You may know of Essence Atkins and the extensive catalog of TV and film work she’s done over the years, dating back to the ’80s, but you may or may not know how important her faith is to the 48-year-old actress and mom. So when the former Marlon star had the opportunity to talk about it as part of UMC‘s new docuseries, Behind Her Faith, directed by Paula Bryant-Ellis (mom of actor Jay Ellis, who is an EP on this project), she jumped at the opportunity to open up about the ways in which God has provided for her. She joins other notable women who open up about difficult moments that strengthened their faith for the series, including Niecy Nash and Aisha Hinds.
“I know that it’s part of a calling of being a disciple of Christ, to share the good news,” she said of the importance of her sharing the walk she’s been on. “For me, sharing part of my story is letting people know that if you have any admiration for me whatsoever and the people that are on this series — they’re all women people admire, look up to or follow from a social media standpoint. If you have any admiration for me personally, then I want you to have the same access for your own success. That’s why it’s important to share. It’s not about tooting my own horn. It’s about letting you know whatever you see and whatever I’ve been blessed with, it’s because of the choice that I made and because of the relationship that I have. I do my best to be responsible with what I’ve been given, and the first thing I’ve been given is salvation.”
One thing Atkins shares in her upcoming episode is the honest shock that was ending her marriage to Jaime Mendez in 2016. She also delves into career opportunities that came after that major loss and growing in her relationship with God. We spoke with her about those experiences, her work as an ordained minister, and how her focus on her faith has informed everything from her dating choices post-divorce to how she handles judgmental Christians. Find out what she had to say in our enlightening conversation. Also be sure to check out Behind Her Faith when it premieres on the streaming service on Thursday, March 26.
MadameNoire: You’re one of the stars who shared your journey when it comes to your relationship with God on Behind Her Faith. How long has it been a central focus of your life? Some people have been in the church since they were kids but don’t necessarily have their own relationship with God. Other people have experiences that draw them near to God later in life and change them. Where do you fall in that?
Essence Atkins: You’ll find out when you watch the show that I had a praying grandmother. I had two praying grandmothers. I grew up with my dad’s mom and she was in New York. She was in the Bronx. Whenever I was with her, I would go to church with her. I always had an idea of God. I always had a praying life to a certain extent. We would pray before we ate, if I wanted something I would pray [laughs]. Much like you said, it was a very childlike understanding. But my mature decision and my informed choice to become a Christian, that happened in my early twenties. I think before that I had an idea that there was God and that God was sovereign and that God loved me, but in terms of the commitment I made to have a relationship with God, that happened in my twenties.
I know you’re an ordained minister. How did your experiences motivate you to do that?
That happened really on accident. That was just, you know, right before Dwyane [Wade} and Gabrielle [Union] got married, they went and asked my ex-husband and I — my ex-husband had already performed a marriage ceremony in California. So they asked us to do it together. I mean, here’s the thing. Anyone online can become an ordained minister, but what was important to me was the fact that I had a church sanction me and a pastor sanction me. Also, I wanted to make sure, because as you might know, Dwyane’s mother is a pastor, so I wanted to make sure she was okay and she didn’t have any grievance about them asking us to do it. She didn’t. She really wanted to be a witness and celebrate in a different way than officiating their wedding. That was a great experience and I’ve actually done a few more since then.
My favorite thing about weddings and officiating them is trying to make them very personal and trying to make sure that it is something that’s infused with their story. So it’s really fun because it challenges me as a creative, as a believer and as a writer, to make it different. It’s always a challenge to make it very specific to a couple and try and capture the essence of their relationship and what their commitment is and how they want to speak to one another and speak to those in attendance. I actually really love it! [laughs] I didn’t realize I would love it but I really love officiating weddings. It’s just one of the happiest days of so many people’s journey in in their marriage. It’s the beginning. And it’s funny, because after I got divorced people were like, “Would you still do it?” and I’m like, “Yeah!” I’m a believer, and I’m a big believer in love. To me, they’re almost synonymous.
I was going to ask you about that. Doing weddings, being a woman of strong faith and as you said, a believer in love, did all that make the decision of ending your marriage more difficult?
It has great weight and gravitas, not just for me but also my ex-husband and our son because no matter what, we’re interconnected. We realize that and we try to move with as much grace as we can. The main priority is [our son] and the connectedness between us, which will always be. As long as we’re all alive and well, this is something that we have to work on. We don’t get to be out. That’s just not, for any of us, in the realm of possibility or consideration. So we do what we can to make sure that the environment for all of us is as healthy and as prioritized in the best way for him.
How has dating been for you? Have you been able to start dating again here and there?
Oh my gosh, no! It’s been really difficult! At first, I didn’t think it would be. At first, I thought I kind of would jump back out there and be really excited about meeting new people. But I’m really grateful that God didn’t give me a bunch of suitors. That just didn’t happen and I’m so thankful for that because I had so much healing to do. I had so much work to do. I had so much excavation to do and lessons to learn in terms of what works and what doesn’t work for me, what I want and what I don’t want. Just grieving. I’m so grateful I didn’t get back into anything because I think, unfortunately, it would have tarnished whoever was near, not even meaning to. There was so much that wasn’t done. The stench of it [laughs], you know what I mean? The stench of death because that’s what it is, a death. You have to allow yourself the time to heal and figure out what your coping strategy and coping mechanisms are, healthy and unhealthy. Make sure you manage those before you want to, again, bring someone into your life or your child’s life and ensnare a soul that doesn’t need to be there. So yeah, I think it’s really important, to take some time and space.
It kind of makes me giggle because so many people have gotten divorced since I’ve gotten divorced and are already remarried and I’m like, wow! That’s fast [laughs]. I’m like, oh okay, you guys are divorced and then six months later you’re engaged to someone else or a year later. But mazel if it works for you [laughs]. If it works for you it works for you, if you’ve done the healing and the work. But for me, especially because I have a son and I’m super protective, it takes an extraordinary man, and we’ve seen it with Russell and Ciara, but it takes an extraordinary man to come into a woman’s life and love her son, but not try and replace his father. That takes a very evolved man and an evolved spirit. I do believe that I will love again and be in love and have someone in my life, but at the moment, yeeeeeah, I got nothing, guys [laughs]. It’s crickets over here. But it’s taught me a lot. I’ve learned to love my own company again.
Do you think you would do online dating again? I know that’s how you met your ex-husband. Or how about dating via the apps?
I haven’t done it since, no. It’s weird because when I was doing it, everybody was like, “This is so wacky! You’re an actress. You’re on TV. Are you so desperate?” And now, literally, that’s how everyone meets. They’re on some sort of app or site or something and now I refuse. The tides have turned and I’m kind of the lone shark again kind of by myself. But I want it to be the old-fashioned way. Either we meet organically or someone introduces us. That’s, prayerfully, what will happen.
It will! I did also want to ask you, being a focused woman of God in an industry like Hollywood all of these years, what has that been like?
I haven’t had any conflict, but often people do [have conflict] about it. It’s really interesting. Like, I just did this movie called Open and it aired on BET and for the most part, it was met with support. But there were some people who commented on my page like, how are you going to quote scripture and be in a show called Open? Because I’m telling a story. Me telling a story doesn’t mean that I’m living that story or that I approve of that story. That’s not what artists do. It’s my job to tell the story with as much understanding and compassion, and as excellent as I can. It’s up to the audience to draw their own conclusions, but I’m not sanctioning the behavior because I’m in the movie. It doesn’t mean I’m participating in that behavior because I’m in the movie. Just like it doesn’t mean that if you watch the movie you are. So I had to kind of set a couple people straight. I was like, I’m consistent in who I am. I love God, I make no secret of that. I love Jesus and my faith walk is what it is, but I’m a storyteller. For me, it’s much more interesting to talk about the things that people struggle with and are broken from and have been traumatized by than just being the damsel in distress waiting for some guy to put a ring on my finger. Those stories are fun and I love a good rom-com. I love a good romance and Notebook, don’t get me wrong, but I also love stories that are about people’s humanities and the struggles that they have with all kinds of things, whether it be commitment, whether it be alcohol — this is the human race and this is part of the journey. I think that I choose not to separate and only tell stories that are in line with my faith. I want to tell the stories of the broken and illuminate those as well and hopefully have a chance, like today, to talk about my faith and how grace saved a wretch like me.
Do you find that to be a very frustrating thing? I have seen celebrities talk about how their faith has changed them and when they open up about it, they’re then held to a certain standard or rules that they’re judged by harshly.
It’s because the ego wants to control. The ego wants to manage, control and dictate, and really I believe that when you get in concordance with what the Word teaches and you understand, you remember the person dictating my behavior and the person whose approval I seek besides my own in terms of my soul and my holy spirit approval is God and Christ. Am I moving in love? Am I leaving a footprint of love behind? And am I encountering people and giving them grace and mercy even when they “don’t deserve it”? And am I loving people the way I want to be loved, even if I don’t understand where they are, approve of their choices or anything? Am I meeting them with compassion? We have the choice to push people away from Christ or we have the choice to bring them closer. I don’t understand how judgment is ever going to bring them closer. When the prodigal son came home, his father didn’t shame him and lecture him and talk to him about his choices and remind him how he got there and say, “I told you so.” He wrapped his arms around his filthy son — he had been living with swine. He wrapped his arms around him and kissed him. If ever there’s an example of how we’re supposed to behave towards people who have wandered, the one who has left the flock, we’ve got to love on each other.
And in my opinion, I don’t need to tell you what you need to do. I need to behave in a way that my life becomes attractive and you want to imitate it, because that’s really the most sincerest form of flattery. If I really want to bring people to God, then I need to live in accordance to a way that illuminates his posture and is attractive to them. I don’t know that lecturing anyone and trying to impose anything on anyone is ever really the way to get them to change their heart posture. If we know anything about God, it’s that God doesn’t look at laws. That’s why Christ died on the cross. Jesus and God examine the heart, so it’s really about my heart posture. How am I moving in the world? How am I treating people? That’s what we should be looking at and examining, because again, I’m either bringing people towards Christ or I’m pushing them away.