Sex scandal shakes megachurch
Four former youth-group members allege he coerced them into homosexual acts, which the influential church leader denies.
The New York Times
LITHONIA, Ga. — In the past two decades, Bishop Eddie Long has built a religious and financial empire from scratch, transforming a small, faltering church into a modern cathedral with one of the largest and most influential congregations in the country.
Today, Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church includes a multimillion-dollar network of charities and businesses, a private school and the Samson's Health and Fitness Center, where he holds court and pumps iron with young people.
His message that God wants people to prosper has attracted celebrities, professional athletes and socialites, swelling the membership to 25,000. The church hosted four U.S. presidents for the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006.
The rapid expansion of the church — often called "Club New Birth" because it attracts so many young black single people — has also made Long a powerful political player, especially in DeKalb County, home to one of the wealthiest black communities in the country. The church has become a mandatory stop for many politicians — local, state and national — and Long supports candidates of both parties.
But Long's reputation and sprawling enterprises are threatened by a sex scandal.
Four former members of a youth group he runs have accused him of repeatedly coercing them into homosexual sex acts and of abusing his considerable moral authority over them while plying them with cash, new cars, lodging and lavish trips.
Long has denied the accusations in a letter sent to a local radio station and has promised to address them from the pulpit Sunday. He declined, through his lawyer, to comment for this article.
The accusations are all the more explosive because Long styles himself a social conservative, rails against homosexuality and calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. His church even holds seminars promising to "cure" homosexuals.
"When this comes out, it gives at least the perception of hypocrisy; it's like red meat to a lion, everyone's pouncing on this story," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a Long friend who heads First Iconium Baptist Church. "This is the issue: How can you be against homosexuality, and you are allegedly participating in it? That is the epitome of hypocrisy."
The accusations center on the LongFellows Youth Academy, an exclusive group of teenage boys hand-picked by Long for spiritual mentoring.
The boys went through a bonding ritual, known as a "covenant ceremony," in which Long gave them jewelry and exchanged vows with them while quoting from Scripture as ceremonial candles burned, according to court complaints filed against the pastor. Reciting Bible verses, the pastor promised to protect them from harm and called them "spiritual sons."
But four former members of the group say the real purpose of the academy was to provide Long with young men he could lure into sex. The men say they were past the legal age of consent when Long initiated the relationships. Still, the charges have shaken Atlanta's churchgoing society.
Long cuts a flashy figure in Lithonia, the Atlanta suburb where he lives and has built his church. He is often seen in a Bentley attended by bodyguards. He tends to wear clothes that show off his muscular physique. He favors Gucci sunglasses, gold necklaces, diamond bracelets and Rolex watches. He lives in a 5,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, which he bought for $1.1 million in 2005.
Lavish display of wealth
His lavish display of wealth is in keeping with his theology. In his sermons, he often tells his congregants that God wants them to be wealthy and asserts that Jesus was not poor. By all accounts, he has been well-compensated for his leadership in building New Birth from a church with a few hundred members into the largest congregation in Georgia. His televised sermons reach 170 countries.
In 2005, for instance, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records showing that from 1997 to 2000 Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing, a car and other perks from a charity he controlled.
"We're not just a church, we're an international corporation," he told the newspaper in justifying his compensation. "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 deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation."
After the article about his compensation, Long hired a public-relations firm and went on a campaign to improve his image, McDonald said. He began charitable programs to feed the poor, help struggling people with mortgages and offer haircuts to the homeless.
"The bishop used to be perceived as aloof, untouchable, with his entourage all around him," McDonald said. "He started putting himself in a different light, a more positive light."
Long's critics and his defenders are waiting for an explanation of the accusations against him. Some members of the church believe he is the victim of a smear campaign by people in favor of gay rights.
"It's propaganda, man," said Anthony Harris, 30, a businessman who says Long has served as his role model. "It's retaliation for the 2004 march, the anti-gay-marriage march."
But the accusations have turned others away from Long. William Abernathy, 25, a music producer, said he had attended the church several times this year and was considering joining, but the accusations, coupled with Long's opulent lifestyle, persuaded him to go elsewhere.
"I'm going to pass on that," Abernathy said. "It's like hot milk now, sitting on the curb, getting sour."
Many in the congregation, meanwhile, have been wrestling with feelings of betrayal. "My heart just kind of sank," said Cheryl Jenkins, 43, who owns an accounting firm. "If he says he didn't do it, we believe in him. If it turns out that he did and he apologizes, we have to accept it. No one is above reproach."
In 1987, when Long took over New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, it had 300 members and a small building.
He adopted a modern image, using slang and dressing like a hip-hop mogul. He borrowed ideas from evangelical and charismatic churches and expanded his reach through cable TV.
He also adopted what has become known as "muscular Christianity," a male-dominated view that emphasizes a warriorlike man who serves as the spiritual authority and protector in a family. His books on relationships suggest men get in touch with their inner "wild man" and channel their fighting instincts into taking responsibility for their lives. Women are to submit to their husbands, he says.
Long has been married twice and has four children.
B.J. Bernstein, a lawyer for the four young men who claim to have been coerced into sexual affairs with Long, said the pastor exerted a paternalistic and, at times, autocratic influence over men.
The four complaints filed in court describe how Long arranged for the church to provide cars to the young men and put them on the church payroll. Two of them said they received free lodging in church-owned houses, where, they said, Long visited them for sessions of kissing, oral sex or masturbation. He also took them on trips to other cities and abroad, sharing rooms with them, with the knowledge of several church officials, the complaints say.
In the letter to the radio station, Long called the accusations false. "We continue to categorically deny each and every one of these ugly charges," he said.