My Own Bishop Eddie Long and My Exodus from the Black Church

child abuseBishop Eddie Long

The revelation that Atlanta’s mega church pastor Bishop Eddie Long used his position of wealth and power—all derived from the pockets and trust of his congregation—to coerce and seduce at least four underage young men is of no surprise to me. It wasn’t that long ago that I had my own Bishop Eddie Long to contend with, except unlike Long’s parishioners, I didn’t participate in a standing ovation when I found out, instead I got up and left.

Long ago after my first exodus from organized religion that came with age and church being an option instead of a mandate, I came to the realization that Black America’s introduction to Christianity was when the Massuh handed the Bible to Blacks—and this had nothing to do with our spiritual development and growth—it was a tool used to justify him as the Massuh and us as the slaves.

Plain and simple. The beginning of the end for us as Blacks wasn’t integration or even the ride over here through the Middle Passage, it was adopting the Bible and Christianity as ours and a blue-eyed blonde-haired white man as our savior.

Whatever spiritual connection one is supposed to get from being made to attend church as a child, I never got. The way I figured it was that if I was going to ever pray to Jesus, Jehovah, and or God, that prayer would be just as well received from my house as it would from a church. I believe this to be the reason why I never struggled with my sexuality like many of my friends who contemplate whether or not they are going to hell for being gay. What hell?

Yet and still for reasons I can’t quite figure out, in my mid twenties I found myself open to giving organized religion another try. If I had to guess, I think my flirtation with the church at this time in my life had a lot to do with faith and really wanting to believe that there was hope—not only for us as Black people for but for me. I was going through a lot and really wanted to believe -  so much so that I was willing to subject myself to something that I had already resolved myself not to even believe in.

This time around, I choose the church that I wanted to attend.

Because I wanted nothing to do with dress codes and services before 10 a.m. with surprise sermons that always had something to do with “homosexuality” when I was in attendance, I elected to try my faith at a church that I knew welcomed everyone. How did I know this? Because it was started by people who knew what it really meant to be ostracized and cast away for being different.

As Black people, “everyone” doesn’t mean everyone. Everyone sometimes means everyone with the right hat or the right clothes or the right bank account. Sometimes “everyone” means heterosexuals and closeted people only. Sometimes I’ve found that “everyone” means everyone but me.

Having found a church that I actually liked and looked forward to attending, it wasn’t long before I began volunteering my time, attending midweek services, and making new friends.

Even though I felt Christianity was the white mans religion, it didn’t stop me from coming to hear a universal message on Sundays that was preceded by one of the best choirs in all of America. And this is coming from a person who never once stood up in a church and offered a testimony, cosigned a pastor’s words with my own “Amen,” toe tapped or even handclapped and until I found myself here.

So there we all were, Black, gay, lesbian, closeted, bi, trans, and heterosexual, all worshiping the God of our understanding together under one roof, Sunday after Sunday. And it was here that I first witnessed the spiritual and mental healing of so many who had been hurt by the church. Hurt by the Bishop Eddie Long’s of the world who condemned them to hell publicly from the pulpit while privately coveting them after church hours. Hurt by families who had turned their backs on them for being different. I watched youth who needed to see that strong adult role models did exist for them learn that there was hope. I watched adults battle their addictions to drugs, alcohol, food, and sex, in an environment that was welcoming and affirming. And I myself began to have a spiritual rebirth and a belief in a faith that I’d forsaken and given up as not being my own a long time ago.

Now you have to understand that with such a colorful congregation of people, all faced with their own personal issues rooted in Christianity and their sexual orientation that the sermons preached often reflected this. So it’s no surprise that on more than one occasion the theme of the hour was about “leaving the children alone.”

For a 26-year-old lesbian, that didn’t mean much to me, but to men who themselves had been the victims of sex abuse as children and young men who were attending the church and in need of role models and not Sugar Daddies, this was an important message. One not to be taken lightly. Just because we were a Black gay church didn’t mean that we were any different from other Black churches where the pews were filled with fruit (no pun intended) ripe for the picking.

And so it happened that in the middle of my faith renewal that it became public knowledge that my 60-something-year-old pastor was now involved in a relationship with a 19-year-old young man. And one Sunday after speculation and church gossip had risen to uncontrollable levels within the church, he pulled a Bishop Eddie Long—so to speak—and went to the pulpit to address the issue. But unlike Long, who is in denial, my pastor proclaimed his love for this young man and that like everyone else he had the right to be happy. He then went on to say, from the pulpit, that we needed to stay out of his backyard and he’d stay out of ours.

After having heard this same person lecture about leaving the children alone and the importance of strong adult role models in the church, I felt brutally betrayed and made my final exit from the church and organized religion. I was not going to co-sign behavior that I knew was wrong by staying in the church.

It’s exactly that kind of behavior that has Black people thinking that all gays are predators and pedophiles. And while I know both the pastor and his 19-year-old lover were consenting adults, that didn’t make it right.

To this day, I don’t think my pastor fully understands how his behavior affected many of us in the congregation who have never returned. And as angry as I was at the time, I never wrote about it or spoke on it publicly because while I left—for reasons of their own—many others stayed. For some of them, that church was the only thing standing between them and another hit, trick, drink, or suicide. And being real, some just didn’t see anything wrong with the pastor’s behavior and some just chose to ignore it.

While I don’t condone his actions and have since lost the admiration I once had for him, I accept that he like everyone else is flawed. I do not come from the school of thought that pastors are anointed and can do no wrong. However, I do believe that all that aside, the movement that he started that has spanned around the country bringing Black gays once ostracized from the church back into the church is one that is needed.

It’s the very reason why to this day, when I am asked to do something that will help the church—I usually go out of my way to make it happen. The movement is bigger than the man.

Not that long ago, I came face to face with my old pastor for reasons unrelated to this article. And while I thought to confess to him my feelings about what he did and how I felt about it, I chose not too. What’s done is done and bringing it up today wasn’t going to have me back in church on Sunday.

jasmyne_cannick_2In reflection, I do believe that there is a benefit in having faith and somewhere to go to drop your worries when times are hard and life shows up at your front door. It’s a coping mechanism that allows us all to carry on. But unlike Long’s congregation, when faced with learning the truth and presented the “red pill, blue pill option,” like Neo in The Matrix, I choose the red pill and there’s no going back once you know the truth. It is what is.

Will I ever go back to the church? That I don’t know. While I am inclined to say no, I am keenly aware that as I approach my 33rd birthday this month, I continue to evolve—physically, mentally, emotionally, and yes spiritually. But for now, when I need to pray, I pray, and the only tithes I pay are to the state park I go to on Sunday mornings to hike. There are a lot things that need organizing in my life but religion, it isn’t one of them.

Jasmyne Cannick

Published by the LA Progressive on October 4, 2010
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About Jasmyne Cannick

Jasmyne is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the intersection of pop culture, race, class, and politics as played out in the African-American community. An award-winning journalist who previously worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a press secretary, Jasmyne was selected as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “News and Notes.” She is currently working as a political consultant in California on local and state campaigns.