“There’s a Leak in This Old Building
There’s a leak in this old building and my soul . . . has got to move
To another building . . . a building not made by man’s hand.”~Lashun Pace
There is a story that made headlines in 2013 about a Memphis pastor who was arrested for sexual battery on a minor. He had been allegedly sexually abusing a sixteen-year-old member of his church for two years. The teen reported the abuse to adults in the church. Instead of turning the pastor in to the authorities, the parishioners only prayed for the pastor.
People were outraged about the church’s reaction, just as they were outraged when members of Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church defended him when he was accused of sexual misconduct with underage boys in his church.
But this denial has been going on in churches for years.
The Catholic Church’s offenses represent the most publicized cases of sexual abuse of minors spanning decades. The Vatican not only turned a blind eye to the pedophilia among its ranks, it also covered up the crimes and protected the perpetrators.
This is not a new phenomenon; we just know more about the scandals because of social media and a twenty-four-hour news cycle that demands information. I think it was worse in previous generations, in the era of “children should be seen and not heard.” In the times in which I grew up, there was a push to protect so-called leaders whether they were in the church or the White House. We overlooked their flaws for the “greater good.”
I grew up in a church where this was the case. Our pastor was a womanizer. He was a notorious womanizer. But no one ever held him accountable. He had several mistresses. I didn’t need to hear any rumors; I knew about Pastor Johnson firsthand.
I used to spend a lot of time at the home of Ms. Halston. She was my godmother and she had three children. I would often go to her house to play. Pastor Johnson came over for a visit in the middle of the day while I was there once. It seemed strange to me that the pastor would be there. And while I didn’t see them doing anything, I could tell by their nonverbal communication and the way they were moving around each other that something was up. The energy between the two was pretty powerful.
It was said that Ms. Halston was Pastor Johnson’s daughter and her mother was Pastor Johnson’s mistress. Her children were his grandchildren. (They did look just like him.) Ms. Halston’s mother would sit on the back pew with her family on Sunday morning; and everyone whispered about their affair.
I knew Pastor Johnson was a pervert. My sister Tricia (short for Patricia) confessed to me, when we were adults, that Pastor Johnson had tried to have sex with her. She said she told Mother what happened but Mother still insisted that Tricia attend church despite her anguish and emotional duress, repeating the timeless adage, “A family that prays together stays together.” In our household, every human being breathing had to get up and go to church together on Sunday morning. Tricia stopped going to church as soon as she moved out of the house! I always wondered why Tricia stopped going to church. I never imagined that what happened to me had also happened to her.
I had my own experience with Pastor Johnson. He used to ask me to teach Sunday school class while he sat and observed. One Sunday, Pastor Johnson put his arm around me and tried to touch me inappropriately. You know a proper touch and an improper touch. I was twelve, middle-school age. I felt very uncomfortable. As the children started leaving, I knew in my gut to follow them out. I didn’t want to be alone with him. I didn’t even tell my father or my mother, because I was confused and didn’t know how to tell. In my family, saying anything about sex or anything with a sexual implication was prohibited! Growing up, my dad worked 24/7, and I didn’t have an intimate relationship with my mother—my mother was not a nurturer or easily approachable. With so many siblings, I felt as if I was just one in the pack, with no individual value or identity. I learned, much later in life, as my relationship evolved with my mother, that she suffered the same spousal abuse as Pastor Johnson’s wife, as well as childhood abuse and neglect. The fallout of this abuse often took my mother to a distant and incensed emotional space. Most times as a child, I felt I had to take care of myself. Ergo, my response to Pastor Johnson’s advances was to avoid being alone in his presence.
I’m sure just about every girl in our church had a Pastor Johnson experience. But no one ever did anything about it. He would be up in that pulpit every Sunday with his big belly and his wavy hair, preaching and sweating. People would be “Amening!” and shouting hysterically. And they would continue to attend and support the church.
His wife, our first lady, was the meanest woman I have ever known. She was meaner than a rattlesnake. I didn’t put two and two together, because as a kid, all I knew was that First Lady Johnson never smiled and never had a kind word for anyone. But as an adult, I understood why she was so mean. I would be angry too if my husband was blatantly cheating on me with just about anyone he desired, and I had to sit in church and pretend as if I didn’t know. Her only child, a son, died at an early age and she couldn’t have any more children. And here, her husband, the pastor, was having a child with another woman.
In those days, women didn’t leave their husbands. They stayed, despite the humiliation. That type of disrespect would have made me angry and mean too.
Pastor Johnson was a respected man in the community. My mother had a picture of him proudly displayed in our living room. (Mother reluctantly removed the picture after Tricia told her, “If you don’t remove this picture, I won’t be coming home again for another Thanksgiving dinner.”)
Pastor Johnson was a savvy businessman. He owned just about every piece of property around the church, which he used to house a school and provide affordable housing. He had a trade school that helped put black men to work after the war. That was in the 1950s and 1960s.
Then, as today, men in powerful positions felt that they could get away with anything. Add being pastor of a church, and that feeling of entitlement goes to a whole new level.
It was the end of September in 2010 and the scandal was heating up. Three young men, who were members of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, filed a lawsuit claiming that Bishop Eddie Long had “bought them” with cars, lavish trips, and cash in exchange for sex. It was a scandal that would not only rock the church founded by Long—one of the largest and most prestigious churches in Atlanta—this church hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King—this scandal, would also put a bright spotlight on the Christian faith.
It was one of a string of recent scandals with preachers, pastors, and church leaders. We had seen Jim Bakker, husband of Tammy Faye and pastor of the Assemblies of God Church and the PTL (Praise the Lord) television ministry go to jail for fraud. We saw Jimmy Swaggart get in front of the world, crying, “I have sinned . . .” when he was busted with prostitutes and removed from the ministry. We had seen Ted Haggard, leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, get caught with a male escort and some crystal meth and have to step down from his church.
But this was different—Eddie Long refused to step down. He had just as many supporters as he had detractors calling for his head. And this case was bigger than Eddie Long. This kind of thing—preachers being disgraced—was becoming so prevalent that people no longer cared as much. Eddie Long became merely a symptom of a greater ill that was infecting our church—hypocrisy. And he was far from alone. By now, I knew this firsthand.
The media reached out to Dennis Meredith, my ex-husband, to respond to the Eddie Long scandal. I understood why they contacted him. His church was the only African-American church in Atlanta to welcome openly gay members. And he had just come out as gay himself. It was a natural fit. But when he called me, and asked me, what I thought about him responding, I said, “No way. Stay out of it!”
I saw that Dennis would have a choice of just two responses: Attempt to explain it and come out in support of Eddie Long—which would have been absurd and disastrous—or condemn Eddie Long. Publicly condemning Eddie Long would have made Dennis a hypocrite of the highest order. While I didn’t know him to have sexual relations with minors, Dennis was (a middle-aged pastor) living with a boyfriend who was twenty-something years old when they got together—the affair started while Dennis was still married to me. There would be countless scandals to uncover in Dennis’s life if the media wanted to start digging. I thought it was best that he stay out of the mess, and I thought he should definitely not throw a single stone at Eddie Long. I didn’t think anyone should be out there throwing stones, because none of us is without fault. But Dennis responded anyway.
And the hypocrisy grew.
Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., who was a member of Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, left his congregation. I laughed at that one. In 2004, Bernice King and Eddie Long led a march near Freedom Parkway, of all places, which leads to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, an emblem of freedom and justice. The march was against gay marriage.
In the Atlanta gay community, this was a travesty because homosexual rumors had long been swirling about Long. So this march was simply disingenuous and political. The march against gay marriage got a lot of media attention. However, there was also an Atlanta gay magazine that threatened to “out” Long if he didn’t stop his hypocritical, bigoted behavior. When I saw Long and Bernice King on television, holding those torches and speaking out against the ills of homosexuality, I thought to myself, We’re in trouble here.
We weren’t in trouble because Long or King might both be gay and were leading a march against gays. The trouble was deeper than that: The focus of the church changed from inspiring, healing, empowering, saving, and restoring broken lives and communities to the “politics of religion”—a serious disconnect from the real purpose and mission of Jesus Christ.
Fast-forward and the Eddie Long scandal hits, and he settles out of court with those young boys, and Bernice King leaves his church and all of a sudden changes her stance on gays and gay marriage. But the real issues still haven’t been addressed.
What’s really going wrong within the church?
On any given Sunday and most early mornings and late nights, you can turn on your television and see preachers with congregations so big that they have to hold services in a football stadium or a basketball arena. They are preaching prosperity and other things that may be good, but you have to ask yourself, Where’s God in all of this? And while it’s great that they have so many attending their churches and events, are they really feeding their flocks? This question rephrased in lay vernacular: Are churches today in the business of helping people, families, and society?
I turn on the television and see preachers and preachers’ wives and families on reality TV shows. They aren’t talking about how their ministries are improving lives and the community. They are talking about themselves. We’re looking at their quirks, their possessions, their relationships—we’re getting charged up and entertained because of the conflict and tension in their relationships. It’s like a soap opera.
Some of these pastors have the status of rock stars and celebrities. They drive Bentleys and Rolls-Royces and own private jets. They live in 15,000-square-foot mansions and have bodyguards. The church and preaching today is business, serious business—but not necessarily God’s business—as it markets hate, oppression, political agenda, narcissism, and materialism. The church has become a predator, crippling society and intensifying its perversion.
The church used to be about reaching the masses with the kinds of things that promote love, healing, unity, and bring positive change to families and communities. The majority of churches today are not a part of the conversation or solution: to reduce blight and crime in our communities; to challenge systems that incarcerate and murder young boys of color; to break the cycle of poverty (reducing school dropouts and teenage pregnancy and multiple unwed births [biological fathers unknown]); to remove drugs and drug lords from our street corners, which are literally destroying the institution of families, neighborhoods, and communities; to hold schools accountable to educate our children (our sons and daughters will not reach third grade unable to read) and will be formidable scholars in America and globally. In summary, sermon content and church programming are far removed from healing and transforming broken and dysfunctional families and depraved conditions in our communities.
When I was growing up, we had Father Divine and Reverend Ike. But they weren’t the norm. And they got a lot of criticism from pastors around the country that looked at them as undermining the work of God. Today, Father Divine and Reverend Ike would be the norm. Ministers have become popular and wealthy, by promoting themes of instant personal wealth or instant physical health or hate, through sensationalism, misrepresentations, and superstition. This has become the norm.
To the contrary, the church exists to “be rich” in good deeds, which mitigate the ills of our society and to shine light on God and point humankind to God, its Founder.
We’re a far cry from that church described in the Book of Acts more than two thousand years ago. Despite being tortured, mass murdered, and losing their lives, the first-century church was hallmarked by loving, serving, and meeting the needs of others. This church preached and embraced the practice of love and acceptance. This church lived out the values it professed. This church honored the message and legacy of Jesus Christ.
For me, this is all very personal and hit very close to home.
I was one of those preachers’ wives who sat in the pew many a Sunday morning while my “real” life was a fraud. I discovered several years into my marriage that my husband was cheating on me—with men—numerous men. (And women too, I later found out). But I stayed. I stayed through the broken promises and the humiliation because I believed and hoped that things would get better. I watched my husband stand in that pulpit on Sunday morning, preaching one message and living out yet another. I needed answers.
The first place I turned to for answers was God. I prayed. I wept. I prayed. I wept. I prayed and I wept. God woke me at 3 a.m. in the morning, I sat straight up in the middle of my bed, before the break of dawn. I said out loud to myself, “I’m going back to school.” So, I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in religion with an emphasis on Christian education to get some answers. What did Jesus really say about homosexuality? What was Jesus’ message about gays? I wanted to be an authority on the subject that had ripped my family apart. I prayed my entire young life for God to send me a husband—God always answers my prayers—why did I end up marrying a gay man? My middle son is gay and HIV positive: how in the world did this happen—three sons, same incubator, same environment, conceived by the same parents, yet two sons are heterosexual and one son is homosexual—is this biological, genetic, what? My traditional brand of Christianity could not answer these questions—I needed God to help me understand, to reconcile my faith tradition with the facts of my life, to heal my broken heart.
Here’s what I found: Jesus never mentions homosexuality. If Jesus, infinitely wise, the founder of our faith, thought it was so important—surely Jesus would have broached the subject “head on.” Jesus had prime opportunity to broach the subject—when he reflected upon the sin of Sodom (Luke 10:12)—but he didn’t—he lifted from this story one point—be hospitable and kind to strangers. Surely if Jesus felt same-sex love was abhorrent—he would have stated this explicitly in the text—knowing that 2,000 years later, this subject would create a great political and religious debate and divide—but he didn’t.
Jesus’ entire ministry was hallmarked by “inclusion” of society’s rejects. And Jesus’ ministry and teachings actually show more tolerance and love for people who are labeled different—than the church and preachers currently preach—from the Catholics (before Pope Francis) to the evangelical movement.
What I did find was this: The church needs a new kind of ministry—one steeped in the tradition of the ministry “started” by Jesus—free of bias, discrimination, hate, or prejudice; and marked by loving God and loving others—the key to social transformation.
“Faith hate and hypocrisy” is the paradox that has arrested my life’s attention. Edgar G. Hawkins said, “The church is implicated in the sickness of our society, because it failed to protect its own values.” Lifted from politically and economically charged interpretations of the biblical texts are the notions that God condemns homosexuals to hell; God condemns people of color to a life of slavery/servitude; and God condemns women to certain life roles and conditions. Oppression and discrimination that thrives in society are fueled and justified by these debated, unsubstantiated notions that are not upheld by the teachings of Jesus and the life practice of Jesus. Jesus as the perfect revelation of God is truth. Ergo, the church must begin to live and preach the truth: to lay aside foolishness—thought and practice that impedes peace, harmony and right living—and secure and uphold thought and practice that saves and transforms lives and communities.
So I’m going to share my story, my truth, in hopes that it inspires people (who are oppressed and made ill by faith hate and hypocrisy) to pick up your sick beds and walk—walk in truth. I hope that my story will inspire love, expressed best through forgiveness. I pray it will move society to a consciousness of accountability, responsibility, and an acceptance and tolerance of diversity (race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, ability, personality), a diversity intentionally created by God. And most important, I hope that my story will lead us all to a deeper understanding and loving relationship with God and God’s greatest creation—humankind.
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Excerpted from The Gay Preacher’s Wife : How My Gay Husband Deconstructed My Life and Reconstructed My Faith by:Lydia Meredith Copyright © 2016 by Lydia Meredith. Excerpted by permission of Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.