“Repent ye therefore, and be converted.” –Acts 3:19
Rev. Jamal Bryant, the former pastor of Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church, has inherited the pulpit of the late Bishop Eddie Long. While the public has speculated about both Bryant’s and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church’s motivations for this move or whether Long’s son had applied for the senior pastor position, few have engaged the question of why this change really matters.
Some have argued the move from one black megachurch to another black megachurch is no big deal, and that the shift from pastoring in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to the National Baptist Convention is not that noteworthy, given the similar charismatic traditions and historical trajectories of each. However, Bryant’s move to New Birth is indicative of something larger, and perhaps, much more pernicious. It is about a culture of silence around misogyny, womanizing and sexual abuse in the church.
Bryant, otherwise known as the “these hoes ain’t loyal” and “sanctified sissies” preacher despite his own infidelities, is the successor to the late Bishop Long, a raging homophobe who had been accused of sexually abusing four young men—Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson, who were teenagers at the time of their accusations. Like most sexual abusers—in and outside of the church—Long allegedly “groomed” these young men with lavish gifts and exorbitant trips. Although the case was settled out of court, the black church culture that made such abuses possible is what needs to be deeply interrogated.
As I’ve written previously:
Long’s members stood behind him. Although the New Birth Christian Academy closed down, the church doors remained open. Congregants heard these children’s horrifying allegations of sexual abuse and many remained faithful to Long, even as he preached messages condoning homophobia, the subjugation of women and rape culture.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church missed three pivotal moments to appropriately address Long and the issue of sexual abuse. The first time was when the allegations emerged. The second was when Long preached his infamous sermon likening himself to David fighting Goliath. He said: “I’ve been accused. I’m under attack. As I said earlier, I am not a perfect man. But this thing, I’m gonna fight ... I feel like David against Goliath. But I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.”Sadly, four of the five stones represented the four young men who came forward.
Lastly, the third time for reckoning was when Long passed away. (I reached out to New Birth for comment but had not received one by the time this piece was scheduled for publication.)
What would it have meant for New Birth to stand with the survivors and to have held Long accountable? Would such “love with accountability,” to borrow the words of anti-rape activist and director of NO! The Rape Documentary Aishah Shahidah Simmons, have broken the silence around sexual violence and patriarchy in black churches? How would this alternative story resulted in an alternative ending? Would Jamal Bryant have been New Birth’s pick had they appropriately handled Long’s transgressions?
To be clear, I am not arguing that Bryant has done what Long did; rather, I am arguing the culture that protected Long is the same culture that elected Bryant.
The Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale Divinity School, has described this as “Afro-ecclesial patriarchy.” In a conversation regarding Bryant’s new position, she told me, “The black church has never been on the front lines for women and sexual minorities, especially not with the same rigor as for those marginalized by race. It is not surprising, then, that black churches celebrate these self-avowed sexist, misogynist and homophobic men.”
Turman, the author of the forthcoming book Black Women’s Burden: Male Power, Gender Violence, and the Scandal of African American Social Christianity, later contended, “If the black church was really the black church, committed to the gospel of a black Christ, how can we celebrate men who hate us, the very people that Jesus came to redeem and save? What kind of church are we?” A black womanist theologian, Turman insists, “we should ask ourselves if New Birth is truly a black church or if we are witnessing the performance of black religiosity.”
Again, while most of the discussion has been about Bryant’s motives for his new post, it is imperative that the church thinks about what is most important, and whose lives are most at stake. As the Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman writes, “Every congregation contains victims of sexual violence [and] because silence is a response of tolerance, the church must respond.”
Indeed, Bryant’s recent move to New Birth, along with the aforementioned three missed opportunities, leads me to think about a new opportunity that has materialized for New Birth to address the covering of sexual abuse in its very recent history. As Turman states, “No pastor is perfect, but as we strive toward the high calling of the pastorate, repentance matters.”
Of course, Bryant cannot repent for Long, but Bryant and New Birth can repent for their participation in the Afro-ecclesial patriarchal culture that valorized Long.
Sevonna Brown, the assistant executive director at Black Women’s Blueprint has said: “Reconciliation is the cornerstone for healing within the black church. We must restore the black church space as a haven for survivors, and shatter the silence for every survivor that sits in the pews on Sunday morning.”
Following his final sermon at Empowerment Temple, Bryant told the Baltimore Sun he was “excited by this new chapter but overwhelmed by the close of a chapter.”
Hopefully, he and New Birth will think critically together about what this new chapter can look like so that its contents will allow them to stand without shame or condemnation on the right side of history.