Bishop Noel Jones doesn't consider himself a rich man. His Porsche is only a 1980, he says. His first Mercedes cost him $186 a month. His Ferrari was a steal because the German mark was weak against the dollar.
But Jones is different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald would say. At one point during an interview with L.A. Weekly, a member of his security detail rushes out to where we are sitting, on a windy stone terrace at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, to pull a fleece Miami Heat cap down onto Jones' bald head for him. Jones barely flinches. He's friends with Stevie Wonder, Chris Tucker and The Game. His sister is supermodel and singer Grace Jones. He currently is dating the actress LisaRaye McCoy, who appears on VH1's Single Ladies; in the past, he has been romantically linked to X Factor contestant Stacy Francis and Real Housewives of Atlanta alum NeNe Leakes.
Oh, and he runs one of the biggest mega-churches in Los Angeles.
At 63, Jones is perhaps the most prominent of the six local men of God featured on the new reality series Preachers of L.A., which premieres tonight on Oxygen. The 17,000 members of Jones' church, the City of Refuge in Gardena, flock to free Sunday services at 8 a.m. and again at 11, besotted and invigorated by the rhythmic, scripture-light exhortations delivered in his precise Jamaican accent.
Other clergymen on the show include the former gang member Ron Gibson, of Riverside's Life Church of God in Christ; the tattooed former drug addict and professional skateboarder Jay Haizlip, of Huntington Beach's Sanctuary Church; and the flashy gospel singer Deitrick Haddon, who left his Detroit church in disgrace last year after fathering a child during an adulterous affair.
The brainchild of Haddon's manager, Holly Carter, and boy-wonder producer Lemuel Plummer (BET's Vindicated and The Sheards), whose father owns several religious TV stations in Detroit, Preachers of L.A. hopes to capitalize on the loyal and reliable Christian market that helped Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gross over $600 million.
"There were a lot of offers on this show. A lot," says Jonathan Rodgers, Plummer's mentor and a retired network executive. "The most appealing demographic right now is African American females. Everybody seems to be chasing it, [because] they watch a lot of TV. Enough to be the swing vote."
Producers Carter and Plummer want to show America that men of the cloth are just like us -- bickering, stressed, imperfect. But when the show's trailer appeared earlier this year, with Real Housewives-style shots of mansions, golf courses and Bentleys interspersed with clips of prayer and proselytizing, Christians everywhere were appalled. Blasphemy! they cried. Apostasy!
"These dudes is an embarrassment to God's Kingdom," Angel Marcano commented on YouTube. "All I see is a bunch of business vampires sucking the money out of dopes," Makost0rM added.
Most of the cast members appear to be quite wealthy, yes, but only the dapper Clarence McClendon preaches what is called the prosperity gospel, a peculiarly American strain of Christianity popular among mega-church leaders and televangelists (McClendon is both) who believe God rewards faith and shows favor with money.
Or, you know, get the church to buy you one. Most of Jones' money comes from his involvement in The Urban Group, which manages over 40 real estate projects in five states and has off-shoots in brokerage, private equity, consulting, media, security, executive leadership seminars, online dating (faithmate.com) and a seemingly defunct company selling mobile solar generators.
A few years back, however, the City of Refuge -- Jones' church -- gave Jones a Maserati Quattroporte, which costs about $127,000. With all the other prized vehicles in his collection, he rarely drove it, so after a year he sold the car and gave the money back. His congregation probably never even knew their hard-earned tithes and offerings had helped pay for a fancy toy for their pastor, because Jones tones down the luxe on the Lord's day.
"I go to church as humble as they get," he says. "I'm the only one [on Preachers of L.A.] who does not drive his Ferrari to church."
Up Next: Where did that $127,000 come from?