LITHONIA, Ga. — The famed pastor of a Georgia megachurch said Sunday that he will fight allegations that he lured young men into sexual relationships, stressing that he'd be back to lead the church the next week.
Addressing a New Birth Missionary Baptist Church sanctuary packed with thousands, Bishop Eddie Long neither discussed specifics of the lawsuits filed against him nor flatly denied the accusations. But he drew thunderous applause when he addressed his flock publicly for the first time since the first lawsuits were filed several days ago.
"There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me. That is not me," he said as applause interrupted him.
Four young men have filed lawsuits in the past week — three who live in Georgia and one from Charlotte, N.C., who attended one of Long's satellite churches there. Two claim they were members of the church's LongFellows Youth Academy, a program that taught teens about sexual and financial discipline, when Long gave them gifts and took them on trips to seduce them.
Long — who has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and whose church has counseled gay members to become straight — has been named as a defendant in the lawsuits, which claim the pastor abused his "spiritual authority." But federal and state authorities have said they will not investigate the allegations because all four men were 17 and 18 years old when the relationships with Long began — older than Georgia's age of consent, which is 16.
Long told the crowd that his lawyers had advised him not to "try this case in the media." He spoke little about the legal case during the service and a news conference afterward, though Long spoke at length about enduring painful situations.
"We are all subject to face distasteful and painful situations. Bishop Long, Eddie Long — you can put your name in that blank — will have some bad situations," he said. "The righteous face painful situations with a determined expectancy. We are not exempt from pain, but He promises to deliver us out of our pain."
Long's final remarks during the service invoked the biblical story of the small David doing battle with the gargantuan Goliath.
"I've been accused; I'm under attack. I want you to know, as I said earlier, I am not a perfect man," he said, briefly pausing for effect. "But this thing I'm going to fight."
"I want you to know one other thing, I feel like David against Goliath. But I got five rocks, and I haven't thrown one yet."
Church members who heard Long's speech pledged to stand by their pastor. Annie Cannon, who has attended New Birth for seven years, said she had no plans to worship elsewhere.
"We know and we love bishop," Cannon said, referring to Long. "We love our place of worship. My son goes to school here. We do everything here."
Cheryl Barnett has attended New Birth since Long became senior pastor more than 20 years ago. She said she agreed wholeheartedly with his remarks.
"I was very much fulfilled with what he had to say," she said. "It was simple. It was direct. He's standing in the scriptures. That's what we would expect from our minister."
About 100 people waited at the doors of the church more than an hour before the first service. Some held signs of support, while others prayed for their embattled leader. A small group sang the hymn "White as Snow" while outside.
Members in their seats clapped and swayed as the service began around 8 a.m., with several people with microphones singing on stage. Later in the service, hundreds began dancing and chanting, "Jesus, Jesus." A small group of young people held Apple iPads high over their heads, with the screens scrolling white letters against a black background reading, "It's time to praise him."
Long, a father of four children, came to the stage holding hands with his wife, Vanessa, and wearing a cream-colored suit.
Media access to the services was tightly controlled Sunday. Reporters were required to check in with church officials and were led to a separate part of the church to view the service. The media was also told not to interview church members inside the sanctuary or on church property.
Over the past 20 years, Long became one of the most powerful independent church leaders in the country. He led New Birth as it grew from a suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 to a 25,000-member powerhouse with a $50 million cathedral and a roster of parishioners that includes athletes, entertainers and politicians.
He flashed his prosperity by wearing diamonds and platinum jewelry, while building strong political ties and a close relationship with the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The 2006 funeral for King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was held at New Birth. Their daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, is also a pastor at Long's church and spoke during Sunday's first service.
Long also spoke during a second service later in the morning, during which a young man in a blue shirt stood up and shouted: "We want to know the truth, man!" He was quickly escorted out and did not return.
But most of his welcomes were warm. As Long entered the cathedral, a group of people shouted, "We love you bishop!"
"I love you, New Birth," Long replied.
"I'm not leaving you if you don't leave me."
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