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.