The Oprah Winfrey Network drama explores the intersection of internal politics, capitalism, gender, external politics and religion inside the sanctuary of a black Southern church.
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.
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SOURCE: The Root