If schadenfreude could be compared to a gourmet meal, the sexual coercion lawsuits filed last year by four young men against Atlanta-based mega-church “Bishop” Eddie Long surely qualified as a five-star feast at Le Cirque.
When the scandal broke, it couldn’t have hit closer to the center of the Black Church’s fault lines on sexuality. Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta boasts some 25,000 members. It is one of the largest black churches in the nation. In addition to being one of the nation’s most prominent pastors, Long is also among the most vocal critics of gay rights and same-sex marriage in the Black Church. In December 2004, one month after voters approved an amendment to the Georgia state constitution that banned gay marriage, Long led a 25,000-person march against gay rights and marriage equality.
The scandal’s orgiastic piece de resistance: The lawyer for the four men claimed that she had photos and text messages proving a relationship with Long. Cell phone photos emerged of the pastor posing in suggestive Anthony Weiner-style self-portraits—wearing tight-fitting Lycra muscle shirts and posing in a bathroom mirror.
“Why would a preacher send Adam4Adman pics of his ‘bulge’ to young boys?” Sheldon DeSouza, regional chair of the Black Gay Men’s Network asks. “I guess when the ugly truth is that close to the pulpit, we’re all expected to swallow our common sense.”
The story mostly disappeared from the 24 hour cable news cycle and black gossip blogs after the pastor entered settlement negotiations. Last month, Long settled the case with a payout that’s been reported as anywhere from $15 million to $25 million—and, importantly, with a gag order. To many people—especially in the black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT)—the settlement and non-disclosure clause mean the much-needed “real” conversation around sexuality that the case promised to spur may never happen.
Atlanta-based Rev. Carlton Pearson of Christ Universal Temple said it on CNN after the scandal erupted. “The church—black or otherwise—[must] confront and not combat this issue of human sexuality and homosexuality,” said the LGBT-inclusive pastor. “Homosexuality is not going away. If every gay person in our church just left or those who have an orientation or preference or an inclination or a fantasy, if everyone left, we wouldn’t have a church.”
The Case Against Long
The lawsuits were filed last September in rapid succession by four men in their early twenties—Maurice Robinson, Jamal Parris, Anthony Flagg and Spencer LeGrande—with each telling a similar story. Long was accused of seducing them as teenagers and using church funds to give them cash, cars and gifts in exchange for sexual favors.
The sexual relationships reportedly began when each of the plaintiffs were around 16 years old. Two of the young men say the pastor befriended them when they were only 14 years old. Read the complaints on my blog, Rod 2.0, here, here, here and here.
When the embattled pastor spoke publicly for the first time after the cases were announced, in a sermon at New Birth, Long vowed to thunderous applause to “fight” the charges and have his day in court. Outside church it was a different story: Long’s spokesperson refused any comment and his legal team began instantly negotiating with the plaintiffs.
“The silence in the Black Church is deafening and disgraceful,” says DeSouza. “The voices that cheer the good pastor on Sunday, while spewing his fire and brimstone down on homosexuals, are suddenly mute when he is accused of molesting teen boys.”
“This could have been a beautifully brilliant opportunity for the Black Church to talk about molestation, our youth and young adults and how they must be protected,” says the Rev. Kevin E. Taylor, the openly gay New Jersey-based senior pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of New Brusnwick, a predominately black LGBT denomination. “It could have been a galvanizing moment to separate the wolves from the lions. All of those opportunities were missed.”
“The church has been pummeled by fondling, fear and secrets for generations,” says Taylor, who is also an author, activist and a veteran BET producer. “And now with Eddie Long, the Black Church is doing what it’s always done: ‘Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell.’ “
It’s an apt comparison. But at the same time the military is dismantling DADT and moving toward open service, the informal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies of many black congregations remain more entrenched than ever.
The National Baptist Convention USA, the nation’s largest black religious organization, mentioned HIV/AIDS for the first time in 2007—some 25 years into the epidemic. By that time the black communities had already become ravaged by the virus. Today, black people account for almost half of all new HIV infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I grew up in the Baptist church and being told that being gay was a sin,” says Darion, a 25-year-old college student in Jacksonville, Fla. “I struggled with my sexuality until I was 15 or 16 years old. It’s still a struggle,” he admits.
Darion describes himself now as “more spiritual than religious” and says he no longer regularly attends services. “It’s difficult finding a gay inclusive church in Jacksonville,” he says.
“We don’t talk about things like being gay, domestic violence or sexual abuse in the church,” says Darion, who is HIV positive and sero-converted four years ago. “And we certainly don’t talk about HIV or AIDS. I wish we did. There is so much shame and stigma associated with all of this.” Darion says he hoped the Eddie Long case would yield a “dialogue” but it didn’t. “One of the problems with our churches, sometimes we put pastors on pedestals. Why would pastors pray for Eddie Long but not those boys?”
Darion is referring to the well-publicized, late September 2010 action by more than 20 pastors from across Atlanta who gathered to “pray for Bishop Eddie Long.”
“And not a word mentioned about those poor boys,” says Taylor. “That was typical. But to his credit, when this madness began, Bishop T.D. Jakes was quick to say that he didn’t have details and he would be in prayer for all involved. He made me remember that not all black preachers have run to circle the fort.”
In the weeks and months after the Long case broke, denial became the standard operating procedure for many leaders within the church community. The disgraced pastor even covered the November/December 2010 issue of “Gospel Today.” A number of subscribers complained, and critics slammed the magazine for not reporting that Long is the chairman of its board of advisers, reported the Belief Blog of Time.com.
The Catholic Church has attracted global scrutiny for the many cases of sexual predators within its ranks. But it’s also a problem within many traditional black churches. One example: The Church of God in Christ. COGIC is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S. and the second largest African-American denomination. COGIC has become embroiled in numerous criminal investigations around clergy sexual abuse. There is even a clergy abuse micro-site on the Church website.
Last fall, a Las Vegas COGIC pastor was arrested on 11 sexual abuse charges. A former COGIC pastor was sentenced to 20 years on rape charges in January 2010. In March 2010, an Alabama COGIC bishop was also accused of sexual misconduct.
“The church desperately wants to bury this issue because of all of the secrets that would be unearthed,” Taylor says.
As news began leaking in May that Long settled the four lawsuits, few, if any, high profile black pastors were willing to publicly criticize the pastor. Instead, Long was defended or even praised. Creflo Dollar, another Atlanta-based mega-church pastor who preaches so-called “prosperity gospel,” criticized the new members of his congregation who had left Long’s church.
“I can’t believe people would leave their preacher because he had a wreck instead of praying for him,” Dollar told his congregation.
“Creflo Dollar’s statements were vile,” Taylor says. “Former members of Long’s church came to his church to find sanctuary and were told to ‘go home’ now that the matter had been settled.”
Others also found the hypocrisy unsettling. Twitter became a venting outlet for frustration over the way mega-church leaders rallied around Long. In early June, Afro-Austro actor Boris Kodjoe sent a fantastic series of pro-LGBT tweets, slamming Eddie Long and his defenders’ hypocrisy on gays. “Too bad that the real Eddie Long issue was covered up again,” tweeted the actor. “Missed opportunity to address, grow and heal ourselves.”
Kodjoe’s tweets kick started a larger conversation on sexuality among straight allies and some homophobic black youth. The actor also engaged in a Twitter debate with CNN’s Roland Martin, who had previously defended homophobic pastors. “Being gay is NOT a choice,” Kodjoe told Martin, who suggested that people “chose” the gay “lifestyle.”
As for Long, after settling the case he once vowed to “fight,” the verbose pastor suddenly went quiet. Instead of making a public comment, he announced plans to launch ministries in Birmingham and Denver. The young men walked away with what are very likely hefty settlements—but only after being ostracized in their communities. One even reportedly attempted suicide after being involved with Long.
“It sends a very dangerous message not only to his parishioners but to black gay youth and the body of Christ as a whole,” says Darian Aaron, the Atlanta-based black gay blogger, activist and author of “When Love Takes Over.”
“Long’s blatant arrogance and disregard for the emotional and psychological toll his abuse of power has had on his victims, along with the elevation of his rock star-like status by his followers, clearly illustrates a deeper problem within the Black Church,” adds Aaron, who grew up in COGIC. “Destructive behavior by charismatic leaders are given a pass and the men who speak out against them are vilified. We need to change this pattern.”
Rod McCullom is a multimedia journalist who blogs on LGBT news, pop culture and progressive politics at the award-winning Rod 2.0. Rod has written and produced television news for ABC News, NBC and local stations in New York and Chicago, and his writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, Out.com, Poz and many other outlets.