White Faces, Black Spaces
The (s)election of Demagogue-in-Chief Donald Trump sure brought out the worst in many people. Then again, perhaps he’s merely provided carte blanche for the hidden desires of their hearts to finally emerge. Many public figures have felt freer to express their sentiments and support of Trump but not without its consequences, as contemporary gospel music artist and Ardyss representative* Vicki Yohe found out this week.
For those of you scratching your heads in confusion, Vicki Yohe came to the attention of the Black church by way of gospel giant Cece Winans. Cece, after having seen Yohe on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), offered Yohe a recording contract with her Pure Springs Gospel label. In 2008 Yohe released her most popular single to date “Because of Who You Are.” It became a mainstay on Black gospel radio and within the hallowed edifices of Black congregations around the nation. Yohe’s career success is based solely on legitimacy given by a respected Black figure and the support of a largely Black audience. Imagine the surprise of that audience when they learned that she vehemently supported a candidate whose policies largely sought to endanger their existence.
Yohe’s hood was pulled off when earlier this week she posted this image accompanied with the following caption
“March all you want, protest all you want, President Donald J. Trump is our President for at least 4 years, no weapon formed against him will prosper! You know you are doing something right when there is so much opposition!!! #excitingtimes”
Referring to this past weekend’s Women’s March on Washington (with sister marches in varying U.S. cities), Yohe did what 88% of evangelical Christians and 53% of white women did on November 8: prioritize their white identity over anything and everyone else. She’s not the only one, however.
The Rise, Fall, & Rise of Paula White
There’s also the curious case of Pastor Paula White, an ardent Trump supporter and leader of central Florida’s largest Black congregation. Legitimized by Bishop T.D. Jakes in 2000 after speaking at his Woman Thou Art Loosed conference, White has been on a meteoric rise within the Black Pentecostal church for nearly two decades. She and ex-husband Bishop Randy White co-founded Without Walls International Church in 1991. Both enjoyed the trappings of success provided by the support of their largely Black audiences and congregations. Between Paula’s media ventures and church income, she and Randy raked in millions. In 2006, Without Walls brought in nearly $40 million with a combined compensation of $1.5 million for the Whites. Paula’s media ministry, Paula White Ministries, was bringing in $50K-$80K weekly.
White’s problematic politics should have been noticed far earlier than her invocation at the Trump inauguration. Paula & Randy White became the subject of a 7-year IRS investigation into the financial assets of their persons and ministries. While nothing came of the investigation, it’s worth noting that Without Walls was nearly swallowed whole by debt. In 2008, both their main and satellite campuses were in pre-foreclosure with lapsed payment for $25M in loans. In August 2011, the main campus suddenly closed after its lights were cut for failure to pay.
With a penchant for failure to pay and residences in both Trump Park Avenue and Trump Tower, her appreciation for Toupee Fiasco ain’t all that hard to see.
Currently, White pastors New Destiny Christian Center. You may have heard of this church by way of the mysterious death of its co-founder and senior pastor, Zachery Tims, in a New York hotel in 2011. Its congregation remains largely Black working- and middle class people while Paula White remains an unabashed supporter of Donald J. Trump.
Their Success, Our Expense
Both Yohe and White have built their brand and bank accounts on the backs of Black audiences. They’ve both embodied performative Black worship through their intonation and fluency in Black vernacular and colloquialisms. And for some reason, we eat it up. We continue to allow them in our pulpits, to lead our churches, and to rob us blind in Jesus’ name. We dance, shout, cry, and sow our seeds to their ministries while refusing to hold them accountable. We offer them a ‘Black Pass’, assuming that their presentation in our churches and concert venues is their authentic self. We give them far more grace and less scrutiny than we give our own and are suddenly shocked when their true self is revealed.
Have we even questioned what makes them connected to us as a people as opposed to pastoring a more ethnically diverse flock? When asked of Paula White:
“In her sermons at New Destiny and at revivals around the country, White often addresses the great unasked question in the minds of many of the worshippers before her: What does a rich, famous white woman have in common with a church full of working and middle-class black folk struggling to survive the recession? Invariably, she answers with a recitation of her own early life of abuse, promiscuity, bulimia, two divorces, addiction to prescription medication and personal tragedy, including her son’s crack addiction when he was a teenager. She offers hope by example, overcoming struggles to live in prosperity and with the promise of salvation.”
The presumption that the sole marker of Black experience is struggle, promiscuity, and other social ills sounds eerily familiar to Trump’s infamous declaration that “the blacks” should support him because we “have nothing to lose.” He went on to further generalize and stereotype the Black lived experience as growing up in fear of our crime riddled streets in the “urban areas”, complete with short life expectancy or prison sentences. Why are we allowing people to preach hope to us who see our skin color as nothing more than a mark of certain struggle, oppression, and death?
Let me be clear: the things we allow to pass and abide with White women in religious blackface aren’t things we’d be as gracious with if they were Black women, period.
The latest antics of White and Yohe leave me with a central question: How many Black clergywomen had to die for the ascension of Vicki Yohe and Paula White? Not a literal death, of course, but how many Black clergywomen have had their careers belabored by the preference for and pushing of white leaders in blackface? We know Riva Tims, ex-wife and co-founder of New Destiny Christian Center, is at least one casualty in the centering of whiteness in Black pulpits. When her ex-husband died, Riva was denied the opportunity to lead the church she co-founded. The selection and voting committee at the time cited a stipulation that the senior pastor should be married—despite the fact that Tims was divorced at the time of his death. White, who eventually won their vote, was not remarried until 2015.
The Cost of the Black Pass is Ours to Bear
It is our eager willingness to hand out ‘passes’ to others that has led us here. Yohe’s implication that Jesus was somehow absent because of an Obama presidency is deeply harmful. We cannot overlook the white evangelical Christian’s core tenet of faith that Blackness is inferior to whiteness (You can read more about that here: White evangelicalism is white nationalism). Let’s put aside faith for a moment and pick up logic. Yohe exclaimed that Jesus was “on [His] way back to the White House” and that opposition must mean Trump is “doing something right.” First, everything has opposition. You cannot base the “rightness” of your position by the level of opposition against it. There are millions who oppose restrictions against same-gender marriages and still millions who support it. Numbers, in this case, do not measure the validity of an ideal.
Further, folks got knee-deep in their feelings when I posited that White Supremacy is bigger than the concept of God. From Yohe’s chosen optics to her phrasing, it only supports my prior thoughts on the matter. Her message was posted with an image of a Eurocentric Jesus with baggage. First of all, I can’t even begin to delve into the problematic nature of #WhiteJesus and Jesus being pictured with baggage. That’s wild in and of itself.
What’s important to recognize is the portrayal of Jesus as a temporal, lukewarm messiah. If Yohe’s intended message is that Jesus was absent from the White House because it was troubled, what kind of savior only appears in times of joy and absconds the throne in times of trouble? It speaks volumes that for white evangelical Christians, God is only veritably present when accompanied by the oppression and sacrifice of others.
Our Sacrifice & Unwarranted Forgiveness
We’ve internalized this idea that we are a sacrificial lamb for the greater good. That somehow our willingness to suffer at the hands of institutionalized intersectional oppression is like unto the suffering of our Christ on the cross. We’re striving for our atonement and veneration as “good Christians” by way of asceticism and self-flagellation of sorts. Worse yet is that we’re giving passes to people to enter our pulpits not to pull us out of suffering, but to be participants in our oppression through their political and social actions.
As expected after numerous engagement cancellations and a dragging across the interwebs, Yohe offered up a (non-) apology to appease the situation. If you’re playing call out bingo, we hit these high notes:
“I’m sorry if you feel that I hurt you”
Focus on personal victimization rather than contrition for those who were harmed
“I’m not a racist, I have black ______”
Your perception of my message was not the intention of my message
Yohe spent 4 disjointed paragraphs never really accepting her fault. She didn’t seek to understand what and how she was wrong. Instead, she chose to reiterate that it was the perception, not content of her message, that was wrong. And of course she pulled the “I can’t possibly be racist card” given her association with Blackness by way of her ministry and a claim of 42 kids in an African orphanage. Make of that what you will.
Still it should be noted that when called out, Yohe responded by blocking people even when they peacefully expressed their hurt and disappointment. [Side note: Which seems to be popular among public Christian figures. Heather Lindsey blocked me and several others without even attempting to engage in an open dialogue once called out.] She privatized and/or deleted various social media accounts.
And wouldn’t you know it? In the comments section of her apology was the all too familiar swift forgiveness of Black Christians. Not that I should be all that surprised. Especially since Travis Greene justified his minstrelsy as bending the ear of the King while Chrisette Michele offered to build bridges none of us asked for. God help us all.
You can read more about Paula White’s controversial life and ministry here: Holy High Roller
*Editor’s Note: From the comments: “Vicki Yohe has not been a part of Ardyss FOR YEARS! She is selling the HCG diet now.”