Editor's note: The following article contains spoilers.
Having worked in a black church for over 10 years, I think I can say without concern of successful contradiction that church folks can be petty.
From disagreements over who will sing lead in the mass-choir musical to bickering about what color the toothpicks will be at the church picnic, ain't no drama like black church drama, ’cuz black church drama don’t stop. The intersection of internal politics, capitalism, gender, external politics and religion creates a unique cultural mix worthy of fictional exploration, and I’ve often wondered why there were so few movies and television shows that examined the complexity (and, sometimes, hypocrisy) found in many black churches.
That's why I was intrigued and delighted when I learned about Greenleaf—a show about Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn., that just ended its first season on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Keith David portrays Bishop John Greenleaf, a charismatic but flawed leader. Lynn Whitfield’s vengeful yet maternal Lady Mae Greenleaf is a role she was born to play. And Merle Dandridge, Lamman Rucker and Deborah Joy Winans play the Greenleaf children as privileged yet haunted characters—life ain’t been no crystal stair for these kids.
Last night was the season finale, and I think there are four things that make this show groundbreaking, must-see TV for everyone—but especially folks attending a black church.
Bishop Greenleaf makes a series of political errors throughout this season. He supports a reviled member of the congregation: a black police officer guilty of shooting a young black man. This officer is later shot at the entrance of the church. Next, the bishop discovers that his brother-in-law, a high-ranking member of the staff, was sexually abusing one of the Greenleaf children.
The escalating nature of these incidents throws the church into financial chaos. As the ministerial staff tries to figure out what to do, the head of the deacon board makes a suggestion: Allow Grace, the middle daughter (played by Dandridge), who left in disgrace but has recently returned, to preach. Why? Tithes and offerings were the highest the Sunday she was in the pulpit.
This speaks to a reality that some churchgoers find hard to accept. For all it does and means spiritually, a church is a place that needs money to survive. Bishop Greenleaf lives a life of relative ease. His entire family lives in a luxurious home, he travels in comfort and he wears hand-tailored suits—but that does not take away from the fact that money is needed to keep the lights on and the doors open. The pragmatic financial concerns of the church are always on the minds of ministry leaders, and this show captures that truth beautifully.
In the most emotionally charged scene this season, Kevin Satterlee (played by Tye White) tells his wife, Charity Greenleaf-Satterlee (played by Winans), the baby of the family and minister of music, that he is attracted to men. For Charity this is particularly concerning because they are expecting twins, and while she suspected that something was going on, the fact that she was married to a gay man seemingly never crossed her mind.
Charity is not played as a homophobic character. She fought for an openly gay choir director to sit with his partner in church. The source of the tension is not that she is homophobic but, rather, that she built a life with a man who, from the very beginning, was unable to be his authentic self. As he tried to suppress what he thought were his sinful urges, the truth became clear: He's not a man struggling with homosexual tendencies—he is a gay man.
Many in the black church lose sight of the inherent danger of homophobic theological thinking. It can ruin families, throw one into depression and, at times, lead to suicide. This show is unapologetic in its examination of the real costs of homophobia clothed in biblical misinterpretation.
The showrunners do not theologically defend the right of people to love whom they were born to love; instead we merely watch what this way of thinking does to the lives of people who love God but are not taught to fully love themselves.
This Is a Man’s World?
There are many churches in the South that will not allow a women in the pulpit because they subscribe to patriarchal notions that a pastor must be a man.
While Bishop Greenleaf is without question the figurehead of the ministry, the writers are intentional about showing that women are the lifeblood of the congregation. There are women in the pulpit and on the deacon board.
Whitfield's Lady Greenleaf is a force of nature. She's the real strength and brains behind the operation but allows the bishop to appear as though he is running the show. Yet as his health ails and poor decisions mount, it's not the son and heir apparent to the ministry, Jacob Greenleaf (Rucker), that the congregation wants to see in the pulpit. No, they call for Grace. Her sermon in the season finale places the pain of women who have survived sexual assault front and center while shaming the bishop and others for their complicity in misogyny. The notion that men are always right is upended, and the assumption that the pastorate is a job ill-suited to a woman is shown to be a farce.
To Love the Black Church Is Not to Be Uncritical
Ultimately, for all of its drama, all of the underhanded dealings and all of the unpleasantness, this is a show that loves the black church. It's critical of the patriarchy and the homophobia. It has much to say about the influence of capitalism on the prophetic potentiality of the institution—but it still recognizes the importance and history behind the people and traditions found in this institution. When Grace’s daughter is asked why she wants to continue going to the church and associate with people who treat her mother so harshly, she has a telling response: “Yes, there are hypocrites,” she says. “But it’s not just about that—there is more.”
Churches are not museums of perfection; they are hospitals for the spiritually sick, and as an old preacher once said: "If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. It will stop being perfect the moment you walk through the door."
These are places full of imperfect people, and to refuse to see their shortcoming is to undercut their potential to grow.
Greenleaf is a mournful examination of the black church. It doesn't hide the church’s imperfections; nor is it cynical about the good that can be found between those four walls.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.