Sherri Shepherd is expected to be named a co-host on the popular daytime talk show "The View." The following interview with the actress was first published on Beliefnet in June 2006.
Sherri Shepherd stars weekly on the ABC sitcom "Less Than Perfect," appeared in the movie "Beauty Shop," and is frequently a guest on shows like "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live." On camera, she’s an optimistic presence with comic timing honed by 16 years of stand-up comedy. Behind the scenes, she’s as likely to say, “Thank you, Jesus,” as deliver a punch line. Raised in Chicago, Shepherd was a legal secretary before she got into show business. She spoke with Beliefnet about her experience as a Jehovah’s Witness, the sometimes-controversial nature of her faith in Hollywood, and where she thinks she would be without God.
How would you describe your faith?
I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. I believe that Jesus died for my sins, and rose again, and that’s my belief. I still don’t know what “Christian” means. I’m a follower of Christ, but I keep making a whole bunch of mistakes. And I thank God for forgiveness. I don’t know what Christian means. I keep falling down. I get back up. I’m trying to stay in the race.
Were you raised in church?
When I was little I went to a Baptist Church with my grandmother. My earliest memories were of her falling out in the middle of the floor and they had to cover her with a white sheet. Every time we went to church it was scary. The music would start playing, and then everybody would start running and shouting and hollering and screaming. My grandmother would get up and just fall out on the pews. When you’re 5-years-old and she’s the woman that brought you to church that’s a little scary.
After that, I was a Jehovah’s Witness. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, it was really a trip. We had to go from door to door, and we weren’t allowed to associate with the other children. It was a lot of rules.
How did you become a Jehovah’s Witness?
My mother. They came to the door one Saturday. My mother opened up the door, and I remember these really nice people came in. They were dressed very nicely and conservatively, and they came in, and they started talking to my mom. We really weren’t going to church, and we started going to the Kingdom Hall.
My father started questioning the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the elders, which are the heads of the congregation, they came to the house and they tried to talk to him. They finally dis-fellowshipped him, like excommunicated him. And they came to the house, and they told us that we had to go to his second job and tell him that we couldn’t talk to him anymore. When Jehovah’s Witnesses get dis-fellowshipped, you’re to cut off all communication with them.
My father was and is a great father. My father always wanted to do stand-up. He wanted to be an actor. But instead he did two jobs. He did customer service at a hospital and he worked as a waiter at night. He pretty much sacrificed everything for his daughters. I’ve got that in my mind, I’ve got to tell my dad I’m not going to talk to him? That’s not love. That’s when I got disillusioned with being a Jehovah’s Witness.
Did you get disillusioned with religion in general?
I didn’t get disillusioned with God, but because I had been a Jehovah’s Witness so long, that was all I knew. And as a Jehovah’s Witness I learned that all the other religions were false and that they were from Satan. I was taught my grandmother’s church was from the devil, so when I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses I really thought I was going to die and that I was going to go to hell.
I felt like, well, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness and that’s the true religion. I can’t go to church because those are from the devil. I felt like one of the walking dead. I was never mad at God. I just felt like God was mad at me.
What brought you to where you are now?
My mom was dying. I was getting evicted left and right. This was in 1993. I got involved in a really abusive relationship. I just was involved with the wrong people. I got into stand-up comedy. My boyfriend went to prison--he was stalking me, and then he went to prison. I got involved in stand-up comedy. I was getting evicted. My car was getting repossessed. I went to jail.
I was in a jail for six or eight days, for traffic warrants. I felt like I was going to die. All this stuff was happening to me because I didn’t have God. I wasn’t going to church. I just felt like it was so evil from my upbringing. Why am I going to go to a church that was from the devil.
When I say I was walking dead, I had nobody. I knew how important it was to have God in your life. I felt like: "God, I love making people laugh, and this feels so natural. And I feel so at peace no matter what’s going on in my life when I’m on stage. But I can’t go back to being a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m going to die, so if I’m going to die, I’m going to write all kinds of bounced checks. I’m going to sleep with a lot of people. I’m going to not pay my bills. I’m going to die anyway!" There’s one scripture, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, because we’re all going to die.” That’s really how I felt. Let’s do everything! I went to jail because my registration was two years expired. Police would stop me and give me a ticket to appear in court. I had like eight of those. My bench warrants totaled $9,000.
You’ve come a long way since then. Do you believe God has played a role in your success?
If I didn’t have God I would have been dead. First of all, if I got into this entertainment industry without God. I would probably be on drugs. He put that desire in my heart when I was 4 years old. I loved to entertain my family. There was always that desire. I think he’s nurtured it. He’s opened doors. Why am I as successful as I am? I have no idea. I have no idea what I’m doing. Sometimes I look at God and go, “I think there’s somebody better to talk to these celebrities.” I really don’t know what I’m doing.
You’re open about your faith, but how does that look on a daily basis? Also, are Christians persecuted in Hollywood?
It’s hard sometimes. I let people know I’m a Christian. It comes up naturally when I do things. If they say you did a great job, I go: “Thank you, Jesus.” I do not mind saying: “Thank you, Jesus,” because I’m not that good. When people hear that, they go: “She’s thanking Jesus a lot!”
[When I autograph] my scripts, I’ll write “God bless you.” Before we go on to tape a show, I just ask people if we can say a little prayer. I’m not trying to force it on you, but I like to pray so God can make everything smooth. I pray with the cast and that opens it up to: “What do you mean you pray?”
Yeah. One time some cast members said to me: “We don’t want you writing ‘God bless’ on your script. We don’t like you praying down on the set.” For a minute there I was, mad--oooh, I was mad. I was like one of those Christians who are indignant. We had a meeting, and I said: “You don’t understand. For me not to write [that]--God is so much a part of me, that’s like cutting off my right arm.” They didn’t want me to talk about God when we did interviews.
I said, "When I do interviews I’ve got to talk about God, because that’s why I’m here." We had come to a standstill because I said I’m not going to not write “God bless.” I’m not writing on the script: “You’ve got to accept Jesus as your lord and savior or you’re going to hell.” This was very heated. I felt like I was in the lion’s den. It’s just a generic term. If someone else want to write: “I love gay people,” that has nothing to do with Sherri. I was so upset. I was so upset.
I remember reading my Bible in the dressing room later. I came across this Scripture that said: “Among all things try to be at peace with your neighbors.” That Scripture just really helped me out a lot. I went to them and said if nobody else writes anything on a script other than their name, then I’ll just write my name. But if they ask for an individual picture of me I will write “God bless.” If you’re sitting on TV with me, you may not want to sit with me because I will not stop talking about God. So I’ll just do all my interviews by myself. As a cast member, I don’t have to say anything. [As for] prayer, anybody who wanted to pray, we would pray in my dressing room. So we never prayed on the set.
Your stand-up comedy definitely comes from a faith-perspective. What was your material like before you were a Christian?
It was dirty. I thought I had to be Eddie Murphy. And it was working. It was very dirty, vulgar and blue. I had a following. I had a huge gay following because I did all the clubs in West Hollywood. All the gay pride parades and festivals. When you go into those kind of clubs, all male clubs, it kind of lends itself to being blue. I would get on stage and do an hour. Oh man, I was so blue. But I got a big following. It was very hard to let all that material go because I lost a lot of my following.
Ellen DeGeneres is a lesbian, and you had a gay following earlier in your career, and yet now you have more conservative moral beliefs. How do you navigate this tension?
I don’t go up to people and say, “If you don’t change your life, you’re going to die.” That’s not what God called me to do. And I thank goodness because nobody did that to me. That would’ve made me run so far from God. I just had people love on me. That’s what made me start going to church. That even in the midst of all this stuff that I was doing.
I had two very good friends, I absolutely respected their walk, they would just pray with me. I didn’t want it sometimes, but they would just pray with me and love on me. I said, “I want to be like you.” That’s what made me come to Christ. So I’m certainly not going to go up to somebody and go: “You got to stop what you’re doing!” That’s not for me. I’m going to do what brought me to the Lord. I’m going to love.
What are your favorite Bible verses?
Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good for them that love the lord, and who are called according to his purpose."
Philippians 4:4-6: :Do not be anxious, but by all prayer and supplication make your requests known to God, and that peace of God that surpasses all understanding with sustain your mind and heart."
Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge me and I will direct your path."