The conservative Baptist church attended by the alleged Atlanta gunman expelled him from its congregation Sunday morning, saying he is no longer considered a “regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.”
Parishioners of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., voted to remove Robert Aaron Long, 21, from the church’s membership after an hour-long service dedicated to the eight people he is charged with killing at three Atlanta-area spas Tuesday night.
“Our hearts are filled with so many emotions; with grief, with anger, sadness, with emptiness, confusion,” Associate Pastor Luke Folsom said in a prayer before a crowd of more than 100 congregants. “There’s so much confusion. It doesn’t make any sense. But, father, we know this is the result of sin. It displays the total corruption of mankind.”
Long, 21, was charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. The eight victims included a woman two days shy of her 50th birthday and a newlywed who had just given birth to her second child. Seven of the eight killed were women; six of them were of Asian descent.
The service began with a female member of the congregation reading the names of slain women from the pulpit. The evangelical church’s senior pastor, Jerry Dockery, largely ignored Long’s stated motivations, instead focusing on the spiritual battle between good and evil as well as the grief felt by church members that they had been drawn into media coverage of the attack.
“Right now there is a bitter pall hanging on the palate of our hearts. Everything is impacted and influenced by what we have experienced this week, and you wonder if it’ll ever taste sweet again,” Dockery said. “God’s word says we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. You don’t have to look further than the newspapers this week to know that this is true. Brokenness and despair; it’s all rooted in Satan’s rebellion against God’s law.”
Church members had told The Washington Post that Long and his parents regularly attended church services and activities. The church had publicly disowned Long in a Friday statement, saying “he alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires,” which are “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”
Journalists who attended the service Sunday were told not to interview anyone on church property and that “masks are recommended, but not required.” After the service, journalists were asked to leave while members discussed “church discipline” and expelling Long under the church’s bylaws.
Long had cited a theological motivation for his alleged attacks, telling police that they were an attempt to eliminate sexual temptation. His former roommate Tyler Bayless said that Long believed he was “falling out of the grace of God” due to his “sex addiction,” and that on at least one occasion he had contemplated suicide.
“He was racked with a very specific kind of guilt – which is to say religious,” Bayless said. “He was militant about it. I mean, this was the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating, would consider that to be a relapse.”
Experts this week have said the mentality Bayless described is common within evangelical “purity culture,” which teaches that sexual desire outside of marriage is sinful and that those who do not control their lust are sometimes considered “sex addicts.” The church’s bylaws said adultery, fornication and pornography are “sinful and offensive to God.”
In 2019 and 2020, Long had spent time at HopeQuest, an evangelical treatment facility in nearby Acworth that specialized in sex addiction and pornography addiction, as well as “gay conversion therapy.” That facility, is less than a mile from Young’s Asian Spa – the site of the first attack Tuesday evening.
Crowds in Atlanta, New York, Washington and other major American cities on Sunday also led demonstrations calling for an end to violence and hate speech targeting Asian Americans. The pandemic has coincided with a rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment, and the shootings have sparked a broader conversation about the misogyny and dehumanization confronting Asian American women.
Several Atlanta-area Korean churches on Sunday held a service outside one of the shooting sites to honor the victims of the shootings and denounce anti-Asian racism.
During the hour-long service, attended by more than 100 members of the Korean American community here, faith leaders emphasized the community’s pain in the wake of the shootings and the need to speak out about the rise in violence aimed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community nationwide.
Pastor Byung-chul Han of the Korean Central Presbyterian church condemned the shootings as an act of white supremacy and hate. He invoked the racial justice protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and called on the Korean American community to become more vocal about racial and social justice.
“This is clearly an act of white supremacy against vulnerable Asian women,” he said during his sermon. “America is a country built by immigrants. But there are people who don’t want to accept this,” he said.
Pastor Jun-hyup Lee of the Immanuel Korean United Methodist said in an interview that faith leaders planned the service two days ago in an effort to organize the community to become more active around racial and social justice efforts. He said he hoped the service would become the first of many efforts to rally the faith community to become more civically engaged.
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Harwell reported from Washington.