Jeremiah Camara and Steve Hill recently spoke at the Secular Summit convention in Washington DC to promote Camara’s new film, Contradiction, which explores the black community’s relationship with religion and nonbelief. They spoke with Johnny Monsaratt about these same issues in the following interview.
RDF: I understand you grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. What was it like to grow up there? Were you always an atheist?
Jeremiah Camara: Well, I’ve never considered myself an atheist. I consider myself a non-believer. In the African American community, it is a friendlier term to have associated with me. I’ve always been a skeptic. I was an aspiring minister, interested in going to Seminary, and even then there were some things that just didn’t sit well with me. At the time, I was briefly homeless in Cleveland. A preacher invited me to stay at his house, so I thought that was the way.
RDF: What was it like being homeless, however briefly?
Jeremiah: It was just young-person stupidity. I was 21 and had much pride. I did not want to go home, and I had lost my job, so I slept in my car for about three months until the preacher discovered me. He invited me to stay with him and his wife and I stayed there for a couple months. He got me listening to Herbert Armstrong, who was a very strict adherent of Pentecostalism, and I can remember at 21 sitting with an elderly lady on Friday nights studying the scriptures and reading Armstrong.
RDF: Why didn’t you end up becoming a minister?
Jeremiah Camara: I just never could feel what other people were seemingly feeling in Church. I had a couple of very religious friends, one of whom of them owned a restaurant in East Cleveland and invited me to come hear his minister. He said how deep and profound his minister was, so I agreed. I was still in search mode, looking for the divine experience that I keep hearing about, and I was open to discovering it. I went to hear his preacher, and there was nothing very profound to me. I heard the same things that I heard when I was five, maybe said in a more bombastic way. However, it was essentially the same.
There was another friend of mine who said the same thing about his preacher, suggesting that I had not run into the right one. However, I went to hear his preacher and had the same experience as before. I was noticing a pattern. So after that, I started visiting various churches around the city as an investigator. I wanted to know if the pattern was indicative of most black churches and I discovered that it was. They primarily preached the same thing with the same rhetoric. It just didn’t appeal to me anymore.
RDF: You are a poet and author and now are promoting your documentary, Contradiction. You also produce the “Slave Sermon” web sites, where each episode is 10 minutes or less. What led you to create these short films that portray religion as a drug-of-choice among the African American community?
Jeremiah Camara: I do not want to dismiss the systemic factors that contribute negatively to the African American community, but we are also culpable. Putting all our eggs in the church’s basket is no way to deal with our situation. Slave Sermons were an idea I had in the fall of 2010. It is one thing to read about religion or hear someone lecture about it, but it is an entirely different experience actually to see its perils. That is what I wanted to do. I wanted people to see how religion is detrimental to the African American collective.
Jeremiah Camara: To do this, I went to Interdenominational Theological College (the largest African American theological school in the country) for about six months. I did not go as a believer; I went to see what students were being taught before entering the ministry. I remember being taken aback when students were told to “preach to the itching ear”—essentially tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. From there I learned that sermons generally use six techniques to achieve this purpose. One of them is the “storm chaser.” You create nimbus clouds in order to give yourself the opportunity to swoop in and bring the sunshine.
RDF: Are these six techniques explicitly taught in seminary or did you just observe them?
Jeremiah: I discovered them through years of observation within the church. Every single sermon that I heard incorporated the six techniques. “storm chaser” is just one of them. There’s also the “messenger” technique in which the preacher creates the impression that he or she is connected with God and brings God to the parishioners. Another one is the “assigner,” which involves preachers assigning parishioners a task (“talk to your neighbor”) in order to make repetitive messages more compelling.
RDF: There’s a moment in Contradiction where you ask a woman what she learned at church, and she says, “Wait on the Lord, and he will provide.” Any thoughts on this kind of mentality?
Jeremiah Camara: That is not uncommon, especially in the African American community. When you live in a system where the government does not offer you favor or privilege, you are going to seek it in another system—in a heavenly system. People get a sense of privilege out of thinking their soul is saved. However, the patterns of thinking in the movie are not at all exclusive to African Americans.
RDF: Steve, I understand that you were a sergeant in the Marine Corps and a prison guard for ten years. That must have an impact on your stand-up comedy.
Steve Hill: After being in the Marine Corps, you’re—I would not call it brainwashed—persuaded to think highly of your country. It instills much patriotic pride and motivation. With that in me, I went to work at a prison where I saw that the inmates were black and brown-skinned people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. That transformed into a comedy about touchy socioeconomic subjects that we have to deal with and nobody talks about. I am here to talk about them.
RDF: I noticed that you were a part of the most recent “Slave Sermon” that Jeremiah Camara put out. Did you play a role in Contradiction as well?
Steve Hill: After viewing the documentary for the first time (which utterly astonished me), we set up a West Coast tour with screenings to test people’s reactions. My contribution to the movie was mostly promotion.
RDF: What do you think of the film’s deconstruction of the idea that the church helps people? It makes the point that religious faith was perhaps necessary under slavery, but has since become a supplier of false hope in the face of increasing opportunity and real hope.
Steve Hill: Your life could be so adversely impacted by the system of capitalism that you need to trick your mind into feeling good with religion. However, it keeps you from dealing with reality and from doing what you need to do to achieve a decent lifestyle. Religion paralyzes you. You cannot survive if you are just waiting for God’s gifts to be bestowed upon you.
RDF: You told me that you were the only black atheist comic. There are many comics who are atheist, but so few who are black.
Steve Hill: There’s a caveat to that. I consider myself an activist as well. There is also Travis Simmons up in Seattle, who I’ll hopefully be working with in August.
RDF: Any parting comments?
Steve Hill: I’ll soon be travelling around the country doing comedy shows. I am going to be in Denver, Boston, and this weekend I’ll be in Atlanta. I am pretty active on Facebook, if anyone wants to know where I’ll be popping up next.
Find more about Contradiction and Jeremiah Camara’s web series of 10-minute commentary, “Slave Sermons”, at jeremiahcamara.com. Contradiction will be available on DVD on Thanksgiving. Steve Hill is on Facebook and Twitter.