Scandal, faith keep readers returning to tales of Rev. Black
BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Religion Reporter October 12, 2013 9:58AM
Kimberla Lawson Roby
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:17AM
The Rev. Curtis Black has been a man consumed with money, power and women.
He brought pain and suffering to his first and second wives, and is reaping what he sowed with his third.
The fictional black Baptist pastor, who enjoyed living lavishly, has helped Rockford native and novelist Kimberla Lawson Roby sell more than 2 million books.
Readers have welcomed what they view as works of fiction that reflect real-life examples of ungodly behavior among leaders in their church communities and that offer valuable lessons. They’ve also embraced the tales of faith, forgiveness and redemption in her stories.
Roby, who on Wednesday will address attendees at the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, in May will release her 11th title in the Rev. Curtis Black series, among 20 total books she has had published.
Six titles in the Rev. Black series landed on the New York Times Best Seller list. The books have attracted church-going readers, many of them African-American women, and garnered Roby an NAACP Image Award this year.
“I don’t really feel like I’m reading a novel,” said Felicia Simpson, a 33-year-old South Side Chicago fan who grew up regularly attending a Methodist church and has read several of Roby’s books.
“It’s more like I’m actually sitting in a pew at a church, and I can definitely identify with [the] stories.”
Roby, who now lives in Belvidere, said her characters are “not a reflection of every pastor or pastor’s wife but a segment of people who are not doing the right thing across all denominations and all color lines. We can find examples across the board.”
Roby, who has participated in discussions on her books in churches across the country, describes herself as “a Christian, who loves and believes in God.” She began writing the first book in the Rev. Black series in the late 1990s, months after the wife of the then-president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Rev. Henry Lyons, set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he’d purchased jointly with his mistress.
Lyons was convicted of stealing millions from the group, joining other high-profile religious leaders who fell from grace and made headlines, including televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and pedophile priests.
“I’ve really not had to do any research at all because I’ve seen so much,” Roby said. “I’ve heard so much. There were lots of scenarios locally that I knew about, scenarios in other cities.”
Roby grew up in a black Baptist church, singing in the choir and serving on the usher board. As a child, her view of pastors was positive. “You looked up to the pastor,” she said. “You certainly thought this is a good person at heart, who is trying to do the right thing, who wants the best for everyone in the congregation.”
In her midteens, she discovered that wasn’t true of all pastors.
“There was one instance where I felt like a pastor wasn’t speaking to me appropriately, and there was another where a pastor had a child with a 17-year-old,” she said.
“I can still remember my grandmother and my mom encouraging me and saying, ‘We are all human beings. Pastors fall short the same as we do, but that should not affect our relationship with God. It shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing.’ That made a difference for me.”
When Roby first began touring after writing “Casting the First Stone,” the first book in the series, she worried the book might be perceived as painting a negative stereotypical picture of black churches.
“We’ve known that corruption in the church has gone on, but it had always been something that was talked about under the table or behind closed doors, so I had a little bit of fear,” she said. “But what I found was that readers were thanking me for writing the truth, and in some cases, telling me the real names of the pastors who were just like this Rev. Curtis Black character.
“Pastors’ wives started contacting me. One said, ‘Our congregation, those members see us on Sunday morning, maybe things look wonderful, but they have no idea what some of us are dealing with the other six days of the week.’ ”
The Rev. Ronald Alexander, pastor of Hope Fellowship Church in Rockford, who has read books from the series, said he was not offended by them and there is some truth in Roby’s fiction, “Are there some guys and women out there doing negative things, yes of course,” but it’s not the majority, he stressed.
A lesson Roby seeks to impart and that Alexander welcomes is that congregants need to be more responsive when facing pastors who preach one thing in the pulpit on Sundays and do the opposite in everyday life.
“I think one of the biggest problems is when we see corruption and scandal, we don’t as a congregation come together and hold our leaders accountable for their actions,” Roby said. “We just kind of go along with it, pretend it’s not happening, and I think that causes even more problems and much more pain for so many people.”
She adds that the faithful need to “focus a lot more on your personal relationship with God, making sure that’s intact, and you cannot under any circumstances worship another human being just because they’re standing in a pulpit.”