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

Anti-gay Atlanta megachurch pastor denies sex with young men

ERRIN HAINES  |  Associated Press

ATLANTA — The prominent pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch near Atlanta denies allegations in a lawsuit that he coerced two young men from the congregation into a sexual relationship, his attorney said.

Lawyers for the men, now 20 and 21, say they filed the lawsuit Tuesday, Sept. 21 in DeKalb County Court against Bishop Eddie Long. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they were victims of sexual impropriety.

President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Long introduced the speakers and the Rev. Bernice King, the Kings’ younger daughter, delivered the eulogy. She is also a pastor there.

The men who filed the suit were 17- and 18-year-old members of the church when they say Long abused his spiritual authority to seduce them with cars, money, clothes, jewelry, international trips and access to celebrities.

Craig Gillen, Long’s attorney, says the pastor “categorically denies the allegations.”

“We find it unfortunate that these two young men would take this course of action,” Gillen said late Tuesday after news of the lawsuit broke. He said Long had not yet been served with copies of the lawsuits.

Long has called for a national ban on same-sex marriage and his church counsels gay members to become straight. In 2004, he led a march with Bernice King to her father’s Atlanta grave to support a national constitutional amendment to protect marriage “between one man and one woman.”

He also has released several gospel albums, authored books on relationships and spirituality, and hosts a weekly television program.

B.J. Bernstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that when the relationships started, the plaintiffs were past the legal age of consent in Georgia, which is 16.

“Defendant Long has utilized his spiritual authority to coerce certain young male members … into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal sexual gratification,” the lawsuits read.

When asked about a possible motive for the accusations, Gillen referred to a break-in at Long’s office in June.

Bernstein said one of the plaintiffs is facing a criminal burglary charge in the incident. She said the break-in was a way of lashing out at Long.

Bernstein said she contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office earlier this month when she became aware of the young men’s allegations. She did not know what action, if any, the agency planned to take.

Bernstein told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she has not contacted DeKalb County law enforcement because Long has ties to county officials.

Orzy Theus, a spokesman for the DeKalb County district attorney’s office, said he was not aware on Tuesday of an investigation in that office related to the allegations.

Long was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987. Then, the church had about 150 members. Less than four years later, the church had grown to more than 8,000 members. Athletes and entertainers claim membership at the church.

Long’s church was among those named in 2007 in a Senate committee’s investigation into a half-dozen Christian ministries over their financing.

Today, New Birth sits on 250 acres and has more than 25,000 members, a $50 million, 10,000-seat cathedral and more than 40 ministries _ including the Longfellows Youth Academy, a tuition-based program for young men 13 to 18.

—  John Wright