Long Odds

My old friend Jelani Cobb was last seen here blogging about his time in Moscow. Yesterday he visited Eddie Long's church. Here's his spectacular dispatch from the scene. Jelani's latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and The Paradox of Progress. It is, like this post, like everything Jelani writes, spectacular.

The cars began streaming into the parking lot at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church even before the sun had risen. On a normal Sunday church traffic chokes the off-ramps at Interstate 20, down to Bishop Eddie Long Boulevard that leads onto the grounds. This, as the news vans lining Bishop Eddie Long Boulevard attested, was not a normal Sunday.

For those who had no knowledge of Eddie Long before charges of sexual coercion were leveled at him last week it's difficult to convey Eddie Long's niche in the Atlanta ecosystem. He presides over a massive institution, with reportedly more than 25,000 members. On I-85, just north of the airport, a titanic billboard featuring Long's image greets commuters. The caption reads "Live like him, Lead like him, Love like him." The him is presumably a reference to Jesus Christ, but it's Long's image drivers see, not the Nazarene carpenter. The church campus sits on 250 acres of land in suburban Lithonia but it is inescapably linked to Atlanta's religious culture. 

Long is arguably the pre-eminent black proponent of the prosperity gospel and his message of financial deliverance dovetailed neatly with Atlanta's credo of visible black success. More than a handful of his critics have seen New Birth as a counterpoint to Ebenezer Baptist, the church co-pastored by Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr. Where King led an inner-city congregation and emphasized the biblical mandate to pursue social justice, Long's sprawling compound is miles outside Atlanta and he is more likely to exalt the possibilities of grand financial success.

Nor are the connections to MLK merely metaphorical. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin and Coretta Scott King is a minister at New Birth. She and Long stirred controversy in 2004 when they led a march demanding that the legislature amend the state Constitution to forbid gay marriage - which was already illegal in Georgia. (It was particularly incendiary given that Long began the event by lighting his torch in the eternal flame at Martin Luther King's crypt.) In 2004 Long endorsed George W. Bush in all but name, charging that John Kerry would not protect the nation from the looming menace of same sex unions.

Against that history, the charges that Long coerced teenage boys in his youth foundation (ineptly dubbed the "Long Fellows") into gay sex acts detonated like a concussion grenade. On some level the homophobic pastor who is secretly engaging in gay sex is the most fatigued of clichés. But Long's allegations differ if for no other reason than the scale. It also has to be mentioned that the black church had perfected its own version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell long before the military dreamed of such a compact.

James Baldwin elegantly laid out the camouflaged homoeroticism of the church in Go Tell It On the Mountain in 1953. Protocol, Jesus and race pride require those urges remain cloaked, even if the cloak is fashioned from Saran Wrap.  It goes without saying that Long could have built his religious empire without ever touching the subject. But he didn't, or couldn't and among the many implications of that is the number of cars streaming onto the campus before the sun cracked the horizon Sunday morning.

New Birth's reach is beyond substantial. (I previously volunteered at a battered women's shelter that was almost entirely staffed by New Birth members.) Recently they donated a reported $250,000 to feed and house children suffering from AIDS in South Africa. For many, those acts were evidence that the former church members bringing suit against Long were making false allegations. On some level I hoped that they were right. No reasonable person could relish the thought of disillusionment on that scale, or the possibility that there were many more teens who had been pressured into sex with the Bishop. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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