‘Honk for Jesus’ offers an uncomfortable reflection of the black church

(RNS) — “If you can’t say ‘amen’, then say ‘ouch’.”

If you’ve spent a lot of time in a traditional black church setting, you’ve heard this. It’s usually said by a preacher when he knows a sermon is hitting a little too close to home and the typical “preach the bishop!” or “take your time, pastor!” the call and the answer became silent. “It’s tight but it’s fair,” many would say as they watched parishioners shift in their seats as they heard “thus saith the Lord.”

When “Honk for Jesus. Save your soul.premiering in theaters and on Peacock on September 2, many had no choice but to say “ouch.” The dark comedy, starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, is meant to be satirical in its depiction of a mega-church pastor and his wife as they attempt to resurrect themselves after falling from grace. Yet the greatest strength of this “mockumentary” is that it’s not parody at all – rather, it’s one of the most accurate portrayals of contemporary black church culture I’ve seen. .

Written and directed by freshman filmmaker Adamma Ebo, “Honk for Jesus” chronicles the efforts of Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) and his wife Trinitie (Hall) as they work to give back to the Wander Baptist Church to Greater Paths its former glory. A sexual misconduct scandal forced the thriving institution, which once had 25,000 members, to close its doors. Believing that people need to see their miraculous restoration, Lee-Curtis hires a documentary film crew to follow them as they head towards an Easter Sunday reopening.

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With Ebo as writer-director and Peele’s “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya as producer, the film is produced by Jordan Peele, known for his films “Get Out”, “Us” and “Nope” from this summer. “Honk for Jesus” continues in the same vein as Peele’s social commentary and criticism. The prosperity gospel, ego and manipulation have become prominent ministries in black churches, leaving worshipers even more impoverished while the pastor and his family seem to be the only ones to prosper.

Everything about the first family must strengthen God’s favor because if they are blessed, then their congregation is also blessed. The continuous flow of material wealth is no accident; the First Family hustle incredibly hard for this. Consequently, the opening credits are punctuated with Lee-Curtis preaching about how he’s the personification of God’s goodness while Three 6 Mafia raps, “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been working these h *es and they better put my money in my hand.”

It doesn’t take long to recognize that Lee-Curtis’ plight is eerily similar to that of the late Bishop Eddie Long, a megachurch pastor accused of sexual misconduct in 2010 and who died in 2017. But “Honk for Jesus” isn’t ‘t about long as much as it uses scandal as a backdrop to explore what’s going on in the church today. That’s why we don’t just see him in the movie. We see so many black men, pastors of congregations of all sizes, who believe in their own hype and will stop at nothing to maintain some semblance of power. And we see their wives, women who believe it’s their calling to make themselves smaller so that their husbands can look taller.

The Childs have lost everything and we don’t know why. Sexual misconduct? Seriously? Pastors cheat every day. Like rappers, professional athletes, and other celebrities, no one really expects a wealthy, high-profile black man to be loyal, even if he preaches the gospel. So what would make members of Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church different? As “Honk for Jesus” progresses, it becomes apparent that Pastor Childs’ sexuality is in question. Now everything makes sense. Members of Wander to Greater Paths don’t find refuge in Heaven’s House Baptist Church, along with pastors Keon and Shakura Sumpter – played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie – for no reason. They left in droves because, for many, homophobia is still one of the greatest virtues of a black Christian.

And even though he’s lost it all, there’s a remnant left who believes the harm Lee-Curtis did can be ignored because he did so much good. After all, these boys were “big enough”, no criminal charges were filed and souls were saved thanks to Pastor Childs. While the forgiveness of Lee-Curtis’ dedicated flock and the community’s contempt for his victims is what perpetuates the cycles of abuse and violence, it’s important to note that he never apologizes. Do pastors not even do that anymore or do they just dismiss all blame as hate and the devil is conspiring against them?

Lee-Curtis Childs is exactly what we think he is: a broken man who hopes that the facade he hides behind will one day make him happy. But he’s not happy and neither is his wife, who is perhaps the most important person here. The obstacles Trinitie Childs overcomes and the way she contorts herself to protect her husband from destructive forces, including himself, makes her both victim and accomplice. Trinitie is complicated, wanting to be fully seen for all of her sacrifices to ensure her husband’s success – and by extension, his success.

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We don’t know everything Trinitie knows, but we do know that she knows enough to make a different decision – one that prioritizes her dignity and self-worth. She is deprived of respect, recognition and privacy as Lee-Curtis so recklessly manages what they have built together. In her documentary confessional moments, Trinitie tells a painful truth: it takes a lot to be a first lady. Maybe more of us should ask ourselves why.

A quick scroll through social media timelines provides starkly different reviews of “Honk for Jesus.” On Twitter and Instagram, home to many black Christians who are more advanced in their deconstructionist and progressive faith journey, the film is praised for its accuracy, directness and truth. On Facebook, the predominant home of older Christians and those who believe in preserving the institution’s image, the film is being criticized for giving the church a bad image.

And both sides are right, which is what makes “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” so great. final, today’s black church is seen in all its conflicted glory. The ugly can no longer be hidden. We all see it. If the church looks bad, maybe it’s because it looks bad. is. Ouch.

(Candice Marie Benbow is a public theologian and the author of Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of religion news service.)

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Jerry B. Hatch