I went to church in search of Donald Trump.
To understand Scott, you have to understand Cleveland. I have lived in Cleveland, on and off, for the last 10 years and have seen the city go through a lot of change. From 2004 to 2016, Cleveland has gone from being the poorest big city in America to losing LeBron (and getting him back) to preparing to host the most important Republican convention in a century. But in all of my time working, living and socializing in Cleveland, I had never once heard of Pastor Darrell Scott or the New Spirit Revival Center.
Scott, pastor of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland, burst onto the political scene last November when he pulled together a group of black pastors who were supposed to endorse Trump for president. He’s been met with a lot of skepticism, criticism and a lot of side eye. However, I honestly wanted to know, why would an African-American pastor with an African-American church be such a strong Trump supporter? His answers were surprising and disappointing, and on the whole contradictory. Which may explain a lot about what Trump’s appeal is to a certain segment of black voters.
This isn’t a reflection of my personal relationship with the church; it’s more a reflection of Scott’s status contrasted with his high-profile gig as “pastor for the Church of Trump.” There are big-time pastors who are political players in Cleveland, regularly engaging in community activism, hosting candidate forums and tacitly endorsing candidates for office. There’s the Rev. Jawanza Colvin at Olivet Baptist Church, where Oprah Winfrey occasionally visits and then-Sen. Barack Obama attended service while on the campaign trail.
There’s Pastor R.A. Vernon of the Word Church, whose daughter was on MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen and whose church boasts an ice-skating rink and an indoor soccer field for members. Scott’s church doesn’t roll off the lips of the half-dozen activists, politicos and journalists I talked to about powerful black clergy in Cleveland. When I asked about Scott and his endorsement of Trump, the response (once people became aware of who he was) was almost universally negative.
“This is all about the money and getting next to Trump,” said Stephanie Howse, an Ohio state representative. “Just last year, his wife was on a reality show [Editor’s note: the quickly canceled Preach on Lifetime]. He’s trying to get famous and be on the come-up. … If he really cared so much about politics, where has he been on local issues, where he could make a much greater impact?”
Started From the Bottom
In the 1980s, Scott was an addict and a drug dealer who went by the street name “Coddy” (or “Cotty,” in a Cleveland accent). Scott’s and his wife’s pasts as addicts are a key part of their ministry and part of what initially brought them to their relationship with Christ. But none of that explains what connects him to a billionaire businessman who’s been at the forefront of riots and protests and expressed hostility toward African Americans in almost every speech.
I attended Scott’s church for a week right after his endorsement of Trump and talked to parishioners and community members along the way. New Spirit Revival is located on Mayfield Road, a long stretch of road that goes from the suburbs to Case Western University to the city. The church is nestled among empty car dealerships, derelict homes and a Starbucks that looks as if it tried to gentrify 10 years too soon.
Scott himself is handsome, well dressed and a bit rough around the edges. He bears a striking resemblance to a 40-something Lloyd Banks and spits fire from the podium with the theatrics of most big-city black preachers.
Scott’s first sermon after endorsing Trump was one part self-aggrandizing revival and another part self-interview. Like many pastors, he portrayed himself as a man of God being attacked by haters and heathens. He railed against the “liberal media.”
“If I was Muslim, if I was homosexual, the media wouldn’t have a problem with what I was saying,” Scott said.
He railed against other ministers, like Paul Morton and Joseph Walker, for being jealous of his “five year” relationship with Trump. For the most part, the congregation of about 200 seemed more driven by loyalty to Scott than by any particular love for the Republican front-runner.
With a focus on money, something typical of many prosperity ministers, Scott spoke a lot about Trump’s wealth and was almost giddy talking about flying on Trump’s private jet and the gold-plated seat belts he got to buckle.