A Day of Worship at the Church of Oprah: ‘It’s Gonna Be All Right!’
How heading to Harlem with 1,500 of Oprah’s biggest fans for a live staging of her Super Soul Conversations series left us seeing, in spite of dark times, the light again.
Speaking a little less hyperbolically, Oprah Winfrey has, over the course of her career, proven to be an invaluable spiritual leader, which, in these fraught, volatile times, has proven to be a role arguably more important to many of us than leader of the free world. And that’s how I found myself, along with roughly 1,500 other people seeking spiritual guidance—not to mention audience with God herself—at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, which this rainy Wednesday afternoon had been transformed into the Church of Oprah.
The day’s worship would take the form of Winfrey’s popular Super Soul Conversations series, in which the interviewer extraordinaire engages celebrities, thought leaders, and cultural influencers in talks that then appear as installments of her Super Soul Conversations podcast, episodes of her popular Super Soul Sunday series on OWN, and features in her O Magazine.
Lending testimony during Wednesday’s ambitious six-hour live event would be Jordan Peele, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Yara Shahidi, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Salma Hayek Pinault. (The conversation will all be available as part of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations podcast and will air Tuesday, Feb. 27, as a special titled Oprah at the Apollo on OWN.) The talks ran the gamut from fears in the age of Trump, the #MeToo movement, politics, poverty, youth, action, and, yes, joy and hope, too.
It was invigorating. My soul is exhausted. I have so many photos of Oprah on my phone.
The appeal of it all is simple, maybe even obvious. Some of us have a complicated relationship with God, but we all have a pretty good one with Oprah.
If not always the sexiest part of her daytime talk show’s legacy—we tend to focus more on car giveaways, wagons of fat, and celebrities jumping on furniture—mindfulness and spiritual well-being was a major tenet of The Oprah Winfrey Show, with the host a veritable missionary dogged in her efforts to spread the knowledge and enlightenment she’s discovered to her millions of fans.
Her Super Soul conversations are a logical, digestible extension of that. Oprah’s not knocking on our doors asking if we’ve accepted Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior; producing a podcast is far more efficient. More, while she’s hardly self-conscious while taking over a conversation and preaching her own words of wisdom, she’s by concept ceding the floor to her guests. By this point, we’re well-versed in the Gospel of Oprah. But we’re still pretty green on the Book of Colbert!
When you watch Oprah on TV, there’s this uncanny thing that happens in which, somehow, it seems as if she’s talking directly to you. We’ve now experienced that connection in person. It’s lame and it’s corny, but, oh my, is it true: It’s an absolutely magical, transformative experience.
The power of Oprah has compelled me. I am saved. Well, saved-ish.
Never in my life have I seen happier people waiting outside in the cold in the pouring rain. How could they not be? In the underside of an hour, their life would be soaked in the sunbeams of Oprah’s presence and the emotional warmth of her words.
“I’m the biggest Super Soul Sunday fan,” said a woman who called herself Sarah, declining to give her real name because she was supposed to be at work. Everyone had the same story as Fake Name Sarah: They’ve been Oprah fans their entire lives. Now they finally get to see her in person.
One woman grew up in Johannesburg. Others were Harlem locals beaming with pride that Ms. Winfrey herself would be gracing their hallowed Apollo stage. They were women excited, but they were also women searching: for solace, reassurance, and guidance toward the light in what’s been a spiritually and morally dark time for them and society.
“She’s the perfect person to lead us into this point in history,” said a woman named Lindsey. “Everyone loves Oprah. She brings everyone together, and people listen when Oprah speaks!”
People dress to the nines when they are going to be in the same room as Oprah, we learned. (And will even be late, if need be, in order to do so; things got started almost an hour behind schedule as stragglers hurried in to the Apollo.) There was even a sense of nervousness, the kind of anticipation that comes when one feels they’re about to experience something profound.
“For me, being a black woman growing up, Oprah has just always been someone I looked up to and seen myself in,” said a woman named Jessica. “She’s important to me as an individual as a reminder of who I am and the strength that brings.”
Jessica subscribes to the Super Soul Conversations podcast for the same reason so many of us do: It’s a healing, invigorating antidote to the negativity and fear that threatens to suffocate you when you’re tuned into the news cycle.
To that regard, she says, we need Oprah now more than ever: “She doesn’t feel any more important to me than she ever has. But I think people who aren’t black women and haven’t seen themselves in her, she’s speaking to a lot of those people who feel marginalized right now. People for whom she hasn’t been their North Star before I think are realizing we all need someone to look up to and help feel important, feel empowered.”
We cannot understate the electric jolt to the heart that comes when Oprah Winfrey takes the stage.
“Helloooo, New York!” she bellowed, positively Winfrian in every way.
Her arms stretched out toward her congregants, plastering a knowing smile on her face as she leaned back for emphasis, as if to say, “Yes, I am Oprah, and it truly is this exciting to see me.” A noise that I have never made in my entire life involuntarily squeaked out of me, part-hoot, part-banshee wail, part-high-pitched emotional exorcism. Already, Oprah is surfacing things within me I didn’t even know were there.
She looked classy AF, wearing a light blue velvet blazer over a tuxedo shirt and sporting ankle-length boots that even from afar looked crazy expensive. The wondrous thing, though, was, whether she was draped in her armchair interviewing her next guest or pacing the Apollo stage making chit-chat with the audience, she looked so comfortable. And she wanted us to feel the same way, too.
It’s almost as if she could sense our latent anxiety from simply... existing... in today’s world, and our desperation for her to save us from it. She addressed it almost immediately.
“I know that so many people are feeling uneasy right now with the state of the world,” she told the audience, which promptly replied with a chorus of mhmms and perfectly choreographed nodding heads. To that, she whispered coolly, almost as if she had a secret to tell just the few thousand of us and it was never to leave this room: “It’s gonna be all right!”
The audience sighed in relief through raucous applause. “We’ve been through tougher times than this. It’s gonna be OK!” Winfrey continued. “Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria, OK?... You have to transcend it.” Telling us how, exactly, to do that would be her six celebrity guests.
While each had their own unique topics to talk about—Jordan Peele talked about the racial politics that inspired Get Out, Trevor Noah discussed growing up in the shadow apartheid, Lin-Manuel Miranda recapped the devastation in Puerto Rico, and Salma Hayek further explained her interactions with Harvey Weinstein—the undercurrent of it all was how they individually, and we collectively, are dealing with Trump’s America.
How do we not just safely weather the storm of the Trump administration, but also continue to grow spiritually and mindfully during the worst of it, when all intuition says to bunker down and wait it out?
“We are in consequential times,” Stephen Colbert told her. “It does the opposite of it getting you down, it fires you up.” Reminded that he coined the word “truthiness,” which is especially resonant in the time of Fake News, he was explicit: “The facts will always matter... You have to hold on to facts. If you surrender facts, that’s it.”
Later, he quoted his favorite Bible verse and explained its power today. “I’m always hopeful for this country,” he said. “Our country remains the last best hope for mankind. It is already great.” It was great during the Depression, during the Civil War, throughout the civil rights movement, and it is great now, he explained. “Every bit of darkness is only for now. The light always wins.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump, echoed Colbert’s sentiments, saying that the election gave him “moral clarity” and courage of his convictions.
Salma Hayek Pinault reminded the audience that “humans are slow to change,” but to rest assured that change is happening. “Sometimes we underestimate our efforts—everybody’s efforts—and the power it has to change,” she said. “The only reason that this is working right now is not only because women spoke out. It’s also because everybody listened.”
There was breaking news made during the conversations, be it Winfrey’s exchange with Miranda in which she confirmed that she would not be running for president, or Hayek Pinault’s disturbing details of the abuse she received from Harvey Weinstein. (“He said to Julie Taymor, ‘I am going to break the kneecaps of that... the C-word.’”)
Trevor Noah’s discussion about the reality of growing up poor and black should be a mandatory master class in every American’s sociological education.
Yara Shahidi had a star-is-born moment during her conversation, so intelligent and eloquent and activating—and not even 18—that she caused Oprah’s jaw to drop four separate times, while the audience applauded after nearly every single thing she said. “Baby, your future is so bright it burns my eyes,” Winfrey told her at the end of her segment, echoing something Quincy Jones told her after The Color Purple.
But the power of the event wasn’t in the news it made, but in the simple practicality of it all. It really felt like we were being given tools for living a fuller life, with audience members often taking notes in their iPhone’s Notes apps after particularly wise nuggets.
Watching Winfrey sprint through a marathon—six 30-minute live, TV-quality interviews back-to-back—was sort of miraculous to behold. It’s trite to praise at this point, but watching her in action is to witness a master at her job. There was a not a moment of stutter in a single interview, nor a beat skipped while she did her stand-ups from the teleprompter. Her ease between segments, in which she was breezy, hilarious, and, most of all, personal with the audience seemed special, as nonsensical as that all sounds.
We’ve written before on The Daily Beast about our Oprah obsession.
Our phone case is a photo of Oprah Winfrey. Our desktop wallpaper is Oprah dramatically gesturing to the heavens. For Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law bought me a framed photo of Oprah receiving the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, signed by Oprah, and I shed a tear. I talk about the producers featured on her Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes OWN reality series like they’re as famous as supporting characters on Friends. I threw something when she was snubbed by the Oscars for her performance in The Butler. I once interviewed the head of the bread lobby to contextualize the importance of her “I love bread” proclamation.
When I talk about it on this website, it seems funny and silly and slightly crazed. There, at the Apollo, it seemed understated. I was with my people. And we were with our Oprah.
There was something that Winfrey and Hayek Pinault discussed near the end of their talk that has stuck with me in the time since I’ve left: “I think it’s very important that we don’t be cynical about our little changes.”
We are so scared and so angry about so many things—big, giant issues—and we think of what needs to happen for things to be better in terms of such massive, sweeping reform that we are blind to our own progress and achievements. It’s those micro advancements that cumulate into great change, whether we’re speaking about our society or our personal lives, and the best thing we can do for ourselves is acknowledge them, celebrate them, and be motivated by them to keep moving.
It’s hardly the key to life. I’m not reborn from hearing this, or suddenly dropping everything for a new life of faith. But it’s something tangible that could have a real effect on my life, an affirmation that could carry me from day to day. For most of us, that’s all we really need or are looking for.
I’ve not been touched by an angel. But I’ve been touched by Oprah. Amen.