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?
On a recent Sunday, the City of Refuge welcomed the Reverend Jesse Jackson alongside men in stained sweatpants, women in floor-length fur coats and kids with coloring books in tow. The jumbotrons tick down the seconds and then the Holy Ghost of Chick Hearn booms, “The moment you have been waiting for is here!” But no, it's not Jones, not yet. Instead: the church's Billboard chart-topping gospel choir, backed by a full band wearing Beats by Dre headphones, in a rousing 90-minute concert led by Gerald Haddon, Deitrick's brother. Crane-mounted jib cameras swoop over the audience, live-streaming to viewers worldwide.
Finally, the sermon. Jones, in an all-black collarless button down and plain black pants, paces the pulpit.
“Don't go searching around the mall to find out where your strength is,” he croons at one point, breaking into improvised song. “I know they look at your clothes and see what you drive and decide you're a nobody, but the Devil is a liar… Money can't buy love! Money can't buy joy!”
In the hallway just outside the sanctuary, however, money can buy gospel CDs, self-help books (God's Gonna Make You Laugh), Tyler Perry DVDs (Madea Gets a Job) and recordings of past orations, all for ten or fifteen bucks a pop. Churches don't pay taxes, and their tax returns are not public record, so there's no way to know what all of these donations and bookstore sales add up to. In fact, Tabitha Wilson, who served as the church's director of sales between April of 2010 and October of 2011, describes those pulling the purse strings at City of Refuge as a willfully irresponsible bunch.
Often when Chairman of the Deacon Board Joe Edwards submitted cash and sales receipts, she says, he was over $1,000 short. Whenever she asked him about it, he told her he was “working on it.” And when she tried to bring the subject up with other higher-ups, they acknowledged having heard similar rumors before but did not want to investigate.
Wilson was finally fired and is currently suing the church for wrongful termination, saying they let her go for asking too many questions about where the money went. The church's lawyer dismisses Wilson's claims over e-mail: “There was no misappropriation of funds… Her allegations do not comport with the facts.”
So is this the kind of “reality” we'll see explained on Preachers of L.A.? Of course not.
“We made sure that we were going to make each other look good,” Jones says, meaning cast members frequently refused to broach certain subjects on camera. Jones also claims that during shooting he was the only one who was truly transparent, the only one who didn't have to change his behavior for the show.
“I'm surprised that he said that, because I'm thinking it's the other way around,” the singer Michelle Williams says, laughing, when she hears how Jones describes himself in relation to the other ministers. She's been friends with him for 13 years; she, Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland used to watch DVDs of his sermons when their group Destiny's Child was on tour and couldn't get to church.
“I refer to him as the godfather,” she says. “He seems like a withdrawn and private man. I was surprised that he signed up to do the show!”
So were many of his closest advisers. There's a thin line between seeking fame to glorify yourself and seeking fame to glorify God, and how would viewers be able to see the difference? What truth might be lost in the editing bay? But Jones wants to reach as many people as possible, and no one could convince him otherwise.
And maybe no one in his congregation even cares about who Jones becomes when he steps out of the sanctuary.
“His life is his life. My life is my life,” one parishioner says. “Nobody perfect.”
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