By Hakim Hasan
Black preachers who engage in authoritarian, inappropriate, sexist, and criminal behavior are an old story. The old boy network of pastors will publically criticize and even boycott rappers, but not other preachers for similar and even worse behavior, behavior hasn’t received adequate scrutiny. The publication of Jesus, Jobs and Justice by Betty Thomas-Collier suggests that that tendency is not changing anytime soon.
Late last year, Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia Georgia, was the focus of a sex scandal that made national headlines. He was sued by four male and former members of his congregation for allegedly coercing them to have sex when they were teenagers. The case is now in mediation in a Georgia court.
If one looks beneath the surface, it’s immediately apparent that Long is not alone. Several similar cases made national headlines during the past decade.
In 2001, Allie Johnson, a reporter for The Pitch, wrote a lengthy article called “Devine Debauchery” about Saundra McFadden. McFadden, a devout church member who aspired to be an ordained pastor, sued her pastor and a senior elder at the Kansas City African Methodist Episcopal church for sexual harassment back in 1998.
Johnson writes: “After a few minutes of small talk, Williams—Saundra’s boss, counselor and minister—smoothly invited Saundra and her husband, Rickey, to join him in the bedroom,”
This was McFadden’s pastor of idea of marital counseling. Much later he would start sexually harassing her, and eventually stopped her from being an ordained pastor at AME church.
The McFadden case is referenced on the Internet, linked to “Coda,” a summary at the end of Betty Collier-Thomas’s book, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion. In “Coda,” she writes candidly about “pastoral malfeasance,” which runs the gamut of sexual harassment to misappropriation of church funds.
Professor Collier-Thomas is a history professor at Temple University. She lives with her husband about thirty minutes by car from the campus in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“At home, I have four desks, one is L- shaped, 28 file cabinets, a microfilm reader, and a garage that has been converted to house archival materials,” she says.
Jesus, Jobs, and Justice is the by-product of extraordinary historical detective work and gumshoe empiricism in the spirit of W.E.B. DuBois. The gist of the book places Black women at the epicenter of a narrative about the evolution of the Black church as a major institution. There would not be a Black church without Black women.
Also, Black church women created “self-help” and “social uplift” organizations that impacted the Black community as a whole. They also created “mission societies” that did missionary work in places like Haiti and Africa. They did most of the tithing. Despite facing rampant sexism within the Black church, Black women worked together with Black men to fight against racism.
The illustrations and photographs in her book provide a visual context for Black church women from all walks of life. For example, there is a photograph of Julia Foote, a fiery AME Zion preacher. She was the first Black woman to be ordained as a deacon in 1895. She looks like the Oscar-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg.
Back in January, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted a major Black Studies conference in New York City. It featured a panel discussion about Jesus, Jobs, and Justice.
One of the panelists, African-American Studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst John H. Bracey, had this to say: “Jesus, Jobs, and Justice is on par with Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins,”
Another panelist, Genna Rae McNeil, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, “ Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: ”This work is significant for its meticulous research, clarity, accuracy, breadth, perspectives, and concepts while providing—through Professor Collier-Thomas’s notes—a treasure trove of resources for future research.”
The sex scandal involving Bishop Eddie Long is symptomatic of a lack of accountability of an overwhelmingly male church leadership to its members.
Thankfully, Collier Thomas’s book sets the right tone: Since Black women are the backbone of the church, they should not only question dictatorial preachers, but also assume pastoral positions in greater numbers. Until this is done, the Black church will continue to be regarded as a major entertainment venue every Sunday.
Hakim Hasan is a contributor to NewsOne. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.