I struggle whether to blog on tragic news events with real victims still suffering, and about which I can do nothing. I am not a journalist, the story is not local, and I don’t want to prey off of others’ sensational misfortune just to garner a minor increase in blog traffic. But, being a Pentecostal (Assemblies of God) blogger, I do feel that when something newsworthy happens in our niche of culture, it’s worth at least knowing about if only for reflection and with a view toward “big picture” issues.
This should go without saying, but I will say it anyhow: please pray for the church and families involved in what I am about to describe. My commentary and reaction follow my summary.
|Happily married couple…
The youth pastor…
Around 10-10:30 on Thursday, November 17, 2005, Southside Assemblies of God youth pastor, Eric Brian Golden, fought with his sweetheart bride, Deadra “DeeDee” Marie Golden. Their Savannah, Georgia, neighbors were not alarmed. Police were not called. Michael, their 15-year-old son, slept soundly through the battle. But before dawn DeeDee would lay at the bottom of a shallow grave outside Fort Stewart, Georgia with a broken neck. She had been strangled to death.
Eric Brian Golden was born in Alabama on a slow news day: Saturday, December 13, 1969. Fast forward 18 years, to 1987. Golden and his high-school sweetheart, DeeDee, graduate high school. They marry, and he joins the Army. She becomes the dutiful army wife, shuttling from base to base, assignment to assignment. When Golden finally left the Army he’d experienced Desert Storm and attained the rank of sergeant. Though the news reports aren’t clear whether Golden was a “buck” sergeant or had advanced to any of the higher NCO ranks (such as staff sergeant, sergeant first class, master sergeant, first sergeant, or beyond), it seems unlikely or the rank would’ve been mentioned. Regardless, Golden had sufficiently distinguished himself to the Army’s satisfaction that he was delegated authority as a sergeant Thus, he probably lead a fireteam of at least 3-4 other men. (Having no military experience, this is what I concluded after some research. Please correct me if my conclusions are faulty.)
It’s not clear why Golden left the Army. His mother says he left after Desert Storm, which implies he left sometime after early 1991 (the ground campaign—Operation Desert Sabre—didn’t begin until February 24, 1991; and troops began withdrawing on March 10, 1991—Operation Desert Farewell). The church’s website says, Golden and his wife were “saved at Southside in 1989.” In 1990 Michael was born, and then “[t]hey were called into ministry and attended Southeastern College of the A/G from 1992 to 1996.” So, assuming Golden left the Army after five years of service, sometime after March or April of 1991, he must have very quickly enrolled in college.
(Normally I wouldn’t belabor a minor detail like this, but I suspect the time-line will probably come up in the trial. If Eric indeed served in the Gulf War, he was posted to Iraq after his conversion—after Michael’s birth—and then immediately after his discharge went straight to college. I suspect there will be a claim of PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Judge and jury, as you have heard from my expert witness, the psyche of a young, unformed man—this new father torn from his wife and baby, this new convert to faith—was incalculably shattered by the horrors of desert battle!” You can bet the defense will play that tune.)
So, both Eric and DeeDee attended Southeastern University for the next four years, while raising a toddler. A year after graduation, on January of 1997, Golden obtained his credentials; DeeDee, apparently, did not.
Over the next six years, Golden served at three churches: he served as an associate pastor at a new church plant, and as a youth pastor at two other churches. Finally, in the Spring of 2003, the Goldens returned to Southside Assembly of God where Eric joined the staff as youth pastor and director of Halogen Youth Ministries. In addition to his pastoral duties, Golden was also the church’s webmaster—explaining why the church website has gone largely unmodified since DeeDee’s murder, except for a brief statement.
Another year goes by.
In June 2004, Eric offered an undercover female detective $20 for oral sex. He was arrested for pandering. Apparently, the church never found out.
Another year goes by.
Eric strangles DeeDee in a late-night argument, leaving her with a broken neck and a lifeless body. He drives 13 miles west, carries her body half a mile into the forest, and digs a shallow grave.
After returning home, Golden must have wrestled with demons the whole weekend. One wonders, what did he tell Michael, his 15-year old son? How did he continue the deception through the whole day Friday, then Saturday? Did he go to church on Sunday? How did he act during worship? What did he say to those who asked about DeeDee? What did he say to Michael on Sunday morning?
Apparently, it was too much. He confessed to his brother-in-law, wrote a full letter of confession, and arrived at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office just before 1 pm. While he was on the way, Golden’s brother-in-law called the police to prepare them for Golden’s arrival. Once there, officers took him into custody, and he described where to look for DeeDee’s body. After searching several locations, she was finally found at 9:30 that night, buried in a field scattered with boars’ carcasses and bones.
For now, Eric is being held without bond until his court date on December 8. Michael is staying with his aunt. Neighbors, as usual, are stunned, never suspecting anything was wrong in the Golden house: “He seemed like a good man.”
And on Saturday, November 26, DeeDee Golden returned to the earth for a second time, but now with less haste, more love, and greater honor, being laid to rest in Kingston, Georgia, where her parents live.
I began researching this post when the news broke on Thanksgiving week. My first reaction was shock, then sorrow for their son, Michael, and sorrow for the Southside Assembly. I prayed. But I can’t get Michael’s pictures out of my head: he’s in several photos at the youth group’s photo archive on Yahoo, and he’s always smiling, seeming to enjoy himself, having a good time. How will this effect him? What terrible scars will he bear for the rest of his life? What unimaginable grief is he enduring right now? His mother’s life destroyed, his father’s life forfeit. What unnecessary shame is he suffering? How are his friends and fellow youth group members treating him? With compassion and steadfast friendship, I hope.
Then I thought of DeeDee’s parents, and their grief. She was still such a young woman, so full of promise, so apparently vivacious. Judging by the many photos with her and the youth group, there was always another young girl close by, arms entwined, big smiles illuminating faces, she seemed loved. Not only are her parents and family missing her, I’m sure the youth group is grieving too. Not to mention reeling from the anger, betrayal, and shock that their mentor and pastor is now a confessed murderer.
Then I considered the church family, their shock and grief, their shame in being paraded before the mainstream news media for being host to a man who would kill with bare-handed fury. They’ll wonder what they missed, they’ll second-guess their wisdom and hiring decisions, they’ll wonder how to counsel the bereaved when the grieving may well be struggling with anger and not having any trust for authoritarian ministry right now. I thought about the pastor, himself, Rev. Jack. C. Moon, who must have personally hired Golden, entrusting him with the care and feeding of his thriving youth group. What grief is he experiencing? Not only has he lost a beloved member of his church family, a protege under his wings is incarcerated and admittedly guilty. He’ll be second-guessing most of all: “Where did I go wrong? What didn’t I see? What warning signs did I miss or ignore? How could I have prevented this tragedy?”
And all of them will ask God, “Why?” Why does evil exist? Why take the innocent and leave the wrongdoer? Why let a man with fatal flaws serve in ministry without nudging somebody to look more closely? To ask the right questions?
Prayers must be sent up.
I discovered a devotional on the SSAG website, titled, How Do You Eat Fruit?, written by Eric Brian Golden.
It’s notable neither for its content nor creativity. But Golden’s language and choice of teaching metaphor have a chilling undercurrent of violence. This metaphor easily consumes a third of the devotional, and it seems written with greater focus than the entire rest of the piece. I’ll post the whole thing here for you to decide. But when I read it, I felt chills every time I read the word “slice” and “overkill.” (Emphasis mine.)
And, of course, I wonder about Eric Brian Golden. Where was his fatal flaw? Did he know it was within him? Did he struggle to contain his anger? Was he a crucible of molten violence waiting to be poured out? Did he express it in other, more private ways? Did DeeDee bear marks of abuse? Does Michael? Is Golden psychologically or neurologically compromised? I wonder, did the Desert War have a deleterious effect on him? Was he damaged beyond repair? Or was he already hungry for violence, and is that why he was drawn to the military?
And I wondered some more. There were flaws, cracks were already beginning to appear. Four different ministry positions in six years. For most adults in their 30s, this is not a good sign. But, then, Golden was a youth pastor: a position notoriously underpaid, stressful, and eager for new fish. Many youth pastors don’t last two years in any one position. So maybe there’s nothing there. But what about his military superiors? They made him an officer. How well did he lead? Did the soldiers in his unit suspect anything? What were his fitness reports like?
I also wonder, why was Golden paying for sex? Stupid question, I suppose. He paid for it because he wanted it and didn’t have the integrity to seek help. But, more to the point: was Golden already a “regular?” I suspect his arrest could not have been his first foray into illegal extramarital sex. And I suspect it was not his last. If it had been, he would have confessed to his wife and to his church, and he would’ve at the very least been placed on leave with his district for rehabilitation, required to undergo therapy/counseling, and strict accountability. This didn’t happen, so I next wonder whether his wife found out, finally, what was going on. Was this what they were fighting over? I suspect, by the time a minister with a lot to lose starts paying for oral sex on the street, he’s already well down the path of pornography addiction, stripper bars, and Internet porn and cybersex dalliances. Sin will out. It leaves its muddy footprints behind. And when it doesn’t get out, it escalates until it does.
For the past week or two there have been no new news stories on this event. DeeDee’s death is already fading from public thought, and the rapidly researched stories uncovered little that wasn’t readily accessible with a couple phone calls. Here’s what I wish the real journalists had done:
- Call Golden’s former church postings, find out why he left. Sure, they won’t reveal much for fear of media exposure and they’ll probably be pulled into the courtroom drama anyhow, but ask. If you don’t know where he worked, pull his credit history, figure it out. Call the district office, ask them for comment. Somebody who knew him will be willing to talk, if only to talk describe how great a person DeeDee was. Find that person
- Same goes for Golden’s college days. Find out how he performed as a student, how DeeDee fared as his husband, how cute Michael was as a toddler. Sure, again, the school won’t want to talk, but it shouldn’t be too hard to take a trip over to Classmates.com, which lists 272 of Golden’s classmates during his four years in college, and three professors. Set up a Classmates account, spend an hour sending a query to the most likely candidates (those graduating with Golden), and wait for a reply.
- Contact the Lakeland, Florida, police department and find out if they were called to any domestic disturbance reports at the Golden’s residence. Find out if Golden was arrested in Florida for pandering there. Find out if he was a model citizen without a single speeding ticket.
- Contact his and DeeDee’s Alabama high school. Talk to a teacher, talk to a classmate, talk to a neighbor.
- Contact the Army. File a Freedom of Information Act form with the FBI. Find out if Golden was discharged honorably? Did he comport himself well as a soldier and representative of America? Was he consorting with unsavory women even then, outside of his wife’s watchful eye?
And that’s just off the top of my head.
The Big Picture
Now, I’m not asking these questions out of some simple thirst for gossipy tidbits about a fallen brother and murdered sister. The bigger questions I really want answers to is how could a young man like this slip through a Bible College’s close-knit community without raising flags? How could he pass muster in the military without raising eyebrows? How could he slip into ministerial ranks, gain credentials, and be ordained with the laying on of hands without anybody delving into what really makes him tick? Golden was not some post middle-aged, lapsed, cynical minister feeding insecurities with sex. He was a young man already deep into a sexual addiction cycle with rage issues.
The Big Problem
There’s a problem with our churches sending folks into ministry too lightly, perhaps. A Bible College degree does not earn you a place in a pulpit, though many think it should. But I do not know of a single peer of mine from my bible college days who was denied credentials when they applied. Sure, there may have been some, but for the most part, my experience has been that if you show up with an A/G bible college degree in hand, if you know the right answers, and if you have a pastor backing you, you’re in.
The problem was articulated succinctly by poster, “Alpha Female,” on the Savannah Now message board forum linked to this news item. She said: “The worst people worm into leadership positions with frightening frequently.”
But there’s one area in A/G ministry where that is simply not the case. The applicants are carefully screened over a period of several months. Applicants must provide multiple references, both friends, family, and professional. Each reference is contacted and asked several probing questions, and confidentiality is assured. Each applicant is interviewed several times, at home and in the office. And if the applicant has a spouse and children, they are interviewed both together and individually by professionals trained to spelunk the caves of applicant’s souls. Each phone call and interview is transcribed (I used to transcribe them), folders are filed, references are followed up again with phone calls for clarification. Criminal backgrounds are checked. Yet more difficult questions are asked. Questions like: “How is your sex life with your spouse?” And “How frequently do you have sex?” And “Have you ever had sex with anyone other than your spouse?” Applicants and their family members fill out a battery of psychological tests. The tests are professionally administered, graded, and evaluated. The tests lead to more questions, and more clarifications. And all of it leads up to a recommendation to the committee that makes a final decision. And even then, the questions don’t end. The committee members get their shot too: “How do you know you are called to ministry?” And, “Describe your calling, and tell us when you first sensed you had a call.” And, “How have your gifts for ministry been confirmed?” And, “If we turned you down, what would you do?”
In this one area, the Assemblies of God goes to Herculean ends to accept only the healthiest, most stable, most obviously called and gifted applicants with clear integrity, and gifted for ministry. They must have a history, they must be transparent, and they must be unflinching in their willingness to submit to examination for suitability to the task.
I am talking about the Assemblies of God World Missions sending agency (formerly, the Assemblies of God Department of Foreign Missions).
I am not proposing that this extensive a battery of tests and examinations be undertaken for every ministerial applicant for ministry–the cost and delay would probably be too prohibitive. And the process itself is no guarantee. Many missionaries have cracked under the pressure in the field. Families have been ruined, missionaries have fallen, and crimes have been committed. I used to marvel at the process (I used to work in the DFM Word Processing department where I transcribed many of these confidential interviews and recommendations) because it seemed to me that while it may weed out the chaff, it probably discarded good candidates while allowing true psychopaths to run the gauntlet unscathed. But … but … I’ve also noticed that the Assemblies of God missionary teams are the most effective in the world. They are passionate, driven, and people of character. On the field, our missionaries are the envy of other sending agencies. I have to think that the grueling selection process (and subsequent, additional training and mentoring) is at least a part of that success.
Maybe Golden just “snapped,” to his and everybody else’s deep and shocked regret. Maybe what I suspect are warning signs are not the tip of the iceberg, but are, instead, the precipitating events that started this whole tragedy in motion. Maybe it’s impossible to know these things, and maybe it’s impossible to fix anything.
Maybe nothing’s broken at all. But I suspect otherwise. I love the Assemblies of God, I have no intention of changing. But stories like this leave me wondering if maybe we’re not minding the store like we ought to be. The self-employed pastor, autonomous church, congregational model of church ministry has much to recommend it.
But there is this, too: Easy credentials shatter lives.
From the Web
- PB and J: Pastor Brian and DeeDee
- Windows Media video: A one-minute excerpt of a sermon by Brian Golden
From the News
- Columbus’ Ledger-Enquirer: Police say youth pastor killed wife, buried her
- Savannah Morning News: Autopsy shows woman strangled to death — Eric Brian Golden is being held without bond (Registration required)
- WTOC channel 11: Neighbors React to Youth Pastor’s Arraignment (Includes video of confession)
- The Augusta Chronicle: Pastor in jail after slaying (Registration required)
- WTOC channel 11: Murder Suspect Arraigned
- WTOC channel 11: Church of Jailed Youth Pastor Issues Statement
Updated: “Update on Golden Murder“.
[tags]BlogRodent, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, youth-pastor, murder, strangulation, ministerial-credentials, Assemblies-of-God-youth-pastor, Pentecostal-youth-pastor, Southside-Assembly-of-God, Eric-Brian-Golden, Brian-Golden, DeeDee-Golden, Deadra-Golden, Fort-Stewart, Georgia, Chatham-County, confession, Stone-Lake, Savannah, Army, Army-veteran, crime, violent-crime, domestic-abuse, manslaughter[/tags]