LOS ANGELES (RNS) In her book “The Funny Thing Is …,” Ellen DeGeneres describes being invited to God’s house for wine and cheese. When the Almighty walks into the room, Degeneres describes God this way:
“I would say she was about 47, 48 years old, a beautiful, beautiful black woman. And we just immediately hugged.”
When I think about the guardian angels who I’ve been told surround me like spiritual body guards, I picture the Angel In Charge as looking and sounding a lot like the Grammy-winning singer Mary J. Blige.
How appropriate, then, that Blige portrays a character in the upcoming holiday film, “Black Nativity,” (based in part on the Langston Hughes play) that appears to be an angelic being with a huge platinum-blonde Afro, dressed head-to-toe in silver-colored leather.
“Your character — she’s an angel, right?” I asked Blige during a recent interview.
“She’s gotta be,” Blige said, laughing.
When I told her that she’s how I picture my chief guardian angel to be, she laughed even harder.
“Like in the movie or in real life?” she said.
Kinda both, actually.
So began our conversation, which quickly turned from the film to faith.
“Playing the angel, playing a guide; I needed to play the character at the time because it’s the angel that leads and guides you in wisdom and knowledge and understanding, that leads you out of your trial,” Blige said. “Also, I needed to play that character within my own trial.
“I guess, the hope — the faith and hope — of the whole story is what the story of my life is. Having faith. Knowing that things will change. Knowing that God is God. And knowing that forgiveness is key to getting free.”
Born in the Bronx, and reared between southeastern Georgia and Yonkers, N.Y., Blige, like so many artists before her, began her singing career in Pentecostal churches.
“That’s where I used to sing at, little tiny churches,” Blige said, laughing. “I understood from childhood that there was something really big watching over me and it was God. And I was afraid to steal and lie. I was afraid to do anything that was wrong. I always got this feeling like, ‘Uh oh.’ But I understand better now who God is now that I’ve become a woman and a Christian.
“I wasn’t a Christian when I was a child, I just went to church,” she added. “I became a Christian… it was something I had to do because my whole life as a young adult was so bad. Things were just so bad that when I decided to make a change in my life, I went to God about my life. And he led me to other Christians, like my husband, like my pastor. And I started studying the Word.
“I know what my spirit needs to hear. It moves. And I knew I had to fix my life. I knew I had to get saved. I knew I had to change something in order to even walk or try to walk the walk that I’m talking.
“Now I get it. I understand it more, through the Word. That’s why I know God is love.”
The story of “Black Nativity” revolves around a faith and a fractured family brought together for reconciliation and healing. It’s a film that turns on the notion and power of grace.
Sometimes it’s harder to accept grace for ourselves than it is to extend it to someone else, someone who’s hurt or disappointed us. When we receive grace — the un-earnable gift — it can sting. “Well, the quicker we learn to accept that kind of grace, and learn that God is not mad at us at all, the better our lives will be,” Blige said.
“We are so hard on ourselves, and we don’t give ourselves a break. So how can we give anybody else in the world a break? It’s not our job to try to “fix” other people or ourselves, for that matter. That’s God’s business.”
Blige says she learned a lot about grace from her pastor and her husband, record executive Martin “Kendu” Isaacs, whom she married in 2003.
“You’ve gotta really learn how to deal with that because everybody has grace — including you. We want to have grace, but we’ve got to release people. We’ve got to release them in order for God to forgive and release us… I believe in that because I’ve experienced it.”
In “Black Nativity,” the audience is introduced to Blige’s character when she snatches a young man, Langston, from the path of a speeding car in Harlem. I wondered aloud if she’s ever had an experience like that. Has she ever encountered an angel?
“I can’t say that I remember somebody snatching me from being hit by a car, but in my life there’s been people that have saved me from terrible times, like terrible things have happened, or a time in my life where I felt like I was gonna die, a person helped me to live further by coming into my life and teaching me something different,” she said. “So there (have been) several angels. There’s not just one.”
Maybe that’s true for all of us? I hope it is.
“And know they’re around ALL THE TIME,” Blige says, leaning in a little closer.
With huge wings and platinum-blonde Afros?
“Maybe…” Blige said, a sly smile spreading across her face.
They’d sure be a lot easier to spot if they were.
(Cathleen Falsani is the Faith & Values columnist for The Orange County Register.)
KRE/LEM END FALSANI