Years before being suspected of killing eight people in a suburb of Atlanta, including six Asian women, Robert Aaron Long was active in his Southern Baptist congregation, his youth pastor said Wednesday.

Long, 21, was arrested Tuesday in connection with the three shootings.

As a teenager, Long would stack chairs and clean floors at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga., said Brett Cottrell, who led the youth ministry at Crabapple from 2008 to 2017. Long’s father was considered an important lay leader in the church, Cottrell said, and they would attend morning and evening activities on Sundays, as well as meetings on Wednesday evenings and mission trips.

“There’s nothing that I’m aware of at Crabapple that would give approval to this,” Cottrell said in an interview, referring to the shootings. “I’m assuming it’s as shocking and numbing to them as it has been to me.”

Cottrell said he viewed a 2018 video of Long describing his conversion to the Christian faith at around 8 years old, when he was baptized. Cottrell considered him a “typical teenager” growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta.

“It’s not unusual for young men to be into video games,” Cottrell said. “Was he around guns and hunting? Yeah. Would I consider him to be obsessed? No. Was it part of the life? Yeah. At that time, I wouldn’t classify it as one of the main things he was involved in. Had he been deer hunting? Yeah. I don’t know that I would’ve considered it to be a massive chunk of his life.”

But during those teenage years, Cottrell said, the church youth group “was his deal,” and Long was part of a high school group that met for Bible study once a week before school and helped a backyard Bible club with songs and games for kids.

Cottrell said the church was predominantly White but included several people of Asian and African descent.

“I don’t recall any sermons dealing specifically with racism, but the general tenor was to welcome and to be as inclusive as possible,” he said.

In a statement to The Washington Post, church elders at Crabapple First Baptist said they were “heartbroken” about “the tragic news about the multiple deaths in the Atlanta area.”

“We grieve for the victims and their families, and we continue to pray for them,” the statement said. “Moreover, we are distraught for the Long family and continue to pray for them as well.”

Eight people, including six Asian women, were fatally shot at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. Police have arrested Robert Aaron Long as the suspect. (John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Cottrell said he did not know whether Long still attends the church or when he last attended services. According to a video that was captured by The Post before it was deleted, on Sunday the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jerry Dockery, gave a sermon on the apocalypse. Christ was coming soon, Dockery said, and the world must be ready.

“We’ve had, what, 45 presidents in our brief history as a nation? How many other kings around the world? How many other rulers have sat upon thrones, claiming to be in charge?” he asked. “The King is coming again.”

When Christ returns, Dockery said, he will wage war against those who have rejected his name.

“There is one word devoted to their demise,” the pastor said. “Swept away! Banished! Judged. They have no power before God. Satan himself is bound and released and then bound again and banished. That great dragon deceiver — just that quickly — God throws him into an eternal torment. And then we read where everyone — everyone that rejects Christ — will join Satan, the Beast and the false prophet in hell.”

It is not uncommon for pastors to preach on the apocalypse, and it’s unclear whether Long heard the pastor’s teachings Sunday. Police said Long told them he had a “sex addiction,” and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation.

The church has deleted its social media pages, including ones on which Long appeared in photos and in videos. The congregation held a members-only meeting on Wednesday night.

Long has told police the shootings were not racially motivated. But Melissa May Borja, a religion scholar in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, said that it’s important for people to not just consider his intent but also his impact.

“Maybe he didn’t intend to harm Asian Americans, but it’s clearly had a disparate impact on Asian American women,” she said, adding that women doing the work in spas like the ones Long targeted tend to be economically vulnerable and the targets of harassment.

“Considering the structure of labor does mean they probably were more likely the target of a White man dealing with issues of sex and shame,” she said. “Maybe he saw these women as more expendable.”

In recent weeks, many Asian Americans have become accustomed to hearing about violence, said Michelle Reyes, vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative. But Reyes said Tuesday’s attacks have left many in her community, including Indian Americans, reeling.

“I hope that it can be a turning point in talking about Asian women, in particular,” Reyes said. “It feels very personal.”

Christian leaders across the nation have condemned the shootings, calling for more work to combat sexism and racism in churches. In 2019, before he allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, John Earnest was a churchgoer who wrote about his evangelical theology.

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, called the shootings “shocking” and said he has been increasingly hearing from Asian Americans about escalating “immoral and unjust” bigotry.

“Christians must also lead the way in refusing to listen to and refusing to amplify the voices of those who would incite hatred against minority populations,” Moore said in a statement.

The SBC denomination has been engulfed in a debate over race in recent months, especially since Southern Baptist leaders condemned “critical race theory,” an academic movement that views racism as central to society’s problems. Several Black pastors have left the denomination, and prominent Bible teacher Beth Moore revealed last week that she has also parted ways with it.

Long’s church is part of a group in the SBC called Founders Ministries that has pushed the convention in a more conservative direction in recent years. The group has described “white fragility” as “racism” and called critical race theory “godless and materialistic ideologies.”

Tom Ascol, president of Founders Ministries, said he does not know the Crabapple church and that it lists itself voluntarily. He pointed to a disclaimer on the group’s website that states that it is not able to evaluate and endorse each church.

Josh Buice, the Georgia-based founder of G3 Ministries and part of a group that opposes social-justice efforts, said that he is not concerned with that movement’s connections to Crabapple and Long or how the movement’s rhetoric might be used in the future to foment further violence.

“We would never align with anyone that would, you know, justify the murderous acts — the terroristic acts — the racist acts against individuals like that,” he said.

Buice said he would “reject him as a Christian altogether.”

“A broken clock is right twice a day. And so an individual can say right things in one statement and turn right around and absolutely deny the Gospel, not only by what he states but also by how he behaves himself and engages in life by his own actions,” he said. “And that’s apparently what this guy has done.”

Raymond Chang, a Korean American who is head of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, said he was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Long was an SBC member.

“One of the things that is difficult about White evangelical Christian churches and spaces is that they struggle to talk about race and racism in any meaningful way and create conditions in which racism and white supremacy can sadly flourish,” said Chang, campus minister at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside Chicago.

Chang said people of color within White evangelical spaces who try to help on issues of race are often silenced or pushed out, or they burn out.

“A lot of people wouldn’t be surprised that he came out of an SBC church,” Chang said. “They need to wrestle with whether they had a part systemically in the long chain of discipleship in producing someone that could do something like this.”

Duke Kwon, a Korean American pastor at Grace Meridian Hill in Washington, said that during the past year, members of his church have expressed fear about appearing in public, citing rhetoric that has attached the coronavirus spread to Asian Americans.

“Even if it took place in Atlanta, there’s the sense that this could be … my grandmother, my brother, my sister,” Kwon said.

He said he was disappointed the suspect had a connection to a Christian church.

“Again and again, we see different versions of an insidious relationship between racism and perversions of Christian faith,” Kwon said.

Owen Lee, pastor of a large majority Asian American church, Christ Central Presbyterian in Centreville, Va., said his 17-year-old son texted him Wednesday morning: “Dad, why are they killing our people?”

“What do you say to your son?” Lee said.

He said he was grateful that his non-Asian American friends messaged him to ask how he was doing and to say that they stand with him.

“Asians are created in the image of God, worthy of respect and kindness,” he said. “It feels ridiculous that we would even have to articulate that.”

Jonathan Krohn in Atlanta contributed to this report.