Public denunciations of homosexuality often mask private same-sex desire. Just ask Ted Haggart, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, Richard Curtis, and Ken Melman. So, I was not surprised when I learned that Bishop Eddie Long, the Georgia mega-church pastor now facing charges that he abused his “spiritual authority” to win sexual favors, is a staunch opponent of gay marriage and a vocal critic of gay rights. In December 2004 Long led a “Re-Ignite the Legacy” march through the streets of Atlanta to, in his words, “present a vision of righteousness and justice.” Opposition to same-sex marriage was at the top of the march’s agenda, earning Long the title of “Anti-Gay Bishop.”
The charges by four young men have only recently been filed, and it is not yet clear if Long broke any laws. But as we wait for this story to continue to unfold and for the facts to become clear, there is much to learn from it already. If nothing else, the Bishop Long same-sex scandal has provided us with a crucial teaching and learning moment, and we must seize it.
To my mind, one of the most important lessons is this: If your pastor drives a Bentley and wears a watch with a value equivalent to your annual salary, it is time for you to find another church. But the lessons go even deeper, cutting to the heart of black church history and culture, particularly as it relates to issues of sex and sexuality.
The first thing to know is that scandals such as this one are not new. They have been around so long that the “wayward black minister” has become a trope of black film, song, and literature. I’m thinking first of Zeke, the hypersexualized mass of a man in King Vidor’s 1929 film Hallelujah. After having been partly responsible for the death of his younger brother, a remorseful Zeke “gets saved” and experiences a call to preach. He becomes a powerful preacher, and all is well until Chick appears. She is a temptress, and Zeke cannot resist her. Therefore, in the parlance of many black churches today, he “fell.” Paul Robeson played the role of Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins in Oscar Micheau’s 1925 film Body and Soul. Like Eddie Long, Rev. Jenkins could also claim that he was “not a perfect man.” Indeed, Rev. Jenkins was a ruthless con whose sole purpose was to swindle his hardworking congregation out of their money.
But we need not reach back to the 1920s for examples or rely on fictional accounts. Sex scandals have been a mainstay of black preachers in contemporary times as well. Jamal Harrison Bryant, the youthful and exuberant pastor of Empowerment Temple of Baltimore was caught in a web of marital infidelities that cost him his marriage two years ago. (It did not, however, cost him his church.) The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. has perhaps recovered from the hit his character took in 2001 when it was revealed that he had fathered a child by one of his senior staff persons, Karin Stanford. But I do say “perhaps.”
Accusations of same-sex indiscretion are also not new to black churches. In 1939 the Chicago Defender revealed that the Illinois State’s attorney had begun investigating one of the city’s most prominent African-American preachers for reasons of a “scandalous” nature. The Rev. Clarence Cobbs had become a legend on the South Side, known as much for his flamboyant dress, fancy cars, and celebrity entourage as for his ministry. Although the nature of the scandal was never disclosed, Cobbs’ response to the rumors gave an insightful clue. For many weeks after the Chicago Defender article appeared Cobbs insisted on his radio broadcast and from his pulpit that he was a “full man.”
In 1956, Detroit’s Rev. James F. (Prophet) Jones — a friendly rival of Cobbs’ — was arrested on charges of “gross indecency” for having fondled the undercover vice agent assigned to investigate him. The night of the arrest, police found Jones locked in his bedroom with “two youths,” presumably young men. Like Cobbs, Jones was given to expensive clothing and lived a lavish lifestyle. Although he was acquitted when an all-white jury determined that he had been entrapped, Jones’s reputation faltered.
This aspect of the history is complicated for a number of reasons. It was not their same-sex desire that got Cobbs and Jones in trouble and nearly toppled their ministries. It was their abuse of power and indiscretion. Everyone knew they preferred men, and very few among their congregations or fellow ministers expressed any problem with it. They lived openly, though under a code of silence about their sexualities. (An unfortunate system of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”) It may seem unimaginable today, but Cobbs, Jones, and many others served during a time in black America, prior to the civil rights era, when ministers were judged by the quality of their work not by their sexual preferences.
We need to recover something from that time but go even further. If we do not, incidents such as the Eddie Long scandal will continue to emerge, inflicting more harm on countless persons, as well as further rupturing the prophetic mission of the church. We can begin by having more honest and mature talk about the realities of sex and sexuality in our churches. And the reality is that homosexual persons have always played a crucial role in black churches. The homophobia must stop.
One of my Princeton colleagues recently pronounced the “death of the black church.” If by that he means a church that fails to create a welcome place at the table for all God’s children, I say good riddance. A new vision for African-American churches (dare I say all American churches) is one that is inclusive, universal, and forward-thinking. In a church like that, no one would have to hide behind a mask, and they would be less likely to hurt themselves or anyone else.