I recently participated in a fun and controversial reality TV show called Preachers of Detroit. It was a blast. Preachers of Detroit had a great cast. It was produced by a new and innovative production company and was featured on a powerful network.
As we moved from post-production to actually airing the show, there was a lot of discussion about the show, its storylines, controversy and purpose. The questions were great and deep. "Is this God's will for the church?" "Should pastors do a reality TV show?" "How has being on Preachers of Detroit affected your life?" "What's next for the cast?"
While we wait for a second season, assuming we get one - there is one aspect of the show that has begun to bother me. Well, not the show, but the cast and so-called black church community. On a number of occasions, I have heard cast members who were dope dealers and thugs talk about how God turned their life around and now they are living for the Gospel. In fact, one moonlighter featured on the show has an extensive background selling drugs and allegedly acted as a government informant - now he claims to work for the Detroit Police Department. Go figure!
Now, don't get confused. I believe in transformation. I believe people can turn their lives around. I also don't believe you should shame and eternally blame people for their past mistakes. However, I was confused when the audience and others in our community would so easily applaud and trust an ex-pimp or ex-dope man over an ex-undergraduate student.
I think the church has become a haven for people who hustled in the streets and stumbled into the sanctuary to continue hustling. It is interesting that many ex-pimps and ex-dope dealers have no seminary, Bible College or educational resume. They have no internships, no real mentorship - they just head a voice and now want to help the community.
I know - I have heard it so many times. I used to tear up the streets now I'm here to help the streets. While it is true that a thief can help you catch thieves and what not, it is strange that the political power structure, church community and urban America as a whole praises ex-pimps and ex-dope dealers, picks them for leadership, and are worried about the intentions and agenda of the people who never had the privilege of selling the poison.
Look, I know Malcolm X was a great man. I also know that going to prison is not a sign of future promise - many great people have gone to jail early in life to make significant changes and impact on this society. Still, why do we give ex-pimps and ex-dope peddlers credit for turn around? Especially since, we don't give those who never had the privilege credit for turn up, turn over and turn away?
Turning your life around after dope selling, pimping and being institutionalized may make someone an expert on personal piety and individual transformation. However, if we are going to end poverty, fix failing schools, lower incidents of urban violence and police brutality we are going to need more than experts in personal piety. We are going to need people who understand systems and public policy. We are going to have to exchange our addiction to individual triumph for a deep commitment to institutional transformation.