On Sunday, January 15, Bishop Eddie Long passed away. Long was the prominent Atlanta pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which at its height, boasted a congregation of over 25,000. A man of many controversies, Long had been closely scrutinized by the United States Senate for potentially profiting off of his church’s tax-exempt status.
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He also came under fire for his homo-antagonistic sermons and his book, Deliver Me From Adam, in which he cloaks homophobia, misogyny and patriarchy in the lexicon of self-help. Long’s quest to cast out the spirit of homosexuality, however, did not stop there. Some have argued that he fathered and pastored a homophobic theological legacy at New Birth. In 2005, for example, he hosted his infamous “Sexual Orientation and Reorientation Conference” to convert LGBTQ Christians into heterosexuals.
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Just five years later, in 2010, Long was accused of sexually abusing four young men—Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson, who were teenagers at the time of their accusations. Like most predators, Long allegedly “groomed” these teenage boys into nonconsensual sexual activity. As noted on child rape survivor Oprah Winfrey’s website, grooming includes targeting vulnerable victims, gaining the victim’s trust, filling a need or void, isolating the child, sexualizing the relationship and maintaining control. Long was said to have used his prosperity gospel-accrued wealth to lavish Flagg, LeGrande, Parris and Robinson with private planes, expensive jewelry and luxury hotel rooms. According to the lawsuits brought by the young men, he then exploited his identity as a pastor and spiritual leader to add God’s blessing on his sexually perverse behaviors.
Yet Long’s members stood behind him. Although the New Birth Christian Academy closed down, the church doors remained open. Congregants heard these children’s horrifying allegations of sexual abuse and many remained faithful to Long, even as he preached messages condoning homophobia, the subjugation of women and rape culture. In fact, after news of the child sexual abuse allegations surfaced, Long used the Bible to victim-blame and deny all charges in a sermon to his megachurch followers: “I’ve been accused. I’m under attack. As I said earlier, I am not a perfect man. But this thing, I’m gonna fight. . . . I feel like David against Goliath. But I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.”
As a survivor of child sexual abuse and the son of Black churchgoing women and men, I am appalled by the ways that churches like New Birth create safe space for sexual violence. I am even more disturbed by the silence around rape and molestation, and the ways survivors are mocked and called liars. Meanwhile, abusers escape accountability, often keep their positions of power and manage to gain support as if they are the true victims.
“To be called beloved is not only to shatter the silence, but to get rid of it altogether,” writes Emilie M. Townes in her essay “Washed in the Grace of God.” “We owe one another respect and the right to our dignity as people of God. If we deny justice, we are telling those who go without that they are worthless […] Folk need to hear the church say in a clear and unequivocal voice that sexual and domestic violence are not acceptable behaviors but they are lethal values.”
However, in a world where Bishop Eddie Long can be accused of being a child molester and garner the support of the majority of his congregation, it calls us to question the level to which some of our Black churches truly care about what happens to Black children. As blogger Son of Baldwin observes, “We love ovum and sperm. We love zygotes and embryos. We even love fetuses. But we do not — no, we absolutely do not — love children.”
Let me be clear, it is not uncommon for child abusers in the church—sexual and otherwise—to be protected by the incessant valorization of the Black male preacher. Long represented much of what the church prizes: fame, fortune and prominence. To see him in any other light than as a “man of God” would mean compromising conservative, prosperity gospel theologies, many of which excuse the church from enacting justice. “God” is characterized as the supreme judge who determines the outcome of all individuals. Long’s followers left him to God for judgment, even as God, like most adults, is regularly a passive bystander when children are sexually abused.
Long’s church continued with business as usual, shouting and dancing week after week to their pastor’s homophobic, sexist and classist interpretation of the gospel. All of which detracted from the severity of the survivors’ testimonies of sexual assault and sent the message that sexual violence within an intracommunal context is status quo and does not warrant the church’s collective action and strides toward justice. Long also used the Bible, one of the leading moral texts of the Western world, to excuse himself of communal accountability. This should not be overlooked. The same Bible that is used against women, LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized identities, was simultaneously used to shame survivors and privilege harm-doers, and the church must acknowledge, as the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems notes, how Biblical text even endorses rape.
Alas, Bishop Eddie Long has passed away and he will soon be funeralized. However, Black church communities cannot bury his troubled past with him. The church—New Birth et al.—must reckon with the Goliath of child sexual abuse and rescue the true Davids, our children, from the perverse and death-dealing realities of molestation, incest and rape.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Departments of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He also currently serves as an inaugural cohort fellow of the Just Beginnings Collaborative (2016-2018), where his project, Children of Combahee works to eradicate child sexual abuse in Black churches. Follow him @_BrothaG.