The way my mother told the story, my birth was a miracle. Diagnosed with terminal cancer six months into the pregnancy, she was not expected to live to the end of the nine-month term. Doctors told her that if she were to have an abortion, she might live an additional 18 months. She declined, and the doctors sent her home to die, unable to do anything further.
My mother called for her pastor to come and lay hands on her in a prayer of healing. The following Sunday, she entered the little white church across the street from our house, where, she said, the Holy Spirit told her to play the piano. My mother was a classical pianist before joining the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, where the music was fast, uninhibited, and sensational. She had never quite learned to play it—the music was not written down—but on that day, the church needed a musician and Momma was there, so at the urging of the Holy Spirit, she made her way to the piano. A woman began singing one of the fastest songs in the church’s repertoire, a call-and-response number that can be never-ending. God’s not dead, the song leader calls out. He’s yet alive, the audience responds.
As the story goes, my mother then lifted her hands—her arms leaden, her muscles weak, her body wracked with pain—and began to play that old piano, for 10 minutes, 20, maybe more. And somewhere in the middle of that service, my mother, who had barely been able to walk, suddenly rose from the bench and began to run around the circumference of the small church in ecstatic praise, as was customary among the congregants imbued with the spirit. The following week, my mother returned to the doctors and learned that her cancer was in remission. She would live another 24 years.
Whatever the truth behind her recovery, my mother’s story is the kind of experience common to that distinct American institution known as the Black church. For enslaved people and their descendants, the Black church became a substitute for the cultural, spiritual, and religious institutions that had anchored West African communities for thousands of years. The Black church is intimately connected to family and to one’s identity, providing a strong centering mechanism for a people historically deprived of justice and well-being. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, African Americans took the religion of their “masters” and “made it their own through a flowering of denominations that [ran] the gamut from the AME Church to the Church of God in Christ to so many storefront sanctuaries that remain a key refuge for many in hard times.” It isn’t surprising that the civil rights movement, one of the most important episodes in American history, was born in the Black church.
But the evolution of this institution, from the smallest houses of worship to the megachurches of the present, has come with its share of hypocrisy and scandal. Take Eddie Lee Long, who in the 2000s faced allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety during his tenure as senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County, Georgia. I was thinking of Long (who died in 2017) as well as my mother’s story of healing as I watched the 2022 comedy Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Jordan Peele is an executive producer of this daring film, which stars Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs and Regina Hall as Trinitie Childs, the pastor and first lady of a Black megachurch that sees most of its congregation flee after the pastor’s sexual liaisons with several young men come to light—the film is indeed based on the story of Eddie Lee Long.
Honk for Jesus is an important film—the first of its kind. And only now, at a time when Black filmmakers are finally able to tell a range of stories about Black Americans, could a film exploring such a subject have been made. That Jordan Peele’s name is attached to the project doesn’t hurt. With his ability to mingle elements of different genres (he’s as comfortable with horror as he is with comedy), Peele has the audacity to question everything associated with the establishment. Adamma Ebo, who wrote and directed Honk for Jesus, and her sister, Adanne, who produced it, skillfully examine the self-delusion of people who feel compelled—and in their minds, divinely inspired—to rise to seemingly untouchable positions of leadership. They depict what some people responsible for the spiritual well-being of thousands of others will do to stay in power and justify their calling. This, then, is the conundrum: the Black church—as a cultural icon of uncritical devotion—must survive if it is to continue to be the safe harbor it has always been. Somewhere along the way, however, the job of leading a congregation becomes soured by devastating hypocrisy, and a Sunday morning service turns into showtime, a word that Lee-Curtis uses before every service.
That doesn’t mean that Honk for Jesus isn’t sympathetic to the Black megachurch—far from it. “A lot of the times when this subject is approached,” Adamma Ebo has said, the treatment is “judgmental and demonizing. … The reality for a lot of people, including myself [is]: you hear some of these folks speak and you’re like, ‘This means something to me, this moves me.’ And I feel like that sort of perspective hasn’t really been shown, how lovely it is and can be.”
The style of the film is mockumentary, and within the first 15 minutes, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are introducing us to the people they call “our real followers … they stuck by us even with all the awfulness.” Cut to a portrait of four adults and one child sitting in a huge edifice meant to hold more than 20,000 people—a moment at once heartbreaking and hilarious. The scene that follows only intensifies those conflicting emotions. A caption on screen reads, “Wednesday Church Service,” and we see those same five church members, with Lee-Curtis laying hands on the youngest among them, Aria Devaughn (brilliantly played by Selah Kimbro Jones), the spirit supposedly channeling through him. Aria responds by falling backward, the spirit now supposedly coursing through her. Cut abruptly to Aria talking to the mockumentary filmmakers. “I love the theater!” she exclaims.
Scenes such as this one offer a brilliant critique of the performative aspects of the Black church, but it falls short in one crucial way: it doesn’t provide any understanding of why these theatrical aspects have been so much a part of Sunday service. Without helping the viewer understand certain aspects of the Black church’s iconography and cultural significance, humor and satire can easily fall flat. How do we protect the legacy of an institution that continues to perform necessary civil rights work while also exposing the harm it has inflicted on its members? This is the essential question that the film largely ignores.
The church to which my mother attributed my miraculous birth is also the church that refused to ordain her (or any woman) as a minister. Its members were coerced into making the church paramount in their lives, even at the expense of their families and households—many of our neighbors couldn’t pay their utility bills because they gave their money to the church. When my mother spoke up and refused to accept these traditions, she was kicked out.
There is a scene in Honk for Jesus that epitomizes the pain that can come out of such coercion. Lee-Curtis is shown persuading Trinitie to put on whiteface makeup and perform a mime dance on the street—to get cars to honk for Jesus, which she does because that’s what she’s supposed to do as the pastor’s wife. The film cuts to Trinitie telling the filmmakers how humiliating it is for her, the first lady of the church, to don that mask and dance, all to save face for her husband, while he is perfectly willing to see her reputation and self-esteem put at risk. Trinitie and her mother (Avis-Marie Barnes) represent real women in the church tradition, women who have often had to accept what was dictated to them by men, without question or compromise.
I once worked as a consultant, helping top-level executives at nonprofit and governmental agencies sort through various crises. One organization, a housing corporation that sought to help Houston’s homeless population, was founded by the church to which I belonged. Because I was offering advice to the man who was also my pastor, I initially did not charge a fee. But the work evolved into an extensive two-year project, and during that time, I drew from my bank account to help reconcile the organization’s debts—I took neither a salary nor benefits with the understanding that I’d be reimbursed later. I never was, in full. Of course, the church is hardly the only American institution capable of taking advantage. But my deep spiritual connection to the church—a connection that pre-dates my birth, stemming from the story of my mother’s miracle—had allowed me to enter into a decidedly bad relationship. After that experience, I left the church, though I am no less interested in its enduring influence in people’s lives.
As an anthropologist, I am able to place the church’s flaws in context. Some people might witness a congregant running in ecstatic circles, moved by the Holy Spirit, and wonder why in the world any intelligent, thinking person would participate in such a farce. I know, however, that these rituals evolved from Yoruba practices brought to the Americas by enslaved West Africans. I am acutely aware of the Black church’s connection to my past—the spiritual, cultural, and historical gravity of what it represents. This is ultimately what’s lacking in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, despite its laugh-out-loud moments of comedic genius. Without the perspective of what the Black church has meant over the centuries, all we have is empty farce.
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