Black Pittsburgh Facebook was on fire yesterday because the pastor of a popular church here, Mount Ararat, seems to have recently purchased a Bentley Bentayga. A photo of the truck parked outside the church has gone Pittsburgh viral, with hundreds of people offering their thoughts on the pastor’s purchase. Here are some of mine.
1. Full disclosure: I am a member of the church in question. I don’t attend anymore—my wife and I now frequent another church—but it’s where I was baptized five years ago and where we took our premarriage counseling classes. I also played with the church’s basketball team in the Penn Hills YMCA’s 30-and-over league for five years (and won four championships! I’ve definitely crossed niggas up in the name of the Lord). My parents joined this church after I did, and my dad still attends regularly.
Even with that context and that connection, I have to admit that my instinctual reaction to this was to wince. I’m aware that between speaking engagements, teaching positions and books, this pastor has other income streams besides the church. And that’s great. I also don’t believe that a pastor of a large church—who ultimately functions the same way a CEO of a corporation might—needs to live like a pauper.
But the optics here just feel ... wrong. Vulgar, even. Particularly when considering that this church exists in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. And to be frank, I think it says a lot about a pastor who thinks it’s a good idea to display such an extravagant item in front of a church where the majority of his congregation is living check to check. It’s messy.
I’m not making a judgment on whether or not he should have that car. He can do whatever the hell he wants with his money. It’s his money. This is just how I felt.
2. But then, even that instinctual sense of wrongness is based on arbitrary and vaguely hypocritical criteria. Before the Bentley, this pastor apparently drove a Range Rover, and I wouldn’t have had the same visceral reaction to that. And I doubt that a picture of a Range Rover parked in his spot would have gone viral. But Range Rovers are also very expensive cars. New ones start at $90,000, and once you get all the bells and whistles, they can easily surpass $100,000.
Obviously, there’s a difference between that and a Bentley Bentayga, which apparently starts at $230,000. But where is the line where the price of the car becomes an issue? $100,000 was apparently cool, but would $120,000 be? What about $150,000? And who determines that line? And is this invisible and arbitrary line more about brand than cost? Benz, BMW, Audi and Cadillac all have models that cost over $150,000. But I strongly doubt that a fully loaded Escalade or a Mercedes-Benz S 550 Cabriolet would’ve become a thing people are talking about. So is the issue about luxury and cost or a specific type of luxury and what that communicates?
These feel like unnecessarily semantic distinctions, but it’s something I think about whenever this type of conversation happens. There is always a line when an item crosses over from acceptable to extravagant and then from extravagant to decadent, so where is that line? And should the pastor be beholden to such an unwieldy and random demarcation?
3. If it feels like I’m projecting a bit here, I may very well be. As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve recently undergone an extremely dramatic change in financial circumstance. And one of the many reasons I’ve been loath to provide any real details about it is that I know how that can change how my work and voice are regarded. And it can cultivate conversations about deserving—more specifically, who deserves what and what “deserve” even means.
Also, while I’m not aware of what this pastor’s financial situation was like before he was a pastor, I’m aware of what mine was five years ago. And 10 years ago. And 20 years ago. And 30 years ago. Out of my 39 years on this planet, I’ve been broke as shit or broke as shit-adjacent for approximately 37 of them. The neighborhood I grew up in wasn’t quite The Wire, but it was much closer to that than it was to The Cosby Show. I’m intimate with food stamps, WIC, free lunches, bus passes, evictions, repossessions, bad credit, phone bills placed in my name when I was a toddler, riding dirty, overdraft fees, living with no health care and most other markers of low income you can name.
And because of that, I understand the compulsion to stunt when you’ve finally “escaped” from that circumstance because I possess it, too. It’s not a positive compulsion, but it exists. And “escaped” is in quotes because it never feels quite real—like it can be taken away at any point for any reason. Like you’re never quite not broke as shit-adjacent. And if you feel that way—if that feeling is ingrained in you, if that feeling possesses you—sometimes you just might buy some crazy-expensive shit just to have something to take a selfie with or sit in before it’s all gone.