I empathize with Eddie Long's accusers.
In August, two of them, Spencer LaGrande and Jamal Parris, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the alleged wounds of what they call exploitation by the man they knew as "bishop" and "Daddy" are still fresh.
"I'm fighting not to pull the trigger," Parris said, days after receiving probation for drug and gun possession charges. "I'd love to take pills and never wake up."
"The truth should've set [us] free," he added, paraphrasing John 8:32. "I thought I could cover the pain up. I thought I could move, start over and everything would go away. I was terribly wrong. I'm living a lifestyle meant to crash."
Those summer interviews with the newspaper and two Atlanta TV stations, during which LaGrande and Parris reaffirmed accusations of sexual coercion by the mega-church pastor when they were teens, have jeopardized nearly $1 million of a settlement they and fellow litigants have been paid by Long (who has denied the allegations and settled the lawsuit for "closure"). Moreover, they have lost their legal team because of Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church's request for a new arbitration hearing.
I worry most about Anthony Flagg and Maurice Robinson, also part of the settlement, who must remain silent.
I know this silence and shame well.
When I was about 17, a minister, roughly 20 years my senior, visited my family's Baptist church and accepted an on-the-spot invitation to preach. Throughout his sermon, we locked eyes, and in his, I sensed that he could relate to the open secret about which I was teased, a hypersensitivity that church leaders dismissed as an "extra dispensation of the Holy Ghost."
Masculinity and femininity commingled in me in ways I didn't mask the way every other boy in my rural north-Florida town who shared this secret seemed to. While most were careful to have girlfriends and brag — or lie — about sex, I was "waiting until marriage." I cried without shame. I was "the elect," a faithful usher, church announcer and outspoken leader of a regional collective of young believers.
After service, I lingered as everyone moved into the dining hall and parking lot. This minister lingered, too. He was full-bodied and had shown that he knew his way around the Bible and the musical scale, making him even more attractive.
I had longed to meet someone, besides family and friends, who didn't balk at the congenital paralysis of my left hand, or Erb's palsy, on which I had always blamed others' rejection. I'd let a lifetime of jeers about my sexuality and physical difference undermine my self-confidence. I'd put up walls to avoid being hurt. It would be years before I would begin the ongoing process of forgiveness and healing.
But that day, heart palpitating, I hastened to the pulpit, where he stood, to put the announcement book in its place. He leaned over and extended his hand. "We have something in common, you know," he said, eyebrows raised as he caressed my palm with his fingers, his smile suddenly sinister.
His was a grin of desire that I had seen on the faces of many peers amid tackles on the football field and whispers in the band room, his eyes leering like those I'd glimpsed in darkened locker rooms and late-night bus rides after ball games.
This was not the curious confusion I'd felt as a child, playing house with boys and girls alike, rubbing undeveloped, clothed bodies together, imitating what we'd sneaked and watched on late-night cable, no real desire present. This was something very adult, something I knew I couldn't handle yet. What he had to offer, what he wanted, was not at all like the romance in the musicals — Camelot, Funny Girl, Lady Sings the Blues — that I loved.
Subconsciously, I had to have known that this out-of-towner could not offer me the relationship I craved, but when he spoke, it became clear as well water. I did what I'd done throughout my pubescence: I let my naïveté work for me.
"Oh, we do? That's nice," I mumbled as I pulled away, tossed into the pulpit the announcement book I'd held under my arm and scurried into the safety of the crowd's din — maybe because I knew that my parents awaited me there. Maybe because I knew a father's day-to-day affirming love and couldn't settle for a warped imitation.
For years, I didn't tell my parents — or anyone — about that incident or my dreams for romance with a man of color. Instead, once I entered the world outside that little town, my desire for partnership led me into the arms of other men — many of the cloth — who, like that minister, could not reciprocate the love I offered.
One was an avowed former "son" of Long. In our brief time together, this acolyte alluded to leaving New Birth because of the unsettling narrative alleged last fall by the civil suit. Thus, none of the events of this past year have surprised me.
Are we ready to embrace them? To forgive those who have committed indiscretions against wives and children? Might we rethink centuries of slavishly (and selectively) wielding messages of fire and brimstone that set so much of these events into motion?
For many, these charges — and allegations of Long's involvement in what parishioners say was a Ponzi scheme — have rendered Long little more than a coward, one whose choices are legally fail-safe but morally questionable.
Only a wholehearted apology can start the journey to healing, but I wouldn't advise holding your breath for it. Instead, I offer this mirror: Those of us who remain silent and look the other way as abuses of power around us persist are equally cowards.
Unequivocally, Frederick Douglass said in an 1857 speech, "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
And never has this charge been more prescient. We who have experienced and/or seen abuses of power — including mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts who have much to tell — must reclaim our power and speak out. Sober-minded, forward-thinking people of faith must join Carlton Pearson and others focused on ending the game of blaming the ills of this world on an angry God and a reckless, hell-raising devil.
We must incite conversations that challenge the exploitation we see and inspire the children in our spheres of influence — especially those who are lacking in some aspect of parenting — to look in the mirror and see their own intrinsic value.
Far too many who feel powerless and discarded are ending their lives or continuing horrific cycles of abuse.
I know that these young men, women and I are not alone. We are among an unimaginable number who try fiercely to suppress years of pain and anger.
We need to hear about your experiences. It's time to speak up.
There, a healing dialogue awaits us all.
With suicide reports proliferating, we have no right to remain silent any longer.
L. Lamar Wilson, an English Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a longtime copy editor, has published essays and poems in the Washington Post, Rattle, Post No Ills, Connotation Press Online, Vinyl and The 100 Best African American Poems, edited by Nikki Giovanni.