Megachurch pastor keeps mum on sex allegations

ERRIN HAINES | Associated Press

ATLANTA — On Sunday mornings, accused megachurch Bishop Eddie Long is usually draped in regal robes and dripping with diamonds and platinum — the kind of material rewards he often says are in God’s plan for those listening.

His message expected this Sunday, Sept. 26 will be the first in public since three young men accused him in lawsuits of having sexual relationships with them, which he has vehemently denied only through his lawyer and a Twitter posting.

Long built his congregation into a megachurch empire, telling his followers God wanted them to be wealthy and delivering fiery sermons with a secular swagger. He hangs with celebrities like rapper T.I. and donates money to charities and candidates. Even the county sheriff is among his followers.

Long spent more than 20 years building all that up, but his empire hangs in the balance. And his 25,000 followers aren’t about to let it all come tumbling down after the three men’s claims that the bishop abused his spiritual authority.

“I’ve always thought he was a very powerful man of God,” said Anshay Tull, a 27-year-old attendee of Long’s church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. “I’m just praying, trying to stay hopeful that it’s not true. If it is true, he has to take that up with God. But that can’t take away from the Word that he gives. I think he’s very gifted.”

He’s preached against gay marriage, and his church has counseled gay members to become straight — even though the men claim in their lawsuits that Long used money, cars, international trips, jewelry and other objects to lure them into sexual relationships when they were 17 or 18 years old.

Long came to New Birth in 1987, when it had just a few hundred members. He had a flock of 8,000 just four years later and moved the church into a $2 million building. By 1995, the church’s weekly television broadcast was airing in more than 170 countries. By Long’s 10th anniversary, New Birth paid off its debts and for 240 acres of land to build a multi-million dollar church complex.

The church grew alongside its home of DeKalb County, now the second-largest in the state. It has one of the most affluent populations of African-Americans in the country, many of whom attend New Birth. Long’s message of prosperity has dovetailed with their goals and dreams, as is evidenced by the many luxury cars in the parking lot on Sundays.

Long himself is a product of his message. His home was bought for $1.1 million in 2005.

`”He has a kind of celebrity status, given his megachurch leadership,” said Emory University religion professor Theophus H. Smith. “And Bishop Long has been especially noteworthy in terms of making a place for men’s spirituality and black male manhood in the church.”

Despite the church’s economic and political power, though, it faces a somewhat uncertain future.

“People who are members at that church probably felt better about themselves because they are members,” said Lester Spence, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Now, there are a whole bunch of people trying to figure out what their place is, what’s going to happen to the church and what’s going to happen to them.”

Today, New Birth operates more than 40 ministries. The centerpiece of its campus is the $50-million New Birth Cathedral, which opened in 2001 and seats 10,000. Membership stands at more than 25,000, and New Birth flags flying from car windows are a common sight around metro Atlanta.

Long is married to Vanessa — referred to as “The First Lady” of New Birth — and the couple has three sons and a daughter.

There are those turned off by the church’s size and its message, including former member Zack Hosley, 31, who criticized Long’s rich lifestyle.

“If you see (Long) out and about in Atlanta, he rubs elbows with celebrities and I just wouldn’t think a man of God would be hanging out with T.I,” he said, referring to the Atlanta-based rapper who served time on federal weapons charges and recently was arrested on drug charges.

He is beloved by his congregation, though, which has dismissed the accusations as a test from God. After he canceled both an interview on a popular syndicated radio show and a scheduled news conference, Long is expected to address New Birth members Sunday during church.

His lone remarks have been a statement read by his attorney and a Twitter posting: “Thanks for all the prayers and support! Love you all.”

“I wish the bishop would come out and make a comment and speak to us,” said Lance Robertson, a longtime church member. “We want to hear from him. I think the world wants to hear from him. Right now, in the court of public opinion, it does not look good.”

—  John Wright

Lone Star Ride set to pedal the Metroplex

Annual bike ride leaves from American Airlines conference center on Saturday and returns Sunday

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

READY TO RIDE  |  Volunteers pack goodie bags before the start of the 10th annual Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS. Resource Center Dallas, AIDS Services Dallas and AIDS Outreach Center will split the proceeds.
READY TO RIDE | Volunteers pack goodie bags before the start of the 10th annual Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS. Resource Center Dallas, AIDS Services Dallas and AIDS Outreach Center will split the proceeds.

Close to 200 bicyclists will be pedaling their way across the Metroplex this weekend, supported by about the same number of crew members staffing pit stops, sweep vehicles, the moto crew and other support positions, as part of the 10th annual Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS.

The ride again benefits three DFW AIDS service organizations: AIDS Services of Dallas, Resource Center Dallas and AIDS Outreach Center of Fort Worth.

Laura Kerr and John Tripp, LSR co-chairs, said Monday, Sept. 20, that they were pleased with how smoothly the final stages of preparations were going, thanks to the efforts of the Lone Star Ride council and committee chairs.

“I’m really not stressed at all, thanks to these people,” Kerr said with a sweep of her arm, indicating council members and committee chairs who had gathered at Resource Center Dallas to fill “goodie bags” that will be handed out to riders and crew members. “This council has exceeded all our expectations.”

Tripp agreed. “This council has done an amazing job this year,” he said. “They have stayed focused on doing what they set out to do, and they have accomplished their goals.”

Tripp said organizers had reached their primary goals for the 10th anniversary of the fundraising ride.

“We wanted to grow the ride, and we did that. We wanted to register more riders this year, and then we wanted to retain more riders throughout the year, and we have done that. I think we are in very good shape,” he said.

Kerr explained that more than 200 people had registered over the past 12 months as riders. In the past, as many as 25 percent of those who registered to ride eventually dropped out or switched over to crew positions before the day of the ride.

But this year’s rider retention rate, she said, is much higher.

Kerr and Tripp credited that to Michael Mack and Dennis Pilgrim, co-chairs of the rider retention committee.

Pilgrim and Mack, both in their second year as riders with LSR, said they had created a training program that included non-crew-supported rides each Tuesday and Thursday, giving registered riders the opportunity to train alongside each other and get used to riding in a group.

That program, the two men said, has helped keep registered riders involved and interested.

Pilgrim and Mack are also co-captains of the Positive Pedalers team for LSR, a group of HIV-positive cyclists and crew members participating in the event. Mack said the Positive Pedalers team this year includes 21 riders and crew members, the largest Pos Pedalers team every in LSR.

The ride begins at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, with cyclists leaving base camp, set up at the American Airlines Training and Conference Center — located at 4501 Hwy. 360 S. in Fort Worth — and riding northwest to Haslett, before circling back to end at the training center. Day two on Sunday again begins with ride out at 7 a.m., only this time riders head southeast to Ovilla before circling back.

On Saturday, riders have three route options: a century ride that covers 100 miles, a 75-mile route and a 45-mile route. The two longer routes include a pit stop at the offices of AIDS Outreach Center at 400 North Beach Street in Fort Worth.

Sunday riders can choose either the 75-mile or the 45-mile route.

On Saturday night, there will be dinner and entertainment at the AA training center, and guests are invited to attend.

Guests are also invited to come out and help cheer the riders on during both days of the ride.

Two cheering stations will be set up on both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday’s stations include one at the American Airlines training center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and one at AIDS Outreach Center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday’s cheerings stations are at the training center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at Texas Plume Road, across from Lorch Park, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

For details, go online to LoneStarRide.org.

Non-ride participants are also encouraged to attend closing ceremonies on Sunday, beginning at 5 p.m., at the training center.

Kerr and Tripp both noted that anyone who has not yet registered and wants to participate has until 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, to sign up. In addition to online registration, potential participants can attend the pre-ride spaghetti dinner being held at Resource Center Dallas and register there.

To register as a rider, individuals must pay a $75 registration fee and raise at least $500 in donations. To register as a crewmember, individuals must pay a $50 registration fee. Crew positions are still available.

David Mineheart, LSR event manager, also encouraged people to participate in some way in the ride.

“The bottom line is that this even raises money for people who really need the help and rely on it,” Mineheart said. “Plus, Lone Star Ride is just lots of fun. It creates an energy that is just amazing. Anybody who has ever been there knows what I am talking about, and if you haven’t been there, you should come and see for yourself.

“This is about people of all types, from all walks of life, coming together to help with something that is bigger than themselves,” he added. “We are talking about giving and having fun. That’s what Lone Star Ride is all about.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Because we all have our struggles

By Polly Browning Team Ride With Pride

We all have stories, our universal commonality. We have stories of experiencing joy and laughter. Some of us experience pain and hardship on a daily basis, while others of us support and care for those who struggle.

We all share one constant: We share in the making of these stories, either alone or with others.

No matter, once again, this coming Sept. 25-26, on what is the 10th anniversary of the Lone Star Ride, we all come together and know we are not alone. For two days and three nights, I get to be “just a number” again: Number 202, one rider among many.

I get to blend in and be a part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than us all.

I have been asked to share my story. I’m humbled and hope I can do more than speak for myself, which is way too lonely. I’ve learned that our words and experiences are more alike than different.

My name is Polly Browning. I may not live in Dallas (too far from my Longhorns!), but as of September 2009, my wife and I (me being a rookie rider and Sarah being the rookie sweeper — and the cutest one, in my opinion) will now be temporarily located in Dallas once a year.

How did I get here? Laura Kerr invited me to ride a few years ago.

I remember her telling me at the time, “Polly, I need to warn you. If you say ‘yes,’ be prepared because you will be addicted to it and will be a ‘lifer,’ forever committed.”

I took on the challenge. And I immediately fell in love with this organization and its members.

As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many individuals and their families impacted by HIV and AIDS. It has been an important cause my family has supported.

But why would I choose Lone Star over staying and riding in Austin? All you have to do is come to the closing ceremonies of the Lone Star Ride, bring an open heart and watch, listen and let it all in. You will experience something indescribable and you will understand.

There simply are no words for it. For all participants, observers, whomever, you simply cannot go away with an untouched heart. Laura, I love you dearly for believing in me enough to introduce me to Lone Star.

I am a licensed clinical social worker. I am currently in the fourth year of my doctoral studies in the social work department at the University of Texas — Austin. As such, convincing me to participant in the Lone Star Ride wasn’t too difficult.

My personal path took a drastic turn in my first year in my Ph.D. program. I became someone I didn’t know at all.

I was in horrific pain. I was unable to compose my thoughts, either verbally or in writing (just a tad important to a student). I lost most of my ability to write, to move my fingers and most joints, including my feet, and my back. Any slight breeze (regardless of temperature) felt like razor blades on the skin of my arms, hands and feet.

My eyesight was affected. My ability to balance was gone. It became impossible for me to walk on my own. My wife, Sarah, got me a really cool blue walker and committed herself to making a belt to brace me in so I could be pushed around.

I was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease: RSD, or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, now called CRPS. They are still trying to figure the rest out.

The types of doctors I began seeing were foreign to me. I had every blood test, MRI, scanning this and X-raying that, and doing it again and again. The patients in the waiting area were often diagnosed with terminal illnesses, most much older than me. (It’s okay to ask — I’m 45 years young.)

No longer was I the helper, the server, the therapist. Now I was the client, the patient. The one who needed to learn how to ask for help, a skill I had not yet developed very well.

After fighting back, I began to let help in. I had to let go of my vanity, all my humility and accept the fact that I couldn’t solve it on my own.

After having a serious back surgery filled with titanium and fusions, I was restricted to lying on my back for three months, no less. I was allowed a total sitting time of 15 minutes a day. My bright blue turtle “torso” brace I wore 24/7 became my best friend. (One of my professors actually told me after that it showed off my “girlish figure!” Ha!)

That was on April 31, 2008. After I was cleared several months later, my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Spann, told me to start to cycle for my rehab.

I was still wearing my brace 24/7. Did they even make cycling jerseys big enough to cover a brace? I’d never seen anyone in the Tour de France wearing one.

So I suggested that I learn how to play soccer for my rehab. Dr. Spann again suggested cycling, being a cyclist himself.

My wife’s best friend, Laura Kerr, knew where I was at in recovery, physically, emotionally and mentally. She knew I thrive on challenges, and she suggested — and re-suggested — that I set a goal of riding 180 miles that following September in the Lone Star Ride. Yep — five months after being cleared.

Now it’s history. I said “yes,” showed up in my bright blue turtle brace, and pretended that I knew something of what I was doing.

My 14-year-old son, Sayer, had committed himself to training with me and riding the full two days with me. My wife, Sarah, committed herself to being on the sweep crew. It was a family affair from beginning to end. I became cyclist number 202, and Sayer became rider number 203. Sayer inspired many in his willingness to ride along side his mom.
I’ve been excited and ready to ride this year, but God has a sense of humor. Several weeks ago I came back out of remission. I feel different. I feel abnormal. I feel my pain. But it’s often an invisible pain to others. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by not being able to “do.”

But in 12 days, I get to just be a number again. I will be back in my brace and will be ready to ride again in twelve days, with the grace of my God.

Something deep inside tells me that many of us want to be a part of, wanting to shed our skins that cause us to feel different while dealing with our own barriers.

Some of us participating in Lone Star ride in cars; some of us ride on bikes with two or more wheels. Some of us walk on two healthy feet. Some of us require help when we walk.
Some of us ride on motorcycles and are assigned the role of protecting the riders on the routes. Some of us are strictly cyclists. Some stand on corners smiling and shouting endless cheers of encouragement.

Some of us drive our cars, sweeping and picking up riders, ready with cold AC, peanuts and snacks, cold grape Gatorade, and most important, a nice soft seat. Some of us are more behind the scenes: the medical crew, the pit crews, the training crews, the organizers, and most importantly, the people who set up the catering.

There are family and friends who come and support all of us. They share memories and stories of previous riders who have lost their lives. They trust that their tears will be received with gentleness and love. These families bring pictures of lost loved ones on t-shirts, reminding all of us why we do it.

Without the willingness of these families to share their stories, the closing ceremonies would just not be the same.

No matter what our role, or how many wheels we ride on, we all come together. We link ourselves together on the last weekend of September, and try our best to make a difference in the lives of so many living with AIDS.

To donate to Polly Browning or another Lone Star Ride participant, go online to LoneStarRide.org.

Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS takes place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25-26, beginning and ending each day at the American Airlines Training and Convention Center, located on Hwy. 360 N., at Hwy. 183, in Fort Worth. Friends and supporters of LSR participants are invited to attend closing ceremonies on Sunday, beginning at 6 p.m.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

LSR: It takes everyone’s effort to succeed

Brian Franklin Team Blazing Saddles

Brian Franklin

Push, push, push! Pedal for your life!

Well, that’s definitely the way it feels at times along the two-day, 150-mile bike ride across the Metroplex that is Lone Star Ride.

Last year was my second year to time in Lone Star Ride, and I didn’t have a doubt that I would be riding again this year, the 10th anniversary of the ride.

I first heard of LSR when my friend, Patrick Burton, told me he was riding and that I should come out to support him and share in the event.

I had been cycling for about a year and I had participated in other organized rides, so I thought I would check it out. I drove out to Glen Rose, which is where the overnight camp was in 2007, and quickly realized that this was not like any other ride I had ever experienced.

I knew the next day that I wanted to get involved in this event. In 2008, team Blazing Saddles was formed and it included myself and a small group of friends.

As a regular reader of the Dallas Voice, you already know that LSR brings people from across the community together for a common purpose. LSR is about raising money for local organizations that supply life-changing support to people living with HIV/AIDS and to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.

LSR is a two-day ride, but a team of people works year-round to make it the best ride it possibly can be for those that participate.

I have always been a rider, but many people participate as support crew. The LSR support crew is the best I have seen. These dedicated people work tirelessly behind the scenes and on the front lines to make it the best ride around.

The new ride route forms a figure eight across the Metroplex and features pit stops about every 10 miles. It is always exciting to ride into the next pit stop to see what crazy costumes the crew members are wearing. We saw everything from poly-blend pant suits at a disco-themed pit stop to a trailer park scene that seemed to be right off the set of “Sordid Lives.”

By the time we ride into the lunch pit stop, I am always looking forward to visiting the massage crew. They do a great job of getting the legs ready for the second half of the day.

The long day of riding makes for a big sense of accomplishment when we ride into camp at the end of day one. Rest and relaxation is all that’s required the rest of the day. Everyone comes together for dinner, entertainment and to share stories from the ride.

The morning of day two comes all too early, but a big cup of coffee, breakfast and some ibuprofen are just enough to get back on the bike.

The motor crews are a personal favorite of mine as they help direct us along the route, cheer for us and sweep us up if we need a break. It is the hard work of all the dedicated people that make up the various support crews that make the long ride fun and enjoyable.

Another thing that sets LSR apart from other rides I have participated in is the closeness of everyone involved. Becoming a part of LSR is becoming part of a large, extended family. Sure, there will be heat, head winds, hills, sore muscles and perhaps rain, but there is also beautiful scenery, good company and lots of great memories.

The ride concludes with all the cyclists riding in together to the closing ceremonies. The closing ceremonies are especially memorable and by the end I always realize that the fatigue and soreness is far outweighed by the sense of accomplishment that everyone who is part of LSR has achieved.

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but who says it can’t be fun? It is rewarding knowing I am making a difference, knowing that others are directly benefiting from something I love to do.

As captain of team Blazing Saddles, I am proud that our team has raised more than $20,000 for LSR in just two years. Blazing Saddles is still a small team and we hope to increase our numbers. You can help.

You don’t have to be a seasoned cyclist. You just need a bike, a helmet, some good padded shorts and a good sense of humor.


To donate to Brian Franklin and Team Blazing Saddles, go online to LoneStarRide.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 23, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas