Eddie Long has died of cancer.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where the 63-year-old ordained bishop served as senior pastor in Lithonia, Georgia, confirmed his death Sunday morning. His friends, family and supporters may feel this is the time to focus on the work he did in the church. I couldn’t agree more.
The internationally-known megachurch pastor rose to infamy in 2010 when four young men in his congregation accused him of sexual coercion. The young men said that when they were teenagers in the church’s Longfellows Youth Academy, Long used his power and position as pastor to entice them into sexual relationships, taking them on international trips, buying them gifts, and paying for cars, housing and tuition, under the guise of being a “father figure” to them, calling them his “Spiritual Sons” in the church.
The married Long, who once led a march against gay marriage, led “sexual reorientation” classes for queer people and preached the sanctity of marriage, publicly denied the allegations of abuse and vowed to fight them in court, but then settled with the young men out of court. Due to the terms of the settlement, the young men haven’t spoken against Long since, but some of their earlier video interviews express the pain and sense of betrayal they felt because of Long.
Much of that pain fell on deaf ears inside New Birth church, where Long remained senior pastor until his death. In 2011, famous Atlanta pastor with his own legal troubles Creflo Dollar condemned New Birth congregants who had left the church after Long settled. “He had a wreck,” Dollar said, dismissing years of emotional and sexual abuse as a mere accident Long had—to the cheers of his own congregants. Talk of “forgiveness” for Long spewed from many pulpits while the pain of abuse in the church remains a well-known but rarely uttered secret.
To make matters worse, in 2012, guest minister Rabbi Ralph Messner led an elaborate ceremony to crown Long a “king,” wrapping him up in a scroll and hoisting him up in a chair held by four men—a sign to his “haters” that God was on Long’s side—as thousands of New Birth members stood to their feet offering raucous applause. The survivors had to live through these “holy” erasures of their harm, the restoration of their abuser, in silence.
Just last year, Steve Harvey gave Long a national platform to show himself as a humbled and redeemed godly man—still claiming his innocence without saying the words, centering his own suicidal thoughts and “condemnation,” defending his reasoning for settling with the young men and never publicly acknowledging any wrongdoing whatsoever.
So today, as many who publicly dismissed these young men’s pain pour out their condolences for the man, the ministry and the family of Eddie Long, my heart goes out first to the 4 young men who risked everything to tell their stories. My prayers are first for them and anyone else who couldn’t or wouldn’t come forward, against Long or any other abuser, who may be feeling fresh and innumerable pain due to the news of Long’s death and the responses to it.
My thoughts are first with others who have been abused who might be triggered into painful memories by the outpouring of “love” and “respect” for a person who may remind them of their own powerful and celebrated abusers. My prayers are reserved first for the victims to get the healing they need, the safe spaces they need and the support they need to recover from the incidents of abuse and the residual abuse they may face every time another victim is silenced and not believed.
While it is sad and ridiculous that people on social media are speculating about the illness he succumbed to or saying Long’s cancer was God’s “punishment,” when we all know amazing people who’ve died from cancer, the Christian church has much more immediate needs to defend—survivors of abuse.
Christ’s ministry on earth was for “the least of these,” and every powerless, abuse survivor should be the first person the church rallies to protect and to heal. We must believe victims of abuse and center their needs and healing first. That means providing health care and emotional support to those who come forward, creating an atmosphere of belief and unconditional love. That means weeding out the people identified as abusers and getting those people the help they need, away from their victims and other vulnerable people. It shouldn’t matter if the abusers are the senior pastor or a tithing congregant. It is beyond time to stop idolizing pastors and others in positions of power as untouchable gods. Accountability for those who do harm in the church is past due—even if it means less cash in your coffers. Even if it means coming against harmful people who you love.
“Do you love Me more than these?” That’s the question Jesus asked Simon Peter and the question every Christian needs to answer. If we love Christ more than money, more than fame, more than prestige and power, influence and access that megachurch pastors like Long provided, if we love Christ more than we love our friends, family members and mentors who we know are causing harm, we would never again allow predators to roam in our churches, communities or families. We would defend with our last breath the most vulnerable among us, as Christ did with the thief on the cross.
Eddie Long has died, but the sin of abusing and silencing victims still lives. It’s time for the church to put it to rest.