Priests on Screen in Multi-Ethnic America

Patheos [Englewood CO]

December 29, 2022

By Philip Jenkins

Through the years, I have worked a lot on how media portrayals reflect changing attitudes towards religion, and in turn do a great deal to shape those attitudes. In fact, I have a piece in the current Christian Century on “Priests on Screen,” looking at some recent European representations of clergy. Given that background, I was very struck by one American production this past year, from a surprising source.

The TV series in question was Mo, starring comedian Mohammed Amer, who also created and produced the show, drawing heavily on his own experiences. Mo (available on Netflix) has been widely praised for its portrayal of immigrant life in Alief, a very multi-cultural working class suburb of Houston. Texas references and in-jokes abound. The show is very good on issues like the use of language, such as the blend of Spanish and Arabic with which he communicates with his Mexican girlfriend Maria. As in real life, people also slide easily between languages in conversation, sometimes within a single sentence. The show takes very seriously the ways in which immigrants negotiate the various identities that are offered to them, as they travel between an old-world family and the lived realities of the American city. The show treats religion with respect, and some quite moving scenes show very ordinary Muslims at prayer. Also as in real life, strong religious traditions do not prevent individuals dating and marrying outside the respective faiths, and upsetting their families in the process.

It all sounds a lot like the American melting pot c.1930, doesn’t it?

The story involves Mo’s desperate quest for permanent asylum on US soil, which is grounded in his family’s dreadful experiences as Palestinians living in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. To his horror, Mo discovers that his father was tortured at this time. Traumatized, he scarcely knows where to turn, until Maria suggests going to her Catholic church, despite his unquestioned Muslim identity. Mo is deeply conflicted, and has no idea how to proceed, but he does enter the building. No, Maria commands, he must not take off his shoes.

Baffled, Mo finds his way into a confessional, and this is where the show takes off in surprising directions. The priest turns out to be a strong and smart Black man, who is played by Houston rapper Bun B. The priest is highly attuned to the world around him, including the substance abuse issues Mo describes, and he is happy to help a Muslim inquirer (without making any effort at conversion). He ultimately offers excellent spiritual counsel with a practical application. As he asks Mo, if his father was still alive, would be really want him to dwell on those issues, instead of living his own life? Mo finds that the confessional setting allows him to open up in ways that he normally cannot do.

The scene is not long, but it is a startling breath of fresh air after a couple of decades when anyone watching a fictional show about Catholic priests is just counting the minutes until we get into issues of sexual hypocrisy, or child abuse. In terms of a strong image of priesthood, we could be back in the days of Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brien (or one of my favorite examples, Humphrey Bogart in The Left Hand of God). The difference is that America’s new Catholic world is extravagantly multi-ethnic, and the priest in Mo exactly and plausibly fits this mold. In Houston, in fact, the assumption would be that an urban Black priest would be of Nigerian origin. Another leading character in Mo is played by a Nigerian-American, Tobe Nwigwe, another Houston rapper.

A couple more shows like this could start a rush to the seminaries. Not to mention bringing back the sacrament of Confession.

So if we are looking for a positive and inspiring media portrait of a Catholic priest today, we look to a Palestinian Muslim to supply it. Welcome to America.