Although, it’s almost a dead issue in terms of the media, the Bishop Eddie Long case, was and still is an important issue. As the pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, he was accused of allegedly using his position and power as well as his role as a father figure to pursue sexual relationships with younger men in his congregations. Beyond the spectacle of the scandal, there were several underlying issues that weren’t addressed in the media. For weeks, I read article after article following all the positions as the allegations played out on the radio and television. It’s well known that Bishop Long used his position to demonize homosexuality, the very thing he was being accused of. As stated by crunktastic in the article, The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Sex and Power in the Black Church, “What Long has been accused of doing isn’t about sex. It’s about power, as sexual abuse generally is.” He used role as a pastor to stigmatize and demoralize others, some who may be his own parishioners. Abusing his power as a religious leader and father figure. In a Clutch Magazine article, Zettler Clay writes, “A pastor is a pastor because enough people have been convinced that he/she has divine knowledge that eludes the majority of the congregation. When power is enforced under this criteria, potential for abuse and disillusionment is present. The scandals of malpractice, negligence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, you name it, has run rampant as long as these relationships have been around.”
Bishop Long is not the first religious figure to abuse his power and unfortunately won’t be the last. In all of the misfortune, accusations and confusion this case created, it also brought to surface some very serious issues long ignored by the Black Church. Issues around the role the church plays in promoting and encouraging homophobia, its lack of leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the role the clergy plays in the abuse of power. Of course, the abuse of power doesn’t solely exist in the Black Church but it’s significant in terms of its connection to homophobia and HIV. For the first decade and a half, the Black church was absent or barely present in the fight against AIDS. In addition, as seen with the sermons of Bishop Long, the persecution of gays and homosexuality alienated many who went to church for the comfort and security they needed. If one was gay and HIV+, there was no place for you at your home church. A clear case of the disconnect between the church and the community at large. The Black Church is feeding the hungry, sending students to college and building affordable homes, but still alienating and ignoring members of its congregation. In the article, In the Wake of Eddie Long-What’s the State of the Black Church?, Davey Day says “We could go on and on listing examples of where Black churches have stepped up to walk the walk and back up the talk. With all that being said, those of us who are members of a church still have to grapple with the challenging questions before us; ‘Is there a disconnect between the Black church and its aforementioned good works and the community at large?’ If so how and why is that happening?”
How do we begin the process of healing and end the scapegoating. Well, despite the role the church has played in building a history of intolerance and fear. The actions and behavior of Bishop Long lies solely with him. We can’t just blame the Black church, it’s leadership, “Down Low” men or the Black media’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis. There is a responsibility that each and everyone of us must take. What the Bishop Long case should do, is encourage us all to evaluate ourselves and our role in encouraging bad behavior. As Davey D stated in the above mentioned article, “It should inspire us to do some serious self examination. This should be the case if you’re a member of a congregation and it should be the case for the entire body. Self examination should be a constant endeavor.”
In a speech to Essex County College on World AIDS Day 2010, former Congressional candidate and author Kevin Powell said, “We need to stop scapegoating each other. HIV and AIDS is not about “Down Low” men or any other person or group, its simple about bad behavior.
When Bishop Long allegedly used his influence, wealth and power to seduce those young men, it was less of an issue of a possible being gay man on the “Down Low” but a man who was behaving irresponsible. A man who was using his position to get and do what he wanted. When we encourage someone we love to not practice safe sex, that’s bad behavior. When we have sex with someone knowing that we are infected with a STD or HIV, that’s bad behavior. When we don’t use a condom, take regular HIV tests or talk to our partners about having a healthy sex life, that’s bad behavior.
We must move beyond the divide and conquer of blaming “Down Low” brothers for AIDS in our community or playing to people’s shame and insecurities so much that they are afraid to come out to their church community, forcing folks to hide who they are. The church must open its doors to those who are HIV+ by having safe spaces and providing needed services to those infected and affected by HIV. We must figure out how to talk about sex and sexual relationships in an open and honest way in the church. We can change the dynamics of the church, where we empower parishioners to play an active role in the improvement of their lives and sexual health.
As we move into a new year, we must consider the consequences of our individual bad behavior and lack of responsibility. And make a commitment to be more accountable to our loved ones and those who come to us for strength, understanding and compassion. With the added stress of joblessness, unemployment and underemployment, the lack of proper healthcare, limited affordable housing and the increase of foreclosures, we should at least be able to find comfort and honesty in those we trust the most. And if not, as individuals, we can no longer follow blindly. There are no more excuses not to question anyone or accept any behavior that we suspect is bad. We must standup for our own truth. And if someone is behaving badly against us, then we must have the courage and strength to move on and know we are okay for it. Bad behavior can no longer be acceptable or tolerated. Too many lives are at risk to think its okay to behave badly.