Mixed Reaction After Bishop Addresses Gay Sex Allegations

Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, vowed to fight allegations of sexual relationships with young men at the church. He made his first public response Sunday to the 25,000-member congregation. Host Michel Martin speaks with reporter Charles Edwards of WABE, and theologian Michael Dash of the Interdenominational Theological Center. (12:00)

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And I want to start today by noting that we are going to be talking about some sensitive issues that might not be considered appropriate for everybody listening, but we think these are important topics. So that's why we're talking about them.

In a few minutes, we'll talk about new government figures that show that one out of five men who have sex with other men are HIV positive, and a very large number of them do not know it.

We will also talk about why the Catholic bishops are fighting to keep contraception out of the preventive care services that must be covered under the new health care law. Those conversations are later.

But we begin with the allegations against Bishop Eddie Long, the senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. That's just outside Atlanta.

Four young men have filed lawsuits saying that Bishop Long abused his authority as their spiritual leader to manipulate them into sexual relationships. The bishop, who has been speaking through his attorney, made his first public response yesterday to his congregation, fighting promising, rather, to fight the allegation.

He was met with applause and support from his congregation, and this is just a little bit of what he had to say.

(Soundbite of sermon)

Bishop EDDIE LONG (Senior Pastor, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church): Please hear this: I've been accused; I'm under attack. I want you to know, as I said earlier, I am not a perfect man. But this thing, I'm going to fight.

(Soundbite of applause)

Bishop LONG: And I want you to know one other thing: I feel like David against Goliath. But I've got five rocks, and I haven't thrown one yet.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Bishop Long, who has led New Birth since 1987, is noted as one of the most prominent and successful megachurch pastors in the country. He has also been noted for his stern preaching against same-sex marriage and homosexuality, two stances that are challenged by the legal complaints. The suits are filed against him, the church and Longfellows Youth Academy. That's a program for young men aged 13 to 18.

Here to talk with us about this are Charles Edwards, who's been covering this story for member station WABE in Atlanta; he was at yesterday's service - and also with us Michael Dash, professor of ministry and context, and an expert in congregational studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He also has taught Bishop Long. And I welcome you both to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLES EDWARDS: Thank you.

Dr. MICHAEL DASH (Theologian, Interdenominational Theological Center): Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: And Charles Edwards, if you would just set the stage for us. First of all, just tell us about New Birth in general. I mean, just watching the stream of the - the video stream of the sermon, that is a huge congregation. On a normal Sunday, is it that way?

EDWARDS: Actually, I talked to one of the parishioners after the service, who said that the 8 a.m. service usually does not have that many people. If you can imagine miles of cars trying to drive in just to get to the service on time, that was really the scene.

If you go to New Birth, it in itself is like a city within a city. It's on a lot of acres. They've got a lot of the actual church itself has 25,000 members. So it was I mean, it was just huge.

It looked like a performance, to be honest with you, not from the standpoint of Bishop Eddie Long but just the amount of people there, the large applause. It was a scene.

MARTIN: And what was the scene there? Like, what was the atmosphere like? I understand you were in the media room - which makes sense - but what, just what was the atmosphere like? Was there a sense of hopefulness? Was there a sense of anxiety? What was it like?

EDWARDS: I would say it was large support. I mean, this was this is the man who is the religious leader, the spiritual leader, of this entire congregation.

We were in the media room, as you said. So we were able to see and hear his 20-minute sermon. But when the applause got loud, you could hear it through the walls. So there was definitely a large amount of support for Bishop Long as he made his first public comment.

MARTIN: Did you get a chance to speak with any of the parishioners about how they responded, particularly to what he had to say? There were some comments, reported in the local newspapers, from some parishioners who said that they weren't as convinced as they hoped to have been. But some people - of course, as you said - were absolutely pleased by what he had to say. What did you hear?

EDWARDS: Yes. I think - as we've been talking about - New Birth is a big congregation. So there's going to be a mixed number of feelings and responses to what Bishop Long said.

I did speak with one man who came all the way from Greenville, Mississippi, who says he's not a member of New Birth. He's not even a regular churchgoer there. He's been there from time to time in the past, but he wanted to come on Sunday specifically to, as he says, lift the man up.

He was let down by a lot of the news about Bishop Long throughout the past week. And when I asked him what he meant by let down, he said that he felt the media is not giving Bishop Long a fair shake, that they're looking at him as guilty before being proven innocent, as opposed to the other way around.

I did speak to another gentleman who said that right now, he doesn't feel like he should have an opinion because all we know is the allegations in this case, and we haven't heard Bishop Long make specific comments about the allegations in the lawsuits. And until that time, we should have patience and prayer, as he said. said.

But he said that it's very reasonable and understandable for a lot of people to think that once these allegations are - sort of run their course through the legal system, if it comes out that he did do the things he's been accused of, that many would say that many within New Birth would say this is not acceptable, and this is not something that I'm going to support from my pastor or from my bishop.

MARTIN: Well, let me just play another short clip from Bishop Long's comments. As you said, it was about a 20-minute-long sermon and a number of scriptural references, as you would imagine. Let me just play a short clip of what he had to say about the way he is being portrayed. Here it is.

(Soundbite of sermon)

Bishop LONG: There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never, in my life, portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me. That is not me.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Professor Dash, may I ask you, how do you interpret Bishop Long's comments there?

Dr. DASH: There's a very interesting way to interpret it, and as I was listening to it, it's a very clever expression of double entendre. On the one hand suggesting, I'm not a perfect man - you know - and I'm being sort of assaulted in the press. So you've got to make up your mind, how do I understand that? And those who heard him, I think, had that kind of challenge.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how you interpreted it?

Dr. DASH: I took it first of all, I was interested in the sermon, which I thought was a good sermon that expressed to the congregation what a congregation should hear.

And it's good in the classic Baptist sense that he was alliterative. So he says, life presents us with painful challenges, but there are resources to help us and there are remedies. And I think that's a good way of expressing it.

When he alluded to the fact that, I'm not a perfect man, I think he gave some sort of opening for an interpretation that could go either way. Yeah, I'm flawed and imperfect, but then he insists, I am not the man that's being represented. So, you know, one is left open to make a decision on it.

MARTIN: I mean, I'm just wondering if, you know, from a spiritual, from a theological perspective, that is a message that people often do expect to hear from their leaders - which is to say, I'm a flawed vessel just as you are.

On the other hand, these are very specific allegations. And while he has said before, and his representatives have said, he's not going to try this case in the press, it doesn't seem unreasonable to come out and say: I never had a sexual relationship with these men; there was nothing biblically improper; there was nothing socially improper about my relationship with these men - if, indeed, nothing is improper.

And so, Professor Dash, because you know Bishop Long well, I do want to ask why you think he didn't just come out and say, this never happened.

Dr. DASH: Well, I don't think he could have done that precisely because he subjected himself to the legal system. And if he makes a statement like that, he's putting himself, you know, in jeopardy in terms of the legal process.

So he affirmed, I trust the legal process, I'm going to subject myself to the legal process. I don't want to be tried in the media and that kind of thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining...

Dr. DASH: How it comes out, you know, I don't know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Bishop Eddie Long's first public response to the allegations of sexual impropriety against him. We're speaking with theologian Michael Dash, who has taught Bishop Long; and reporter Charles Edwards, who's been covering this story. Bishop Long, as we said, is senior pastor of the megachurch New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, just outside Atlanta.

Professor Dash, how do you respond he's saying, look, I'll be I was here at 8 o'clock on Sunday. I'll be here next week. How do you respond to that?

Dr. DASH: Well, he's saying, you know, I'm pretty sure and confident, you know, that next week I'll be here because I have not yet been displaced, or I don't anticipate being displaced.

I think what's going on, in my view - as I have observed in black - religious experience in black churches, that folk know about stuff and tacitly, you know, accept stuff in spite of.

And I'm not even making an evaluation on this particular situation. But I think where we are, as we look at it, is to call, as I think where Jonathan Walton ended, for us to - let's be open about what's going on. Let's talk about stuff. Let's have the kind of conversation that says in our religious experience, you know - which is what he said in sermon - that things happen. There are real situations. They're ugly situations. The situation's a disappointment - and those kinds of things. And how do we deal with that? And I think his sermon presented that.

But my own particular perspective on it has to do with the responsibility of religious leaders, not only in the black church but in all situations, to be authentic, to deal with their own stuff.

So when he says, I'm not a perfect man, he's making that kind of declaration, we're not perfect, we're not God. We're human beings.

MARTIN: Sure.

Dr. DASH: But that if in point of fact we recognize our own flawedness and our own imperfections, we should not visit them on other people.

MARTIN: And Charles Edwards, final thought from you. What is next in this case? Bishop Long said that he is not going to try this case in the press; he's going to try it in the court of law. What are the next steps in this case, in this matter?

EDWARDS: Yeah, I mean, he says he doesn't want to try it in the press, but that doesn't mean that the case is going to stop in the press. The attorney who has been representing the four men, now, who are accusing Bishop Long of these acts, sort of every day since this lawsuit came out, this last week, there's been a new revelation or a new lawsuit or new information.

So I think what will be interesting to see - if there's anything more. Are there any more people who are making these allegations, any more pictures that will come out?

MARTIN: Right.

EDWARDS: Some have sort of rumored about a settlement, but we don't know. We'll just have to wait and see.

MARTIN: All right, well, please do keep us posted. Charles Edwards is a reporter at NPR's member station WABE in Atlanta, and he spoke with us on the line from Atlanta. Also with us, Michael Dash, professor of ministry and context at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He was kind enough to join us, once again, from WCLK in Atlanta. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

Dr. DASH: Thank you very much.

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