LITHONIA, Georgia — A megachurch pastor accused of luring four young men into sexual relationships said Sunday that he won't be pulled into a street fight over the allegations and vowed that his faith has been strengthened.
Bishop Eddie Long did not directly mention the accusations to thousands of cheering supporters during services at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Lithonia. But his remarks seemed directly addressed to his accusers.
"In times of challenge, there are several things that come out. Your faith will be strengthened or weakened," he said, to growing applause. "My faith is being strengthened."
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Long told supporters at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church that he is "not going to be pulled into a street fight" and that he doesn't hate anyone. But he directed his listeners to turn to a passage in the Book of Job that read: "Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more."
As his devoted flock cheered, Long joked that he accidentally led them to the wrong page. "That was the Holy Ghost," he said, flashing a smile as the sanctuary echoed with laughter.
Long's more than hour-long sermon was greeted with thunderous applause and adoration. Several thousand parishioners flocked to the suburban Atlanta complex for the 8 a.m. service, and cars snaked in traffic for miles (kilometers) after it was over.
Long became one of the most powerful church leaders in the U.S. over the past two decades, transforming a suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 into a powerhouse of 25,000 members that includes high-profile athletes, entertainers and politicians.
The bishop is a father of four who has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and whose church has counseled gay members to become straight. But the TV preacher's empire was threatened last month when the four men filed a civil lawsuit claiming Long abused his spiritual authority to lure them into a sexual relationship.
Two of the young men say he targeted them after they enrolled in the church's LongFellows Youth Academy, a program that taught teens about sexual, physical and financial discipline. The other two — one of whom attended a satellite New Birth church in Charlotte, North Carolina — have made similar claims.
The men say they were 17 or 18 when the relationships began. Local and state authorities have declined to investigate because Georgia's age of consent is 16.
Long has not addressed the accusations directly, but promised Sunday that he would not let his legal troubles prevent him or his church from doing its work.
"I ain't going to stop living," he said amid more applause.
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