.) Then there’s Dietrich Haddon, a gospel singer with a divorce behind him who also had a pregnancy scandal in season one – he’d got his girlfriend in the family way before they were engaged. But then a former mistress released some selfies he’d sent her – nude selfies at that. The pictures of his penis are currently online. What would Jesus do?
“I wanted to humanize these men,” says the show creator and producer Holly Carter. “To show that they’re not perfect, they struggle too.”
At a first look, one might mistake the show for an elaborate takedown of the preachers concerned, an expose of their hypocrisy. But that wasn’t Carter’s intention at all. She wants to endear these men of God to the rest of us, both the secular audience, and their own parishioners.
“Pastors are held to an unreasonable standard because of the pedestal that parishioners force upon them,” she says. “I want this show to take the pressure off. Let the congregants [sic] understand that my pastor has feelings too. He hurts. He’s a man.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the parishioners were getting the rough end of the deal here, since they’re largely poor and have to struggle to pay the 10% monthly tithe that their millionaire pastors demand. But Carter believes the real victims are the pastors who can’t live up to their parishioners’ relentless adulation. To revere and enrich these men is one thing, but to then expect them to practice what they preach is, in her words, “unfair”.
She’s a preacher herself of course. An African-American mother of two in her forties, she was raised in Hollywood, where she has continued her father’s ministry following his death. She quickly noticed the pressures of the preacher lifestyle and was determined to do something about it. “Someone needed to speak up for these men,” she says, earnestly.
The preachers needed a voice?
Her show is very much a product of its time. Prosperity preachers aren’t the only privileged class in America who view themselves as victims of the very people who put them there. Celebrities have long grumbled about fame and the cost to their privacy. And not without reason – the paparazzi often overstep their bounds. These preachers however suffer no such harassment. They’re like those Wall Street executives who, after the bailout, complained about the public’s low opinion of bankers. The poster child for this was Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager, who in 2010 whined to President Obama on CNBC that America was “whacking the Wall Street piñata”. Perhaps a reality show about bankers might improve their image?
Furthermore, business is booming in the prosperity gospel sector. With the US ranked fourth for income inequality (lagging Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon), and with 1 in 6 Americans facing “food insecurity”, congregations are more desperate for hope than ever, in the African-American community especially where the poverty rate is triple that of white America. And thanks to a lingering suspicion of banks after the financial crisis, plenty of people are looking for other places to invest their savings. That’s where Bishop Ron and his ilk step in.
“If we practice the principles of prosperity,” he says, “that is, sowing and reaping as spelled out in Genesis chapter 8, v 22. Then God says, ‘as long as I have a covenant, my principles of sowing and reaping shall never cease.’ So I don’t care if there’s a recession on earth, there’s never a recession in heaven!”
Kate Bowler, the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, calls this “the language of the supernatural economy.” For Gibson’s flock, “sowing” means paying him directly, whether through the collection plate, tithes or the books and DVDs he sells. But only an outsider would see this a zero-sum game, with the parishioners enriching the bishop at their own expense. Within prosperity circles, the perspective is quite different.
“For Bishop Gibson, the heavens are always open,” says Bowler. “He’s not taking money from anyone else, he’s showing his congregation what God can do. God gave him that money and God can give the same money to you too. God is infinite.”
Just as capitalism is predicated on limitless growth, regardless of the planet’s resources, the prosperity gospel is predicated on the limitless bounty of heaven. So wealth is nothing to feel conflicted about. As Holly Carter explains, “preachers are like any other businessmen – they deserve to experience a lifestyle that is reflecting of their efforts. And these men work hard!”
And why not flaunt God’s blessings, as proof of His power? Gibson sees it as a necessary strategy in saving souls. “The bible says a poor man’s wisdom is despised,” he says. “I can’t get the younger generation to pay attention if they see me in ragged clothing! God uses my material blessings to get their attention, and then I point them to Christ.” He describes himself as a “celebrity for the kingdom of God” and there’s a Bible verse to support him there too: “Genesis 12, v 1-3 – God told Abraham, ‘if you obey me I’m a bless you to be a blessing, and I’ll make your name great!”
Has he ever felt bad taking money from people who are struggling when he clearly doesn’t need it as much?
“You want a real answer?” he says. “I feel bad every paycheck I get, because what I do doesn’t seem like work. I feel like I’m born to this. I’m sure Tiger Woods feels the same way for picking up a golf club. This is my DNA.”
Naturally, many Christians find this appalling. Rusty Leonard at Ministry Watch – a watchdog for the charitable arms of Americans churches – describes prosperity preachers as “stupid, embarrassing and not a reflection of the big picture at all.” By his estimates, it accounts for 5% of American Christians, no more. “But that’s up from 2% fifteen years ago,” he says, “and that’s because legitimate ministries just won’t stand up and call names.”
Leonard is a lonely voice of opposition, and by his account, the winds are not blowing his way. In 2011, Senator Chuck Grassley, an evangelical himself, concluded a three year investigation into the financial propriety of six prominent prosperity preachers. (None are featured in the show, but they included the biggest churches in the business, notably that of the brilliantly named Creflo Dollar from Georgia, probably the biggest prosperity preacher of all). But it failed, miserably. Four of the six refused to cooperate, countering with legal arguments about the separation of church and state, behind which their finances remain secret. And Grassley caved – no penalties were levied, no charges filed, and all six retained their tax exempt status.
“A lot of mainstream churches – the good guys, if you like – lobbied very heavily for Grassley to back off,” says Leonard. “They were concerned about the slippery slope – that if he came down on those guys, then in the future, someone might turn their sights on them. So now, prosperity preachers have a carte blanche. It’s quite sad.”
Leonard calls this the “Evangelical Industrial Complex” – a system so entrenched and far-reaching that it’s effectively impossible to reform. And this too is a product of its time. Confidence in the government is as low as it has been in four decades, according to a Gallup survey from September 2013. One of the themes of recent years has been government’s inability to solve even the most basic problems, despite overwhelming public support. Gun regulation failed even after Newtown. Bank regulators still face obstacles despite the global recession.
So it seems that the prosperity gospel is here to stay. But in truth, it never really went away – the creed of greed has persisted for almost a century now.
Kate Bowler charts its roots to the fusion of two powerful movements in post-war America – Pentecostalism and New Thought. The Pentecostals – or Holy Rollers – would typically seek out the “signs and wonders” of God, the “proof”, if you like. Healing was one such sign, so revival preachers in the big tent mould would sweep from town to town performing these miracles until the collection bins were full.
Meanwhile the metaphysical New Thought movement, which emerged in the late 19th Century, held that one’s life could be improved by harnessing the power of one’s mind. “It was concerned with healing too, but it hid its religiosity, a bit like Oprah,” says Bowler. “It spoke to that can-do American spirit, that hyper individualism. And it grew into what we now call self-help. Here’s how to heal yourself, and here’s how to succeed in business too.”
The two came together in the fifties – New Thought’s self help approach seeping into the religious ecstasy of the holy rollers. And with television fuelling the rise, the prosperity gospel was born. California was ground zero – the Trinity Broadcasting Network which was founded in Orange County in the early 70s, supercharged the movement, propelling it into its lurid heyday in the 80s, when, as Bowlers says, “everything was a prosperity gameshow. It was all pastel blue suits, and heavy watches.”
A string of scandals hurt the movement – affairs, embezzlement, prison terms even – but still it thrived through the 90s by adopting a softer, more therapeutic tone. “Think of the megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen, who wrote Your Best Life Now,” says Bowler. “He’s not selling you something, he’s offering you tools, spiritual advice.”
Today, the prosperity gospel is as prevalent as ever, and Preachers of LA is an emblem of that success. It has proven to be durable and versatile, able to weather scandals and congressional investigations, as well as cross all kinds of demographic and ethnic lines. The prosperity credo is rife in Latin and Asian churches, in wealthy parishes as well as the poor. It has also long escaped the confines of its denomination – most of the Preachers of LA are non-Pentecostal.
“I think of it as an aspirational theology for the lower middle-class,” says Bowler. “It has to do with money, but also job skills, providing a leg-up and optimism. You hear sermons on showing up on time and being positive. These are middle class virtues.”
But here’s another virtue: openness. As Bishop Gibson gets ready to leave, I ask him how much he’s worth, how much his church makes per year. And he glowers at me.
“Why do you need to know those numbers? Tell me that.”
Because secrecy about money leads to suspicion, and openness would put those suspicions at rest.
“No, I don’t want to reveal a number.”
A lot of businesses reveal their figures, in the interests of openness. Isn’t it the Christian thing?
He stands up and shakes his head, visibly angry. “No. Too many people are blind to the way that pastors live, so it’s not just for me, but for the other pastors out there who are being misunderstood by miseducated people.”
His driver is holding the door for him. The Mercedes closes up and Gibson disappears behind the tinted glass.