Usually the church comes first, then TV. For most of televangelicalism’s history, that’s how it’s worked. But when Vous Church was born last fall, its arrival was documented on an Oxygen reality show called Rich in Faith, and even then, the titular Rich, Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr., was already almost famous, having officiated the wedding of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, guested on Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons, and attended to the soul, such as it is, of Justin Bieber.
Vous may still be, in Pastor Rich’s terms, a “baby church,” but when I visited earlier this year, he was filling three services every Sunday. Each was staged to perfection, from the neo-emo praise band to the climactic baptisms in front of a DJ spinning in the courtyard. The Sunday I attended, Rich was preaching about John the Baptist, the “original Christian hipster.” First, though, he wanted to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio. Rich loves talking about Leo, because he looks like Leo. Or rather, he insisted, Leo “looks like me.” The guests—the term Rich prefers to members—always laugh, because at Vous it’s not vanity if it’s true.
Vous is short for Rendezvous, a weekly youth service Rich hosted for seven years at his father’s megachurch before “planting,” as he put it, his own “seed” in the form of Vous Church. It meets in a repurposed middle school in Miami’s Wynwood district, a neighborhood of fabulous art galleries and abject poverty. (Ninety-six percent of the kids who attend during the week are below the poverty line.) The church is guarded by a police officer in a cruiser. One guest said he was nervous his first time—he’d heard stories of people being killed for their sneakers in this part of town—”but then you walk through those doors, and it’s like you’re moving into a different world.”
Pastor Rich was wearing beige ankle-high suede boots, black skinny jeans, and an untucked soft-cotton blue tee beneath a short black jacket. A thin gold chain looped down over his pecs. No pulpit, no cross; just Rich working the stage. He hunched over like he was rapping, bobbing up and down, and then he straightened and spread his long arms, sampling the fundamentalist vernacular from which Vous was born. It was a tonal change—from “yo bro” curling out of a crooked grin to a glottal, shouted utterance of “God” comprising at least two syllables, maybe three: “Gaw-w-d!” Then he dialed it back around to the Rich who keeps it real on television. Other preachers dress up their faith in pop culture; Rich’s trick, his talent, his gift, is that for him faith is pop culture.
“He”—Leo—”is the greatest actor of our generation, hands down!” Mmm, murmured the guests. A few years ago, Rich said, he was in L. A., driving with a friend, when he saw Leo. “I said, ‘Stop the car.’ ” His tone was OMG. “I said, ‘PULL OVER!’ ” Rich followed Leo into a bar. “So I walked in there and I got nervous, and I”—he mimed rubbernecking, his mouth and eyes wide—”I walked right past him.”
He needed to prepare. “So I’m in the bathroom, trying to pump myself up. Preach to myself a little bit, you know? I look in the mirror. ‘Rich. You got this, bro. You got this. This is your moment. This is divine appointment.’ ”
He was half joking, but only half. Rich is the son of a preacher who is also the son of a preacher. His father, Rich Wilkerson Sr., is the pastor at Trinity Church, one of the largest megachurches in suburban Miami. Rich worked there until his father’s church financed Vous’s launch. “When it comes to money,” Rich Sr., his face as smooth as his son’s, his hair as full of color, tells the camera on Rich in Faith, “he hasn’t had to pay the bills.” Rich Jr.’s spiritual authority is rooted not in his knowledge of suffering but in his removal from it; he is blessed and unabashed, a charmed man for whom a celebrity sighting represents profundity.
But once, at least, he was, if not lost, a little shy. Contemplating Leo, he stayed hidden for fifteen minutes. Then, “as soon as I walk out of the bathroom, I’m telling you, we have, like, a moment. Our eyes connect. Like, locked in. Like, me. And Leo. Like, whoa! Honestly, I feel like the Titanic, the music starts.” He sang like Céline Dion: “Whereeeeeeever you arrrrre . . .”
Back in the car, Rich’s friend asked how it was. “Life-changing.” What had they talked about? “Nothing.”
The guests laughed cautiously. Rich’s voice became low and throaty. He whispered from his heart to bring the moral home: “Don’t walk on by.” He meant Christ. Leo isn’t Christ, but the principle is the same: that of an encounter that leaves you transformed, the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you think. “You don’t even look the same!” He imitated his guests’ confusion: “ ’Like, what do you mean, I changed my look?’ Yeah.” A beat. Get ready. The crooked grin: “You went from a frown—you turned it upside down!”
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