Lithonia, Georgia (CNN) — Baptist televangelist Eddie Long said Sunday he will fight allegations that he coerced young male church members into having sex with him.
“I am not the man that has been portrayed on television,” he told his congregation.
Speaking publicly about the accusations for the first time, Long did not address the specific allegations contained in four lawsuits filed against him earlier this week.
“I’ve been accused, I’m under attack,” he said, lowering his head and softening his voice behind the pulpit at the New Birth Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta.
“I want you to know, as I said earlier, that I am not a perfect man. But this thing, I’m going to fight,” he said. “I feel like David against Goliath, but I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.”
With that, the 57-year-old pastor put down his microphone and walked off stage, receiving deafening applause from the thousands who had come to hear him.
The lawsuits accuse Long of using his power and influence within the 25,000-member church to lure young male church members into sexual relationships. The suits allege that the relationships, which began when the men were in their teens, lasted over many months.
Long took the young men — all of them teens at the time — on trips, including to Kenya, according to the suits. Long allegedly paid for their hotel rooms, and gave the young men gifts, including a car, cash and jewelry — all in exchange for sexual favors such as massaging, masturbation and oral sex.
The accusations were particularly controversial because Long, who is married, has preached passionately against homosexuality over the years.
Sex allegations roil black church community
Bishop Eddie L. Long built a religious empire just outside Atlanta by preaching a blend of the Gospel mixing faith, politics and finance – wrapped up in a flashy style – that propelled him to the pinnacle of the movement of large, independent African American mega-churches across the nation.
Now, after he was slapped with four lawsuits last week alleging he used his position to coerce young male members of his flock into sex acts, Long’s future as a towering figure in the one of the country’s most accomplished black communities and beyond is in question.
It is, parishioners and observers say, a moment of undeniable crisis in the black church.
“The only person in the pantheon of black churches who is bigger than this is T.D. Jakes,” said Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was among those flying down to Georgia. “And Atlanta is the epicenter of black church life. . . . It’s going to rock everything at the church, and people will really start to question these ministers.”
Long, 57, has been a national figure in African American church circles since the mid-1990s. He came to national prominence in 2006 when his New Missionary Baptist Church hosted four U.S. presidents for the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The church sits on a 240-acre campus, has satellite churches in other cities and is one of the largest venues in Georgia.
His church prospered along with its surroundings. Dekalb County is one of the wealthiest predominantly black communities in the country, and Long and his church are major players there. It is popular among young professionals and college students, and the church runs shuttle buses to and from the campuses of Spelman, Morehouse and other historically black colleges.
Long felt he, too, should be prosperous. In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records from the church showing that, from 1997 to 2000, Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing and other perks from a charity he controlled.
He told the newspaper: “We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation. We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. . . . I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.”
Those who study African American churches say – whatever the conclusion – the scandal facing Long will force the black church community to have the same conversation around sexuality and faith that has been taking place in other Christian faith traditions for years.