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The Preachers of Detroit Talk Religion and Reality TV

The local religious leaders invite the world of reality TV into their lives with a new series premiering at 8 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2015 on the Oxygen network

Bishop Charles H. Ellis III could preach for a while about the power of the media to influence public impressions.

"We hear all the time on these radio stations—whether it be Frankie Darcell, Mildred Gaddis or whoever—'What are the churches doing?' 'The churches ought to be doing more!' 'These big churches, why aren't they doing something?' Blah, blah, blah," parodies Ellis, approaching his 20th anniversary as senior pastor for one of Detroit's highest-profile megachurches, Greater Grace Temple.

"I always want to say, 'You must not go to a church! Because if you went to a church you could answer that question yourself.'"

The bigger the bully pulpit, the greater the opportunity to control the message and go tell it on the media mountain as far and wide as possible. That may be one reason why Ellis—and six other spiritual luminaries with prominent Detroit roots—agreed to join the cast for season one of Preachers of Detroit, premiering at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, 2015 on Oxygen. The new series is the first spinoff of the cable channel's holy, high-rolling hit reality show Preachers of L.A.

Its debut is preceded by Preachers of L.A.: Deitrick Goes Home, featuring L.A. cast member and recording artist Deitrick Haddon returning to his Detroit hometown to mend family relationships at 8 p.m. Friday Feb. 6—and Preachers of Detroit: Meet the Preachers at 8 p.m. Friday Feb. 13, 2015.

"Preachers of L.A. touched the heartstrings of our Oxygen viewers," says Rod Aissa, senior VP of original programming and development for Oxygen Media. "Preachers of Detroit is the latest iteration. We introduce a new group of preachers who have various roads to faith, triumph and transformation, but who share a united dedication to help influence positive change in Detroit."

Meet the Preachers of Detroit

Besides Ellis, who presides over a 6,000-plus member congregation on the city's west side, this newest convocation of Preachers features six leaders.

  • Bishop Corletta Vaughn, senior pastor of the Holy Ghost Cathedral of Faith on East Grand Boulevard and presiding prelate of the Go Tell It Evangelistic Ministry Worldwide, providing oversight to more than 70 churches nationally and 1,300 around the globe. Called to the pulpit at the age of 4, she has been a woman of the cloth more than 40 years and a trailblazer as a preacher and one of America's first female bishops. Married to Rev. Gilbert Vaughn, president of the NAACP in Hertford, North Carolina, her storyline will center in part on the challenges of maintaining their long-distance union.
  • Bishop-Elect Clarence Langston, founder and senior pastor of Word in Action Christian Center on Wyoming Avenue, who's joined in his ministry by his wife, co-pastor and former lawyer Robyn Langston, and their three children. A fiery and brutally honest orator, he's considered by some to be far too young and brash to be elevated to bishop.
  • Pastor Don William Shelby Jr., who with his wife, Bonita, founded Burning Bush International Ministries Church of God in Christ in Ypsilanti more than two decades ago. A gospel reincarnation of Berry Gordy, Shelby created his own record label to promote his family singing group, The Shelby 5, composed of the couple's five children. The youngsters, ages 15-24, live with their parents and are expected to adhere to the Christian principles of abstinence—which may become harder as their fame escalates.
  • Evangelist Dorinda Clark-Cole, the Grammy Award-winner and evangelist of Detroit's legendary gospel group The Clark Sisters. Serving as an administrator at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ on Schaefer Highway, Clark-Cole also hosts her own syndicated radio program, television shows on The Word Network and TCT (a Christian network) and creates her own clothing line. Somehow, the self-confessed workaholic must find ways to make time for her daughter, Nikki—and herself.
  • Pastor Tim Alden, a native Detroiter who recently expanded his ministry back to his hometown from its base in Los Angeles, where he is founder and senior pastor of City of Praise Christian Church. A virgin in his 50s, he felt compelled to return to Detroit—where, as a child, he was adopted by an African-American family who inspired him to become a minister after being abandoned by his biological parents—to spread his message of abstinence and purity.
  • Pastor David Alexander Bullock, activist, organizer, media magnet, musician, philosopher and, most of all, leader of the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park. A frequent guest on MSNBC and FOX2's Let It Rip, Bullock is often seen with a Bible in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. He also draws attention to himself as the only eligible bachelor on the series.

According to Bullock, however, there is an eighth player on this show that is arguably the most important of all—Detroit itself.

"Part of the storyline will be the city of Detroit and how I and the other cast members interact with it. So Detroit's story, of emerging from bankruptcy, on the verge of a comeback, and pastors' personal lives and ministry lives in Detroit are going to be strong themes."

An inspired bet on reality TV in Detroit

National TV shows taped in the Motor City have met mixed success. For every Hardcore Pawn and Parking Wars there's a Low Winter Sun and Detroit 1-8-7, the latter pair barely limping through their first seasons. But Oxygen has great expectations for Preachers of Detroit. Its L.A. forerunner was the most watched freshman series in its history, particularly among coveted 25- to 54-year-old viewers, and became a social media phenomenon.

The production company, L. Plummer Media, shot the first episodes here last summer and plans to roll out franchises in Atlanta, Dallas and New York. It's no mystery why Detroit was next in line: Executive producer Lemuel Plummer is a native with strong ties to the city's religious community. "We know the producers well, the Plummer family," Ellis says. "Pastor Glenn Plummer is a pastor here in the city (at Ambassadors for Christ Church), and his son, Lemuel, is the owner of the production company. Pastor Plummer sits on his board."

Why join reality TV?

Might that answer the 500-pound question: Why are these spiritual leaders doing this? Surely high-visibility evangelists like Clark-Cole, Bullock and Vaughn don't need additional exposure. Ellis commands a 19-acre "City of David" complex including a senior living facility, funeral home and a TV ministry, and is the presiding bishop of his Pentecostal Assemblies of the World denomination. His plate already seems full.

What's more, Preachers of L.A.'s "saved, sanctified and sexual" approach is fraught with controversy within and outside the religious community: Season two featured one cast member squaring off against gang members and another entering adult nightclubs to minister to strippers.

"When we looked at the Preachers series, there are a lot of things that we think L.A. could have done differently," Ellis says. "I am very convinced that nobody's sabotaging the Preachers of L.A. Those are the stories that those individuals wanted to tell, and I'm not here to judge anybody. We asked the question, 'Who would we be with on the (Detroit) show?' And once the cast was determined, we felt very comfortable.

"Then, since the theme of every series will be different, we asked what the theme of this show would be. We were told that they want to take a look at how the religious community blends in with the government and the social issues of Detroit and how the faith-based community impacts the city of Detroit. I thought that was a great theme."

Despite the checkered reputation of the L.A. series, none of the Detroit Preachers asked said they received any condemnation.

"My congregation has been very, very supportive," Bullock says. "I think part of that is because they are used to seeing me on television, in the local news cycle. And Preachers of Detroit is just different from Preachers of L.A., if for no other reason than we have two female clerics and L.A. has none." And because we have an eligible bachelor in Bullock. Will we see this cleric go a-courting? "You'll see the whole of my singleness," he replies, laughing. "Dating is a part of that. But it's bigger than that."

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