The Problem With Black Preachers

“The [B]lack community, maybe more than any other, is affectively linked to churches and their pastors to the degree that criticism of either (no matter how rational) is often viewed as nothing short of an attack on God…. Unfortunately, [B]lack ministers (be they emancipators or collaborators in oppression) are often protected from secular intellectual confrontation by the almost certain ire of their flocks, which is heaped upon any critic who questions their leaders’ decisions and/or motivations.”

(above quote) What’s Wrong With Obamamania? Black America, Black Leadership and the Death of Political Imagination, by Ricky Jones

Anyone who’s followed my blog since its inception over a decade ago knows that I have a penchant for going after a Black preacher or two, repeatedly, after they find their way into the public sphere after saying something provocative from the pulpit. Scrolling through the archives, I realize I spent considerable time in seminary going after Jamal Bryant. I also dedicated a fair amount of writing to the scandal of New Birth’s Bishop Eddie Long. Similarly, society’s sordid disdain for Jeremiah Wright occupied much of my imagination over the years. While the likes of T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar appeared in name, they often functioned as no more than whipping posts to make a particular point.

And now Mike Todd has joined that ignominious list of Black preachers.

This is at least the third blog of mine where Mike Todd’s antics have garnered my attention to the point of dedicating another blog in his name. However, this one was different. This wasn’t a result of bad theology on display nor him doing another run-of-the-mill, over-the-top sermon demonstration. This one crossed over into the disgusting. The vile. In short, he spat three times in his hand and rubbed the spit on a man’s face during his sermon. It doesn’t matter that this was to be a repulsive replication of Jesus spitting onto the eyes of blind man as recorded in Mark 8. Nor does it matter that the man was Todd’s own brother. What does matter is that Todd, his brother, and his congregation thought this was appropriate, sane, and logical; it matters that the insular crowd of Transformation Church resonated with the whole contemptible act.

Realizing that Todd now has joined the list of well-known Black preachers who have found themselves in the hot water of public and social criticism reminded me that we, as a nation, have a problem with Black preachers. There is no rubric for how to criticize a Black preacher’s sermon that exists in the public sphere in the way that we levy criticism against elected officials or CEO’s of corporations. What we tend to do, myself included, is base our criticisms in our own religious tradition, thus satisfying the onlookers within our own tribes. Those who stand on the ground of a social justice tradition were defensive of Jeremiah Wright; those who stand within the neo-Pentecostal tradition were always defensive of Jakes and Long (notwithstanding the scandal). Empowerment Temple, the church Bryant started did not miss a single step when the scandal came out that he cheated on his then wife, Giselle, nor his random commentary, quoting the song, “These hoes ain’t loyal.”

Black preachers have always said and done wild things from the pulpits and had sermon titles that were eye-catching and disturbing. I recall sitting in Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in 2009 and he preached a sermon from Deuteronomy 22:10, “Get Your Ass Away from Me!” Johnny Youngblood, pastor emeritus of St. Paul Community Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York frequently swore in the pulpit; “shit” and “damn” and “hell” were frequently uttered on the rostrum. Pastor Charles Emery of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Gary, Indiana famously rolled in a casket, tuned up in an Easter Sunday sermon, laid in the casket, had it rolled out of the sanctuary, rolled it back in, had it opened—re-creating Jesus’ emergence from the tomb—all while whooping. This video has over 400,000 views on YouTube. Pastor Bartholomew Orr of Brown Baptist Church outside of Memphis, attached a harness to his body and was airdropped by a guided crane into his pulpit, and at the end of his sermon, while whooping as well, was airlifted back into the balcony.

The problem we, as a society, particularly African American culture, has with Black preachers, most times, has nothing to do with the individual Black preacher in mind. As I type this, Mike Todd is a trending topic on Twitter in the U.S., and most of the tweets include criticism that extend far beyond the specific act of Todd spitting in his hand and wiping it on his brother’s face. Twitter user @Ameen_HGA writes “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but this is demonic and manipulative. Mike Todd even tried to manipulate the crowd into feeling bad over reacting to him dehumanizing a man live on stage. We’re watching abuse and humiliation to boost another’s ego and profile. Disgusting.” Jemele Hill, sports and cultural commentator writes “Had never heard of ‘Pastor’ Mike Todd before today. But I truly understand now why the elders used to frequently tell us that we’re in the last days.” Another Twitter user by the name of @ohhclinton writes “Somebody tweeted calling Mike Todd a wide hipped false prophet and I haven’t seen peace since.” Twitter user @_rawilcox writes “Abolish Christianity. All these long think pieces about Mike Todd being theologically irresponsible and not representing the body of Christ is a waste of all our time. Christianity and all its conspirers are the problem. You abolish Christianity, you abolish Mike Todd..[sic].” User @MoneyTeamMill wrote “Mike Todd…..It was giving spit fetish—the way he shook it in his hands, I couldn’t even finish watching.”

The Black preacher, as a singular entity, has a lot of external expectations heaped upon it. The Black preacher is expected to be not just the theological expert in the room and great orator, but also moral exemplar, community leader, teacher, counselor, administrator, human rights activist, school-board rabble-rouser, elected official, mediator, janitor, part-time construction laborer—and the list continues. Many of those expectations become morphed into stereotypes that become caricatures. One would be hard-pressed to think of a Black film or TV show in which the Black preacher was not caricatured as a money-grabbing pimp or the character who functioned as comic relief. I also allege that embedded in that caricature is a tacit framework of sexuality that we, too easily, place on Black preachers as evidenced by Twitter user @MoneyTeamMill’s comment about a “spit fetish.” I ask, what’s the mechanism at play that allows for sexualization of Todd in that moment wherein we decry sexualization of individuals in other instances?

Similarly so, the expectations of Black women that occupy that role get compounded, added upon and restricted in ways that have only just been uncovered in the last few decades of scholarship within African American religious circles! Perhaps because of the sheer lack of Black women as pastors due to patriarchal norms there aren’t many comparable examples, but I wonder the nuanced ways in which responses would be different if Todd were a Black female pastor. Would Black Twitter be commenting about her hips? Would she have a “spit fetish”? I don’t use that as example defend Black male preachers, but to bring attention to just how unfettered society is in parsing and understanding Black preachers as a whole. That is to say, the foolishness that Black male pastors have gotten away with over the decades is not to be compared to the expectations heaped upon Black women who preach, let alone pastor. The reaction to the likes of Juanita Bynum over the years have surely shown that Black female preachers aren’t a carved-out exception to stringent criticism.

In the short time I’ve had to reflect on this lugubrious act committed by Todd, I actually don’t think this incident is some grand act of theological malpractice or that he’s committed a homiletical sin no different than Orr descending on his congregation or Emery whooping from a casket. It’s just simply gross. That’s more than enough to warrant the response he’s gotten. No one should be spitting and proceeding to rub it on the face of anyone—especially during a pandemic.

Rather, what I think is at play is a deeper communal yearning for a Black spirituality that attends to grave and pressing issues of our time. On Martin Luther King Sunday when thousands of churches, not just majority Black congregations, at least mark the moment noting that the struggles of the 1960’s civil rights movement still have not been fully actualized, Todd decided to preach a rather evangelical sermon on a healing miracle that resulted in a man’s spit winding up on another man’s face. It’s the juxtaposition of a Black preacher with a predominantly Black congregation on public display standing decidedly outside of an African American church tradition; a church tradition that broadly, even if not deeply, carries faint remnants of a social justice theology. Presumably for Jemele Hill, it’s this reason why “Pastor” is placed in quotes for her; Todd isn’t worthy of the title while committing such an act.

The unfortunate reality is that, as one can guess, social media plays an oversized role in the amplification of antics. When Todd re-enacted the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” last year, he was simply a meme. But this incident garnered the attention of Newsweek, Independent, the Source magazine, TMZ and the Daily Beast. There are tens of thousands of African American churches in the United States, I would wager the vast majority of them do not have pastors who spit in their hands and wipe them on a congregant’s face. But the normalcy of such isn’t worthy of a Twitter hot take. The deep reality is that people don’t go to church because Mike Todd spit in his hand. He’s just a prop. They don’t go to church because they don’t see the church, as an institution, attending to the deeper needs of a society that seems to be falling apart at the seams.

The problem with Black preachers is that in a social media age, so many of us swap the grave attending to the culture with the great attention received from going viral. Inversely, as a society, we play right into the algorithm. We reshare the video, make our hot take, and move on with life. We make the small digs at Todd’s sexuality by making comments about his body—suddenly body shaming is okay when it’s Todd?—we defrock him as a pastor, and then what? I admit I’ve been guilty of these things too. It’s easy to fall into the trap when people press the like button on the post, reshare it amongst their followers, and the high of being heard and seen gets replicated for my own personal benefit. But, in a lived reality, nothing’s changed. Mike Todd will be back in his pulpit seven days from now. And the next seven. And the seven after that.

I would hope that from now on, people share the preaching clips from Black preachers that are life-giving. Share the ones from Black women and Black queer preachers especially. Share the Black preachers that preach restoration, the Black preachers that preach hope in despairing times. I too will engage this challenge. After over a decade of writing about the misery of Black preaching, I’m tired. I didn’t want to write this one. Yet, I still maintain hope that the future contains better. If we ever needed to share better Black preachers amongst ourselves, the time is most certainly right now.  

One thought on “The Problem With Black Preachers

  1. Black preachers, I cannot live without (most of) them! The Lord will make a way somehow to provide us all with the strength to move through perilous crossings on this journey.

    May we learn the lessons that we have been exposed to for the glory of God and the ‘uplift’ of community.

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