It's Time for a Reckoning in the Black Church
Last week, a grieving aunt spoke through tears as she shared what happened to her 14-year-old niece. In an 18-minute Facebook video, the woman cried and wailed as she revealed that her niece — her husband’s little sister — had, for at least six years, been raped repeatedly by her own father, Pastor Matthew Gibson.
The abuse took place in the bathroom of Gibson’s church, Brooklyn’s Progressive Baptist Church of Brownsville.
Gibson, the son of Bishop Ben Gibson, has been arrested and charged with several counts of sex abuse. In the wake of his son’s arrest, Ben Gibson has also been accused of rape.
I almost clicked away from the video that day. I was emotionally tired of hearing about babies being violated by church staff. It’s a story that has, unfortunately, become all too common in the Church community — both at large and within the Black Church community. And I was tired. Tired of the bottomless sorrow I feel when I hear these stories. Tired of feeling hopeless as I realize that the damage is already done, and that the child’s journey to healing will be long and heartbreaking. So, I almost clicked away from the video that day. Almost. But I didn’t. Instead, I made myself look and listen. And when it was over I cried, not only for the survivor, but for the young girl or boy whose abuse I’ll likely learn about a month or even a year from now.
Sex crimes are especially atrocious when committed within the Church world because they carry the weight of centuries of misogyny, sexual aversion, and lack of sexual discourse. And they are, to me, especially evil when carried out by a Church leader, because the attacker has boldly claimed to be a representative of Christ. Unfortunately, sex crimes have become commonplace within the church. Despite all Christ stood for, despite all God is, the Black Church is not exempt from the cultural norms and pressures that both create predators and promote the abuse and harm of women and children.
In the U.S. 10 percent of all children experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach 18. A majority of the survivors are girls (75 percent), youth between the ages of 14 and 17 are particularly vulnerable, and those younger are often too young to comprehend the abuse. Church is one of the many places where this abuse happens, as most children who have been sexually abused were usually violated by people they know and trust. In the past, the Black Church has often participated in and promoted this abuse. Although child marriage is least common among Black people in the U.S., compared with other groups, Black girls who married as children were usually forced to do so under the direction of their church. This is best illustrated by the story of Sherry Johnson, who was raped and forced to marry her rapist, a deacon at her Tampa, Florida, church in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In 2014, former Bronx pastor Michael Clare admitted to raping two teen girls. Last year, former North Carolina pastor Glenn Collins was charged with at least 128 counts of child sex abuse after raping four children and abusing others over a span of 13 years (1996-2009). Recently, Ohio church leader Arthur Dade Jr., (known as “Apostle Dade”) was convicted of raping a 10-year-old boy in the backseat of his car. These are only the stories we know about.
The Black Church has been a staple in the community since its beginnings in the slave era, and has served as a catalyst for some of the community’s biggest racial justice accomplishments. Despite all its good, the Black Church has lagged behind in efforts to end sex abuse.
The urgency to eradicate this unGodly reality is not lost on all church-lovers, though. The Children of Combahee, a newly founded organization, works to combat child sex abuse in Black churches rightly using womanist methodology. The organization is largely comprised of faith leaders who draw on the works of Black women theologians and scholars like Renita J. Weems, Kelly Brown Douglas, Monica Coleman, and more.
The group nods to networks outside the Black community that work to fight sexual violence, like Samaritan SafeChurch, Love With Accountability, and the Crime Victims Treatment Center. Through these efforts and collaborations, we see that many of our faith leaders, our brothers and sisters in Christ, recognize the need for meaningful action in matters of sexual abuse – and know that this justice can no longer be delayed.
Much like many current faith-based sex abuse activists, I understand that to honor the work of these courageous scholars (Weems, Douglas, Coleman, etc.) is to continue their efforts. It is to move the struggle forward.
It is time. It has long been time, for a reckoning in the Black Church. We can no longer afford to overlook sexual abuse, gender-based violence and homophobia in an effort to portray perfection. We can no longer chain women to abusers, link boys to coldness, and perpetuate power structures for the sake of an image.
The crying woman in last week’s Facebook video learned this through the violence her loved one suffered. Since learning of her niece’s abuse, she has worked tirelessly to have the church closed down, describing it as a crime scene. And it is. What should have been a place of refuge and safety for her young niece will now serve as a reminder of her violation.
Much of the congregation, and even people who are not members of Progressive Baptist Church, have condemned this grieving aunt in an effort to defend the Church. She and her family have even received death threats. Her cries for justice have largely been met with claims that the church is not to blame — “not all churches” — and that she should forgive the pastor who abused her niece and move on.
There are a myriad of possible reasons the Black Church has lacked conviction and urgency in this matter: it’s avoidance of sexual discourse, it’s commitment to overseeing and dictating sexual integrity, and its desire to supposedly protect the Black racial image by concealing these evils.
It is worth noting that, yes, there are many progressive churches that work to combat these harms and address injustice. But even one “bad” church with one “bad” pastor is enough for a reckoning. There must be no more settling for the Church as a hopelessly damaged place where we accept violence and harm and call the complicity and silence “grace” and “holiness.” To me, even one abused child is enough for a reckoning. One battered woman. One bullied queer boy. One is enough. One is too many.
Sex abuse is both a societal and theological issue and, as Coleman notes in The Dinah Project, “silence is a response of tolerance, the church must respond.” It is time for the Black Church to respond on a large scale. Leaders in the Black churches that we attend, serve, and call home must analyze and think critically about the implications of theologies that promote (even subtly) gender-based violence, condemns survivors, and sweeps the issue under the rug.
As a Christian, I believe in restoration, I believe in redemption and I believe in forgiveness. But I do not condone weaponizing forgiveness or piety to silence or shame the oppressed. I do not condone masking complicity in a sense of pseudo-piety. Often linked to this manipulation is a desire to protect our Black men church leaders who are abusers. Particularly because they are men, Black, and church leaders (in that order) we have internalized the idea that their religious title should absolve them of wrongdoing or people should “cover” their wrongs (usually quoting 1 Peter 4:8). But, to be clear, the scripture says love “covers” not love “hides.” We have no obligation to conceal abuse.
I believe our resistance to criticizing the Church or taking meaningful action against the harm done under its roof and in its name is because we’ve come to equate any such criticism with a sense of disloyalty to God. As a Christian Womanist, and theology buff, it has taken me years to separate the nature of Jesus from the conduct of church folk. It is a tiring task to publicly condemn the Black Church’s history of sexual abuse and gender-based violence when many of my brothers and sisters in Christ would rather see me silent in the pews with a prayer shawl in my lap.
But much like with that Facebook video, I cannot look away from this evil. The indignation that rises in me over this injustice is a holy fire. Sexual abuse covered by silence and perpetrated by shaming survivors is not, nor will it ever be, God’s dream for humanity. It’s time for a reckoning in the Black Church. There must come a changing tide so that justice may flow like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).