By Krissah Thompson and Nia-Malika Henderson
Monday, September 27, 2010; A3
LITHONIA, GA . - Determined to hold on to the mega-church he built just outside Atlanta, Bishop Eddie L. Long vowed to "vigorously" defend himself against four lawsuits alleging that he used his position to coerce young male members of his flock into sex acts.
Long, an important national figure in African American church circles, took to the pulpit of his sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Sunday morning and addressed his 25,000-member congregation with defiance and confidence.
"Please hear this: I have been accused. I'm under attack. I want you to know that I am not a perfect man, but this thing I'm gon' fight," said Long, who also preached a short sermon on surviving painful times.
"I feel like David against Goliath, but I've got five rocks, and I haven't thrown one yet," the bishop said to roaring applause as he dropped his microphone on the pulpit with a thud, took his wife Vanessa's hand and left the stage.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs has also referred to the biblical figures of David and Goliath, but the lawsuits describe Long, 57, as a towering Goliath who manipulated four young men from his church. According to those lawsuits, Long enticed members of the church's male mentorship program into homosexual acts with jewelry, cars, trips and access to celebrities.
B.J. Bernstein, attorney for the four plaintiffs, declined to comment on Long's decision to remain head of the church, which sits on a 240-acre campus and has satellite churches in other cities.
Long never directly said he is innocent, but he made clear that he would not leave New Birth, and church leaders vowed to stick by him. "We stand behind our pastor. And there is a period behind that," church elder Darius Wise said.
At Sunday church services around the country, many people had an opinion about Long's decision to remain in the pulpit and about the uncertain future that he faces.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in the District, which helped support the passage of same-sex marriage in the city, said Long's high profile and opposition to gay rights has made the scrutiny he faces more intense. "All of us have clay feet," Hagler said. "Sometimes it is just best to be humble."
Bishop Harry Jackson, who leads Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and is at the forefront of the black church community's movement against same-sex marriage, defended Long, whom Jackson featured in one of his books about a new generation of culturally conservative black pastors.
"I know Eddie Long personally," Jackson said. The media "have attempted to paint him as a major leader in the anti-gay-marriage movement, which is not the case. The bigger drama which is going on is [that] this case is being used by CNN and others to attempt to cast aspersions on the black church as an institution."
Long has been a lightning rod before. Generally, he is greatly admired or resented.
He became a national figure in 2006 when his church hosted four U.S. presidents and other dignitaries for the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The next year, he was one of the mega-church preachers whom Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) investigated to determine whether they were violating their tax-exempt status because of the ministers' flashy lifestyles.
Long balked at the inquiry, called it an invasive "attack" and sent what Grassley's staff deemed an evasive response to its queries about the church's finances. Long also defended accepting more than $3 million in salary and benefits from a defunct tax-exempt group called Bishop Eddie Long Ministries.
Grassley's office said Sunday that "the Eddie L. Long Ministries provided limited information and did not cooperate fully."
Long built the congregation up from 300 members two decades ago, and along the way has become something of a celebrity preacher, creating a luxe ministerial and personal empire. Long has given large amounts of money to charity, but he also wears big diamond rings, drives a Bentley and encourages his church members to pray for financial prosperity.
CNN had cameras streaming the service live Sunday morning, capturing the exuberant worship, which was also broadcast to dozens of countries via Christian television networks.
Long, a married man with four children, told the crowd that his lawyers had advised him not to "try this case in the media," and his remarks were short on details of the lawsuits. He did speak at length about enduring painful situations and said more than once that he is not a "perfect" man.
Members almost universally closed ranks around the preacher, who had told them: "I love you, New Birth, and I'm not leaving you if you don't leave me."
At the church, where people lined up two hours before the start of service, most were willing to give Long the benefit of the doubt. Some wore T-shirts with one of New Birth's mottos: "Love like him. Live like him. Lead like him."
Others stood in prayer circles, clutching Bibles and singing the hymn, "Wash Me White as Snow."
Parishioners said they worry that Long is under attack, and some members seemed to assume a battle position, praying and singing and doing the Atlanta Braves' "tomahawk chop" before Long came out.
"The devil always tries to attack the kingdom, but we know that victory is ahead," said Ian Waite, who has been a member of the church for six years. "We will fight it on our knees with prayer and fasting.
"He's not a perfect man, but God will fight on his behalf. . . . If it ends up being true, we have to be there on his behalf. He's just human. In life, we have failure and downfalls, but God will see you through."
Few doubted that Long will survive the scandal, no matter the outcome of the lawsuits against him. Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania, traveled to New Birth to hear Long answer the allegations; she said that in the short term, it is clear the preacher will go on.
"Remember, Jimmy Swaggart is still preaching," she said, referring to the televangelist who lost his large church in a sex scandal and now has a smaller congregation. "Long's defiant [statement that] 'I will fight this,' coupled with 'I am not a perfect man' is smart. It leaves him room to settle [the case] and still stay in the pulpit. . . . But I suspect the world of New Birth just got confined to his sprawling campus in Lithonia, Georgia."
Staff writer Hamil Harris in Washington contributed to this report.