The congregation includes a crackhead, a greedy preacher and a mousey little old lady who will put you in your place, and the services seem like something straight out of the Book of Tyler Perry.
A local play that takes a look at church life and the comedies therein hopes to reach a broader audience on YouTube.
Fern Crossley conceptualized the production about Bedside Baptist C.O.G.I.C. Apostolic Church.
The multi-denominational congregation spares none in lighthearted mockery and whenever its full name is mentioned, its spiritual leader, Pastor Pass the Plate, clarifies, “and did I mention, we’re Catholic, too?”
The cast includes Leon Hitchens as the pastor, Janice Oatis as Sister Cora and Leroy Merriweather as Uncle Willie, among others.
In real life, Hitchens, of Zachary, La., is the pastor of Webb Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty.
He sees the play, which is completely improvised, as a way to promote church membership while providing good clean comedy.
“What we’re tying to do is give another direction to where comedy is going,” he said. “I don’t like comedians making people the object of their jokes.”
Hitchens said he likes comedians from “the old days” like Jerry Clower, who could tell a joke “and you don’t have to send the kids out.”
“We try to have fun,” Hitchens said. “It’s all about having fun with something you can bring your family to.
“God wants us to laugh. The Bible says laughter is good for the soul but the key is what you’re laughing at.”
Most of the cast members are somehow connected to Crossley’s radio show. She interviewed a friend of Hitchens’ who told him about the play. Merriweather of Atlanta got involved after Crossley interviewed his sister.
Merriweather owns a video production company and is spearheading the technical aspects of the digital production, which is still being filmed at Walker’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, where Oatis is First Lady.
“You can do ministry through drama,” Merriweather said. “If you can dramatize it, they’ll receive it.”
Oatis, who had done some acting when she lived in Kansas City, can transform herself into Sister Cora without budging from the part. She speaks in a meek and high-pitched voice that only gives the unvarnished truth about anything and anyone. She wears an ornate hat and is “the first person at the church and the last one to go home,” Oatis said.
“I play around with Sister Cora on the phone periodically with my family and they don’t know who I am,” she said.
Oatis said the play can poke fun at church members while spreading the gospel.
“There’s a message in doing what we do,” she said. “There’s somebody out there that we can reach. There’s somebody out there that we can touch. You don’t always have to be a leader or behind the pulpit to send a message.”
In the play, Donald Brown portrays one of those people in need of spiritual guidance.
“I play a crackhead who pretends to be looking for God, Deacon Can’t Get Right,” he said. “My character used to go to church for the right reasons.”
And that’s what the cast hopes to accomplish — getting people in church for those right reasons.
Oatis, who grew up in the Church of God in Christ, noted that she never set out to become the First Lady of a Free Will Baptist congregation or seek the responsibilities that come with that role.
Many of the cast members come from different church backgrounds — Hitchens a Baptist preacher, Brown a Seventh Day Adventist, Crossley a Catholic — but they say none of that matters when serving the same God.
“You know the biggest denomination we have now?” Crossley asked. “None.”