Long scandal ‘blows hinges off church’s closet doors’

Rev. Kathi Martin remembers sitting down with Bishop Eddie Long in 2008 in a conference room at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to talk about his virulently anti-gay views in an attempt to educate him about LGBT people. Martin and the other Atlanta gay pastors who attended wanted him to meet face-to-face some of the people he has said “deserve death.”

“He actually seemed very engaged,” said Martin, associate minister of The Victory Church in Stone Mountain. “We first met with other leadership of the church and then he came in and listened to our stories of how his church and its anti-gay messages set a tone for the rest of the church, which then sets a tone for the people in the church and the families — that there’s a ripple effect. People are either having their prejudices confirmed or that prejudice is spread.”

In addition to preaching against homosexuality, Long led a march through the streets of Atlanta in 2004 for several causes such as better public education and better healthcare. But the No. 1 item they were marching against was gay marriage.

“I remember seeing all the causes on website for the march. There’s a call for better education, better healthcare. But the top of the list is anti-gay. Why is that a priority, why above all others? How is keeping queers from marrying helping anything?” asked Craig Washington, an Atlanta activist who helped organize a counter protest to Long’s march.

“I remember his puffed up kind of stance. And arrogance is just the face of a deep imbedded insecurity. When he took that torch and lit it [at the eternal flame at the Martin Luther King Center] I thought it looked like a skit from ‘Boondocks, like, ‘He can’t be serious,’” Washington added. “This is chickens coming home to roost.”

‘Hypocrisy too big to not affect entire black community’

Bishop Eddie Long takes photos of himself in his bathroom
Bishop Eddie Long allegedly sent these cell phone photos to another of his ‘spiritual sons’ who is not currently one of the four suing him for sexual coercion. The photos were released to the media by B.J. Bernstein, the lawyer representing the four accusers.

Now, Long, one of the most powerful evangelical black preachers in the nation, is being sued by four young men who accuse him of using his power as their spiritual leader to coerce them into sexual relationships. According to Long’s attorney, the accusations are false.

The four men — Anthony Flagg, 21; Maurice Robinson, 20; Jamal Parris, 23; and Spencer LeGrande, 22m — said they were personally mentored by Long, that he took them on lavish trips to places such as Kenya and New Zealand, and bestowed on them extravagant gifts including jewelry and cars.

They all tell a similar tale of being a part of a group of young men Long called his “Spiritual Sons,” that they entered into ceremonial “covenants” with Long and that the renowned preacher used biblical scripture to justify sexual relationships.

In an interview with Atlanta’s Fox 5’s Dale Russell on Tuesday, plaintiff Jamal Parris spoke about the allegations he made against Long. Parris made it clear that he is not gay and the plaintiffs’ attorney, B.J. Bernstein, also stated her clients were not gay in a press conference when the first suits were filed in DeKalb County State Court.

Bernstein did note in the press conference that Long has a reputation of being very anti-gay and said it took much courage for the young men to step forward and allege they were sexually coerced by another man.

“So, while the media and the rest of the people around the city, around the country look at us like how could grown men let another man touch him, what you have to understand is this man has manipulated us since childhood,” Parris told Fox 5.

“This was our father and we loved him … We would have to be the craziest kids in the world to want to come out and admit to another man touching on us publicly. To really believe this is about money would be absolutely ludicrous.”

Parris said Long seduced young men and when they were older he would set his sights on younger men.

“This man turned his back on us when he had no more need for us,” Parris said. “That’s not a father, that’s a predator.”

Parris also gave unsettling details of the anguish he said he endured due to the alleged abuse by Long.

“I cannot get the sound of his voice out of my head,” he told Fox 5. “I cannot forget the smell of his cologne. And I cannot forget the way that he made me cry many nights when I drove in his car on the way home, not able to take enough showers to wipe the smell of him off of my body.”

Pastor Troy Sanders of preach2me.com, who also participated in the meeting with Long in 2008 as part of a Soulforce intervention, said the alleged victims can’t be forgotten as this international scandal continues to unfold. Soulforce is a national LGBT organization that works to end “spiritual violence.”

“The issue that takes precedence is of the abuse, be it sexual or power or emotional,” Sanders said. “Every other issue takes a back seat. It appears both sides are committed to playing this out in the court of law.”

The other issues include, overwhelmingly, the hypocrisy of Long, named one of the most anti-gay black pastors in the nation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, if the allegations prove true that he was having sex with other men.

“The gospel requires preachers to walk in truth,” Sanders said.

For Martin, who says she won’t be surprised if the allegations against Long are true, said the hypocrisy is “just too big, there’s no way it cannot effect the black community.”

“My hope for [Long], however this plays out, is that this is a call for him to reflect what mess he’s been teaching and preaching and who he’s been hurting,” Martin said.

“And if these things are true, I hope he gains a sense of self-evaluation and will love, understand and accept himself and then lead in a more honest way. If these allegations are true.”

A chance for black church to examine ‘blind faith’

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, said she is not at all surprised by the allegations against Long. And despite the tragic circumstances, there is an opportunity to educate.

“As a result of the allegations made against Bishop Eddie Long, guilty or innocent, this is an opportunity for the black church to deconstruct the hypocrisy of clergy and persons in religious authority who preach homophobia and lead secret lives,” she said.

“It’s an opportunity to examine why we continue to put blind faith in a charismatic figure and follow him/her even when there is suspect behavior,” she added. “The black church has a dire need to learn more about human sexuality and not leave the human condition to dichotomies of good versus bad, saint versus sinner.

“If we do not do this work, our most vulnerable populations, youth, will continue to fall prey to religious leaders who have essentially been given license to do whatever they want, in the name of God, unquestioned.”

Black lesbian activist and journalist Jasmyne Cannick, who in 2005 co-authored profiles of black anti-gay preachers heading up megachurches including Long and asked if they were actually gay, said that people need to understand this kind of controversy occurs all the time in the black church.

“But now it’s national news,” she said. “They think he’s the first one. I bet the Catholic Church is saying, ‘Whew, they’re focused on someone else.’ I do feel sorry for the folks in Atlanta, but you know, I’m not surprised. Black closeted people will always be around as long as there is homophobia in the black church.”

Cannick, who wrote again about Long on her website www.jasmynecannick.com/blog after his Sept. 26 service when he spoke out publicly for the first time about the accusations, reiterated what she said about Long in 2005 — “We know those who scream the loudest are guilty.”

But she is not as optimistic as the NBJC and some other black gay pastors and activists that Long’s scandal will help push the black church forward in dealing with human sexuality. One, the church relies heavily on the literal word. Two, black church members tend to not care if a popular pastor is accused of wrongdoing because it’s easier to believe what is told to them, she said.

“The black church is so wrapped up in the written word of Christianity. And [church] members are like, ‘We know but we don’t want to know,’” she said. “The bottom line is, given who he is, I don’t think four young men will bring his downfall. I suspect [Long] will settle it.”

Long’s Sept. 26 service at New Birth was nothing more than a “circus show,” Cannick said.

“And to make sure that tithing plate wasn’t empty.”

But Lettman-Hicks said she firmly believes Long’s tribulations are the perfect time for dialogue in the black church and to further equality for all LGBT people.

“This is an opportunity to have honest, direct discussions nationwide about homophobia in the black church. Homophobia is endemic in African American churches due to a literalist interpretation of certain texts that have different outcomes when looked at by biblical scholars,” she said. “It is long overdue to have the open and honest dialogue about loving thy neighbor unconditionally.”

Cannick warns that such a dialogue cannot happen through the national media and must happen within the black community itself, out of the spotlight.

“Homophobia will not be combated in the media. I need to have this discussion in my own community,” she said.

Long scandal good for gay rights?

Julian Bond, civil rights icon, former chair of the NAACP and former Georgia legislator, made headlines when he boycotted the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006 because the memorial service was held at New Birth.

“I knew she was a big defender of gay rights. I knew that Bishop Long was a raving homophobe and I knew she was twisting in her grave if she were buried there and I’d be twisting in my grave eventually if I went to the funeral there, so I stayed away,” he said.

But, he acknowledged, if the allegations against Long prove to be true, it will be good for the gay rights movement.

“It’s sad to say, but if the charges against Bishop Long are true, it’s going to be a victory for gay rights in black America. A sad victory,” Bond said.

Lettman-Hicks agreed the scandal is good for the LGBT movement.

“It will be good for the LGBT community as it will help blow the hinges off the church’s closet door,” she said. “We have known for some time that those who rail against homosexuality the most are often those who have the most to hide about their own sexuality. Secrets will be revealed one way or another, and we will be there to help sort it all out. We know from experience that many clergy battle private desires in a public forum to deflect their own innermost, overpowering desires.”

David versus Goliath

It was a defiant Bishop Eddie Long who took to the pulpit of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Sept. 26 to vow to fight the sexual coercion allegations.

Referencing notes from his iPad, Long first rallied his congregation about the “painful and difficult situations” that they all face, listing everything from Hurricane Katrina to car accidents and “loving someone who doesn’t love you back.”

He did not address the allegations against him until the end of his brief remarks.

“There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man, but I am not the man that is being portrayed on the television,” Long said to cheers from the congregation. “That is not me.”

Long said that he has been advised by his lawyers “not to try this case in the media,” but closed with a defiant vow to fight back.

“I have been accused. I am under attack. I want you to know, as I said earlier, I am not a perfect man, but this thing I’m gon’ fight,” Long said.

“And I want you to know one other thing: I feel like David against Goliath, but I got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet,” he said, dropping his microphone with an audible thump.

Earlier in his remarks, Long told his congregation that “we can make it through by the power of focus,” and used “POWER” as an acronym for Prayer, Outreach, Worship, Encouragement, and Resolve.

“We must not forget that our strength is not in man but in the lord.”

For Lettman-Hicks, one of the rocks has already been thrown and that’s at the black church itself. The stone Long has cast by being put in a situation where he is accused of such scurrilous charges may rattle some people’s faith, but for others it will simply be nothing more than an irritating pebble in their shoe.

“Bishop Eddie Long has one of the largest black mega churches in the country. Many pastors look to him and his church for leadership. That is why some black clergy are flying in to Atlanta to discuss this situation. They know how serious this is,” she said.

“On a parishioner level, it is cause for discussion … for what is really happening behind closed doors in churches. On another level, denial of reality is so strong in some church followers that no matter what a leader does, they will ignore the evidence … paying tithes, singing in the choir and leading an unexamined life. This is true of all races.”


Top photo: Bishop Eddie Long (via New Birth Missionary Baptist Church)