Long Odds

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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. 

Inside the sanctuary, a massive knot of men gathered at the front for an altar prayer. Among New Birth's points of pride is the exceptionally large number of male congregants at a time when black churches are mostly female in their membership, in an area known for both the number of single professional women and the dearth of men.  By the time service started somewhere around 8,000 people had filled the massive sanctuary and the atmosphere was given to a kind of spiritual defiance. One woman prayed aloud, thanking God for "allowing this controversy" as surely this was a means of bringing His message to even greater audiences. When Long stepped up to the pulpit and announced he had some things to say to the congregation, the crowd rose to its feet and a tsunami of cheers washed over the place. 

Some speculated that Long would announce his resignation. Others suspected that the charges were too damaging for him to survive. But there would be no resignations this Sunday - or, more precisely, no need for any. If the reaction of the faithful was any measure, Long's survival was already assured. One woman shouted "You don't have to tell us nothin" before he began to speak and the place erupted again. And she was right. For many there was no need for Long to explain himself, to detail what might drive four young men to lodge separate yet similar claims of abuse or confess how exactly he came to text photos of himself in tight workout clothes to adolescent boys. At that point I recognized that my concerns were misplaced. There would be no disillusionment, no void in the spirit as Long was guilt proof. For years he had offered a theology meant to immunize his ranks from the hurts of the world, to inure them to the wounds of life - even those that might be self inflicted.

It didn't matter that he gave a non-denial denial: "I am not a perfect man, but I am not the man you've seen on television." Or that he essentially dragged a portable crucifix into the sanctuary and nailed his own palms "I am under attack... this is the most difficult time in my life." Or that the words innocent, untrue, slander, false, baseless, lie or exonerate appeared nowhere in his comments. I gathered that in building New Birth, Long had essentially wrought an elaborate knot of the kind that any attempt to untie only serves to tighten it.

Perhaps that was why an usher saw me scribbling notes, falsely accused me of lying about being a journalist and had two armed Dekalb Country sheriffs escort me from the premises. The crowd roared their approval as I was taken from the building. They see themselves as besieged by nonbelievers and devilry that seeks to undo God's work. Exorcising one journalist from the room was cause for celebration.

Yet even as I was hustled out the exit I couldn't help but think that the ghosts of unresolved questions about harm and hypocrisy would linger and haunt the Bishop for a good while to come.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/09/long-odds/63583/