According to Pastor John Gray he’s, “…not your daddy’s preacher” if that means retelling biblical stories as if they were an episode of “Love & Hip Hop”, then there are no “alternative facts” in his statement. The husband, father and first ever African American Pastor at Joel Osteen’s internationally renown Lakewood Church is living in the fruits of his laborious two decade journey behind the pulpit.
Prior to starring in the new docu-series, “The Book Of John Gray” on OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network) Gray honed his stage presence on tour with the multi-platinum Grammy Award winning Gospel legend Kirk Franklin.
The multifaceted Gray can carry a tune if you need him to sing and he can command an audience if you need jokes. To see archival footage of a typically stanch TBN (The Trinity Broadcast Network) audience laughing at Gray’s “Christian comedy” with a routine about his commitment to remain abstinent before marriage, showed a young Gray’s potential to be a superstar.
Now married with two kids, a beautiful home in Houston and a Super Soul Sunday episode with the incomparable, Oprah Winfrey, some would assume that Gray’s rise to secular fame has been easy. But the Cincinnati, Ohio native is the first to admit that he and his wife, Aventer, had a negative bank account when they got married.
It’s that transparency that makes his series, “The Book Of John Gray” a must watch. In each compelling episode, Gray reveals a personal piece of himself, from being molested as a child to his bout with diabetes, all of which is intertwined in his quest to be of service to people who have had similar life altering experiences.
During an exclusive interview with Zon D’Amour, John and Aventer Gray get candid about their upbringing, what they had to learn about themselves before getting married and the importance of appreciating the present season of your life.
ZD: There’s an awesome episode this season about relationships. We meet one of Aventer’s friends who’s coping with a recent divorce and John also counsels a couple who’s past issues with infidelity were affecting them moving forward with setting a wedding date. The episode also includes John preaching on the importance of wholeness. When you reflect back on your marriage, were the two of you confident and “whole” when you came into the relationship?
Aventer Gray: I was not whole, I feel God is still perfecting a work in me. I don’t feel like I’m whole now, I think it will take the length of my life to actually reach wholeness. When I came together with my husband, I felt like a piece of me that I did not know was revealed so I became more of a whole person. Standing alone I learned a lot in my 28-years. I was a very strong, independent, educated woman and I always had the desire in my heart to be married because that’s what I saw–my parents recently celebrated 48-years of marriage.
Prior to marrying John, I was engaged twice to someone else and when that didn’t work out, I realized that there was something that I had to learn. Instead of beating myself up about the reasons why it didn’t work, I decided to work on my vertical relationship and my faith in God. I decided to serve well in the church that I was apart of and to really fall in love with me again versus pouring all of me into a person who was not yet my husband. I also adopted the mantra: if you want to receive different than you have to be different. So I walked this relationship out [with my husband] differently than the others.
Even still, I would tell anyone that we’ve had our issues but we had a better chance at a great relationship because I knew myself more than I did at 25-years-old when I initially tried to get married. I really feel like it’s important to look at what you do have, look at who you’d like to become and where you’re going but don’t beat yourself up for not being where you think you should be.
At 23-years-old I felt like I should have been married with the white picket fence, a kid and a dog but none of that was the case but that doesn’t make me less worthy of the dream that I had for myself five years later. Had I followed my will for my life, my life would have taken a different trajectory so I surrendered fully to the peace of God for His will. And when you ask God for His will, let it be His will, not you trying to take precedence over His. Once that began to happen, everything started to fall into place for me and I realized that the age doesn’t matter, just be faithful to who you’re becoming. And continue to ask God about who you are and let him continue to add those relationships that are meant to stay unto to you and the ones that are meant to leave [your life], be okay with that.I decided to really fall in love with me versus pouring all of me into a person who wasn't my husband Click To Tweet
John Gray: When I was 25-years-old, ideally I would have loved to have been married because I believe in building a legacy but I had a lot of mental and emotional baggage. I didn’t know that marriage could be done successfully because I didn’t see [any examples] of successful marriages. Being a husband and a father was a foreign concept for me so it took a long time for me to even heal to a place where I thought it was possible. But there are people who can do it at a young age. The thought of being financially sound or having a strong financial footing [before you get married] is a misnomer. I was 37-years-old when we got married and I put all of my money towards the wedding as did our families; so when we got married we had negative $11 in the bank.
Everything Aventer and I have now, we built together. [For men that say] ‘I need to make sure my finances are in order before I get married’, not necessarily. Instead, they should say, ‘this is the person I love, this is who I want to build with, let’s build together.’ I can tell you I was rooted in pride, I wanted to walk into the relationship with money like, ‘just be glad I chose you because I’m that dude!’ and God was like, ‘Naw, I’m going to make sure you don’t have any of that because you’re going to build with her and I’m going to teach you what it means to have a partner. Because I was an only child, it was very difficult for me to see her as an equal. It was a real struggle because for a long time I assumed my wife to be one person and God had to reveal to me that instead of trying to control every aspect of the marriage, you need to unlock her and when I released Aventer to be a creative, artistic, business woman, so many things opened up and that has nothing to do with age, it had everything to do with spiritual maturity. So age is a factor but I think spiritual maturity is the key.
ZD: Oftentimes people like to cherry pick what biblical principles they adhere to i.e. the references in the bible that say tattoos, eating swine, homosexuality etc. are sins. As a woman with six tattoos, who’s married to a pastor, how do you explain to your kids as well as new Christians choices that you’ve made that go against what the bible says?
AG: The irony is my husband prejudged me when he first met me in Atlanta at the church where we were both working. I was a dance leader and when we were having rehearsal, he saw my tattoos and assumed I must have been a stripper. He thought that was why I went so hard for Jesus because I had been radically saved. He had made up this whole story about me and I was not, nor have I ever been a stripper.
We do pick and choose what sins we want to highlight in the bible but the ones that pertain to us; we have grace for those. But the ones we personally disagree with, we’re quick to judge others on. There’s a lesson behind why I wouldn’t want my daughter to get tattoos.
My first tattoo was when I was 16-years-old. I saw Halle Berry in a magazine wearing a bathing suit and there was a tattoo around her stomach. So I took the magazine to the tattoo parlor and they gave me the same one. Come to find out that Halle Berry’s tattoo wasn’t real but mine was. So I was devastated because the next movie she was in, I was like, ‘where is her tattoo?’ She was a role model for me, she was someone I looked up to and I did it for that reason so I learned to become a leader not a follower. After that, I was attracted to the art of tattoos and each one has a specific meaning.
Can a pastor’s wife not be saved and not offer value because she has body markings? I know that it’s mentioned in the bible and I have made mistakes but they don’t define me. Aventer M. Gray doesn’t end with the fact that I have tattoos, I go beyond that. Having my husband get to know me, we have this wonderful legacy that we’re building and had he stopped at the prejudgment versus getting to know me, you wouldn’t know him right now, (laughs).
ZD: What advice would you share with millennials who are constantly in a state of comparison and in need of validation from social media? When we’re in a tough, transitional season, how can we possibly be present in whatever God has us going through when it seems as if other people are thriving in areas where we’re failing?
AG: The biggest enemy to our minds is comparison. When you look on social media, people are only going to present themselves in the best light. They don’t post a photo in rollers and you can’t smell their morning breath; everything is dolled up and filtered. People present their best because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do. So I think that social media can sometimes lend itself to the not real reality of what’s actually going on. Oftentimes we’re comparing ourselves to things that don’t matter.
If you’re content to stay in your lane, God is going to get you to wherever He has purposed for you and eventually, you’ll get to the expected end that the Lord has for your life. When one of my friends got married, I knew what her past used to be like, even though I had two failed engagements to the same person, I questioned God as to why she got to get married and have this beautiful family before me? But her life isn’t mine and is she not redeemable? Does she not deserve a wonderful husband and children regardless of past mistakes she’s made? I don’t know what her brokenness was; maybe it was losing her father at an early age and seeking validation from men that said that they loved her—I don’t know.
But I think instead of looking at where people are right now, do a little research on their back stories and maybe it’ll help you understand how they got that way or why you shouldn’t envy where they are now based on the processes and they hardships that they had to walk through to get to where you currently see them.
JG: There’s no greater distraction than trying to compare your life to another individual, it just doesn’t work. I’ve always been able to celebrate other people because I never wanted to be anyone else. And I think in a social media age, which is very impersonal, we’re really finding value and trying to live vicariously through people’s photos, tweets and posts because we’ve lost the art of conversation. There are times when I’ve had some very spirited dialogues with my wife over social media and what I realized is maybe if I’m more engaging as a husband and more involved with the things that she’s passionate about, maybe she wouldn’t scroll as much. So I stopped looking at her proclivities and started looking at my activities.
Millennials need to determine how and what they want to spend their time on. Social media is a great escape but does it really generate value and revenue for you? Is it helping to push your career forward? Those are things that you want to consider because you can be scrolling and look up and you’re 43-years-old with none of your dreams accomplished and you’re bitter because you’re living through someone on social media who seems as if they’re excelling.
ZD: When people see your present successes, they may not be familiar with the tests that came before the testimony. Is there a particularly challenging time that makes your present situation even more humbling?
AG: A few years ago I spoke at a conference called “Arise” with Pastor Lisa Osteen (Joel Osteen’s sister). Towards the end we were discussing the preparation for receiving my husband. I hadn’t realized that every obstacle I had been through was preparing me to have the shoulders to carry such a great legacy along side of my husband.
Even though I grew up with both of my parents, my father was an amazing provider but he was gone a lot so I have abandonment issues. He was working a lot so that I could have the life I did. My parents were conditioned to stay because that’s what they saw. So I thought I wanted a marriage like that.
I went through a lot coming out of high school. I was very sick, my mother had three aneurisms my freshman year of college and my brother was diagnosed with cancer and he passed away when I was graduating.
I think losing my brother early, having an appendectomy, a tonsillectomy and then I took a year and a half off school to go home as my mother battled and survived breast cancer I used to wonder why I was going through so much.
I remember going to God and asking, ‘What’s going on? I’m a good girl. I make good grades.’ It was no easy road for me, there was challenge after challenge and each time I went to God and He was layering me with the substance that I needed to be able to walk with the man of God that God had purposed for my life.
JG: I didn’t see this, this wasn’t my dream–I just wanted to serve God and whatever that looked like, I wanted to do it. I grew up in a 2-bedroom apartment with no air conditioning but I still felt like I had everything I needed. My mother is a phenomenal woman who gave me every opportunity to pursue my dreams and goals but I had no idea that God would do all of this.
My job was to be obedient to serve him and remain faithful and because I did that, all of the doors are opening and these aren’t doors that I prayed for. I didn’t pray to go to Lakewood, I didn’t pray to have a show on OWN, I prayed to be obedient.
Now the one thing I do ask God for often, almost everyday, is to make me a better husband because I know that’s the legacy that will have the most impact particularly on our children because they’ll see authentic love and if I love my wife right and do what I’m supposed to do, that’ll be the best example that I can give to my daughter and son.
There are pastors that I wanted to mentor me that wouldn’t take my phone call and now they ask me to come to their church, which is interesting. Now that the world validates my gifts and my calling, now they want to come knocking—but when I was asking you, when I was nobody, I couldn’t get a returned phone call. So it’s funny, the people that value me now didn’t value me then and I never want to be that person.
ZD: With OWN having so many phenomenal shows, what was missing in the docu-series space that made you all want to open up your lives and be a part of the network?
JG: It wasn’t that something was missing; we had something to add. “What The Book Of John Gray” does is give a perspective of life that hasn’t been seen on TV. We’re at the intersection of faith and humanity. We know that faith and being Christians doesn’t anesthetize us to pain but it’s the filter through which we process our triumphs and our tragedies.
My wife and I made an agreement that if we were going to produce this show, we would do it in an authentic way where we would show our scars and our flaws and invite people in to gleam from our lives what they will.
The crux of our show, which makes it different, is in every episode we’re helping someone else. To me, that’s what we added to the docu-series space.
“The Book Of John Gray” airs Saturdays at 10/9c on OWN
Last modified: Jun 5, 2017