By Candice Benbow
I was looking forward to the premiere of Preachers of Detroit. After watching pastors argue over honorariums and babies “born out of wedlock” on Preachers of LA, I couldn’t stomach another show about the “real” lives of pastors. Yet, the Detroit cast boasted two women who have been influential to my life and so many others. Bishop Corletta Vaughn has been a consistent example to and inspiration for many of us who know God has called us to lead the church. Evangelist Dorinda Clark-Cole’s trajectory has been one that many a church girl looked to and found evidence that you can love God, be trendy and still be blessed and highly favored. Naturally, when I learned that they were apart of the cast, I found myself excited. Unlike Preachers of LA, which portrayed women as only pastors’ wives and perpetual girlfriends with no real leadership ability or power, Preachers of Detroit would show two women in ministry, standing in their own authority and proving that God anointed us too.
My excitement quickly turned to disappointment after watching a conversation between Bishop Corletta and Evangelist Clark-Cole. As she always does, Bishop Corletta highlighted the persistent sexism and patriarchal power that exists within Black Churches, keeping women oppressed and unable to lead. For some reason, I thought Dorinda would agree with the Bishop and say that it’s time for the church to rise up and see the light of God shining on women, too, and give them room to lead. Instead, she reinforced the same position that has subjugated us for many years, saying that women must submit to the leadership of men. She even went as far as to say, “for me, men are better leaders.” The text messages began to fly. “Are you watching this?” “Did she really just say that?” This couldn’t even be blamed on bad editing. She said it and she meant it. We were floored. Aside from being shocked, we were hurt. Many of us looked to her affectionately as “Auntie Dorinda”, what we called her amongst ourselves, and she let the world know what she really thought of us.
Granted, Dorinda Clark-Cole is a licensed evangelist in the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest Black Protestant denominations in the world, and COGIC has remained crystal clear regarding the role of women in ministry. If you’re a woman and COGIC, you can be a missionary or an evangelist but you will never pastor, ascend to the rank of Bishop and make executive decisions concerning the direction of your denomination. Yet, despite being COGIC, I expected more from Dorinda. After all, she is a Clark Sister! At a time when Studio 54 was known as the place to score the best coke and heroin, they were playing “You Brought the Sunshine”. Dorinda’s position was shocking given that she and her sisters had seen the ugliness of doctrine when COGIC banned their mother from performing with them again after they performed together at the 1983 Grammys. Dr. Mattie Moss Clark chose to affirm her daughters’ God-given gifts over restrictive man-made policies and principles. For Dorinda to hold to such a position of women, in light of that history, is disheartening. Yet, even as she supports what she claims are biblical and long held denominational positions, Dorinda is not without her own acts of resistance. I have consoled many COGIC friends who were chastised by leadership and church mothers for wearing makeup, weaves and form fitting clothes. Everyone knows the Church of God in Christ believes that “holiness is right” and anything that would accentuate a woman’s body or cause a man to lust after her is not holy. Still, Dorinda defies these biblical and cultural assertions daily (…and she looks fierce doing it, too). How does her interpretation of scripture and resistance to doctrine allow her to look like she stepped off a runway during Fashion Week but not allow me to lead a congregation? Why is it okay for her to sing about Jesus over R&B beats but it’s not okay for me to be a part of my denomination’s leadership?
As a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, I cringed as I watched episodes of VH-1’s Sorority Sisters. With a Delta for an older sister and friends in every Black sorority, I knew that the show didn’t reflect the true relationship and bonds between Black Greek-women. I was disappointed in all the women. I felt like their participation in the show was an affront to all our founders and the great work we do, daily, to transform the lives of Black girls and women. Yet, I did not participate in the boycott. It felt extremely mean-spirited to me. The boycott seemed to be less about healthy representations of Black women on television and more about preserving the image of Black women who pledged. While I didn’t agree with the show, I don’t agree with policing representations of Black women even more. I know that members of Black sororities are varied and colorful, just like Black women. We are not the same and never should be seen as such. After Sorority Sisters was canceled, the boycotters said they wouldn’t stop until all ratchet representations of Black women were no more. After the premiere of Preachers of Detroit, I just knew the boycotters would come out again in full force but, they are nowhere to be found. And we will not hear from them, either. Because, whether people publicly admit it or not, many people agree with Dorinda.
It would be easy to frame this as just a COGIC problem. However, I was born and raised in the Black Baptist Church and was in high school before I ever heard a woman preach. To this very day, I have to correct people, my own family included, when they ask if I am going to be speaking at church next Sunday. “No,” I say. “I will be preaching next Sunday.” Black clergywomen are devalued as a whole by the church and Dorinda’s comments don’t make our plight any easier. In fact, it only works to reinforce what people already think of us: that we are extreme feminists operating outside of the will of God and His word. In the wake of the first episode, supporters of Dorinda have been quick to point out that Dorinda never said she didn’t support women as preachers. Many, across all denominations, support women as preachers yet, they are unwilling to allow women a space at the table to be a part of denominational leadership and affect policy change. There is nothing progressive about supporting a woman’s ability to preach when you do not support, whether silently or vocally, her ability to pastor. Dorinda’s perspective (and that of others) is precisely the reason why so many of us are in seminary, burning the candles at both ends, studying to show ourselves approved and our male colleagues can barely come to class (and put forth any effort to be successful in class) and still get hired by congregations en masse. It’s the reason why, if a woman is hired, it’s only as a youth pastor or the leader over the Women’s Ministry despite being equipped to lead in other areas. It’s the reason why women are still rarely asked to preach full revivals but are given Youth Sunday and Mother’s Day to bring a word. We are still fighting to be seen in the fullness of our call. We are still demanding the respect of our colleagues and congregants. And while we’re doing all this fighting and demanding, Dorinda Clark-Cole tells us it’s for naught.
Protestors of Sorority Sisters cited the impact the show would have on young girls as a necessary reason for its cancellation. I am more worried about the impact of Dorinda Clark-Cole’s words on a young girl than I ever will be about a show of college educated women acting silly. Though I would love for it to be the case, I know that every Black girl will not go to college. Of the ones who make it there, I know that an even smaller percentage of them will pledge a Black Greek sorority. Yet, all Black girls are affected, whether directly or indirectly, by theological messages regarding their worth and ability. I know what it is like to sit in the pews and question if God really called you because you don’t see anyone in the pulpit who looks like you and, the one who is in the pulpit, is preaching against your right to be in it. I know what it’s like to question everything about yourself because the Bible has been used so effectively, by the very people you love, to negate who you are. If we believe the power of life and death is in what we say, what life did Dorinda Clark-Cole speak into us? We, who have supported her, deserve support too.
Dorinda and anyone else who hold on to such archaic and restrictive perspectives regarding women in ministry are without excuse. There is too much knowledge and information available to remain willfully ignorant. We are all equipped to preach the Gospel and lead the people of God. Point blank. Period. Though my days of supporting Dorinda are over, I won’t be calling for a protest of Preachers of Detroit. I won’t tweet the companies whose commercials air during that hour. I will, however, stand with the scores of Black women, who have left the Church of God in Christ and other denominations that would not affirm their call, and continue preaching, teaching and being for a little girl the very model that I needed and Dorinda refuses to be.
Candice Benbow is a writer, educator, public intellectual and cultural critic. She has appeared on Huff Post Live and is a columnist with Urban Cusp Magazine. She is also a frequent guest on Gospel Today Magazine’s online show “Gospel Today Presents This Week”. She has also been a guest contributor to ShePreaches Magazine and Patheos. Currently, Candice teaches Sociology at Campbell University. She enjoys inspiring her students to think critically and engage in thoughtful discussion. Candice has facilitated several workshops and discussions emphasizing love for creation and all of humanity. Through writing, teaching and speaking, she seeks to create a world of freedom, radical inclusion and acceptance. Visit her website at: www.candicebenbow.com.