It's not surprising Bishop Eddie Long received a strong applause of support when he told the packed pews of New Birth that he "was not a perfect man... but this thing I will fight." Long has spent almost the better of two decades building his congregation into a multi-million dollar mega-church. He preached prosperity and practiced what he preached -- wearing, driving, flying and living in the reward of his labor. In an imperfect world, New Birth for its pastor and parishioners is a symbol of the commitment each put in the dream. African-Americans have fought for their dreams since the days of reconstruction and the church has always been a part of that vision. It is hard to separate the two.
But what is surprising is the fact Bishop Long has been able to spew an evangelical view from a pulpit surrounded by African-Americans that denigrates individuals and dismisses them as hell-bound souls merely because of their sexual orientation.
Bishop Long has long been seen as one of the most outspoken religious leaders against homosexuality. For evangelical preachers to call same-sex behavior a sin is nothing new. But Long made it a crusade. He lead marches across Atlanta denouncing gays. Civil Rights icon Julian Bond has called him a "raving homophobe." He had made it a pillar of his pastoral teachings.
Some have called the current scandal of four young men who say Long coerced them into having sex -- using his luxury and influence to keep a cabal of young men for his sexual pleasure ironic and hypocritical. It is far more than that.
It is dangerous and costing young African-American lives.
Bishop Long's vehemently anti-gay preaching is just one example of why the Black Church has been slow to tackle the issue of HIV/AIDS in this country -- particularly in the south. It is views like his and quite honestly too many others that have made the crisis worst. That is not a christian principle -- it should be considered criminal.
African-Americans have become the face of this disease. Blacks make up 50 percent of all new AIDS cases. Two out of three new infections among women are Black and 70 percent of cases in people younger than 18 are African-American. Overall 25 percent of people who currently have HIV don't even know it and they are responsible for 75 percent of all new infections. What is startling in all of this is that the black women who are becoming infected classify themselves as heterosexual while dispite the evidence so do the black men. The CDC contradicts that with data showing the virus is being spread by men having sex with men and then unknowingly passing it to women.
Sex has never been an open topic in the black community -- and homosexual behavior has always been a taboo discussion. Which is how black leaders like Bishop Long can continue to enjoy such standing and support.
The Bishop Long scandal should not be an opportunity to discuss the sexual extra-curricular activities of one pastor or another. It should be a moment to finally face this topic head on and realize that views like those held by Eddie Long are counterproductive to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the black community.
People are dying.
It is not all lost. There are some churches that have decided to step up. Black Churches in Los Angeles, Chicago, Charlotte and in other cities have decided to not only create ministries to encourage church members to get tested, but also preach about the crisis in the pulpit. These churches provide evidence that the long conversation is finally beginning and should be applauded as loud as Bishop Long was last Sunday.
But for an institution that has always been at the forefront of social justice issues -- particularly those impacting their parishioners and their families -- it should be embarrassing that more churches and more pastors have not stepped forward.
No one is suggesting that churches and ministers change their religious ethos. But we must be able to preach the gospel and practice good citizenry, as well. Despite the millions of dollars New Birth generates for the service of its ministries -- not one is dedicated to stemming the tide of HIV infections. That is disappointing since Georgia is one of 13 states that has seen an increase in rate of infection.
What comes of the Bishop Long scandal no one knows. If he resigns the church or wins the fight is beside the point. But if we let this opportunity pass by without fully addressing the homophobia that has prevented an aggressive assault on AIDS in the black community -- it's going to be a long time before it comes again. And that will be a bigger scandal.
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