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Updated: 8:49 a.m. Monday, Sept. 27, 2010 | Posted: 4:42 a.m. Monday, Sept. 27, 2010

Eddie Long: "I'm going to fight."


Eddie Long: "I'm going to fight." photo
Bishop Eddie Long speaks on Sunday.
Eddie Long: "I'm going to fight." photo
Vino Wong
A steady flow of traffic heads toward New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia on Sunday morning. Bishop Eddie Long was set to face his church members during the service, after lawsuits were filed this week by four young men alleging he coerced them into having sex.
Eddie Long: "I'm going to fight." photo
John Amis
Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., speaks Sunday at New Birth before Eddie Long's message.

By Craig Schneider and  Shelia M. Poole, Gracie Bonds Staples

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bishop Eddie Long's steadfast vow to fight accusations of sexual coercion drew cheers from church members Sunday, but left some uncertain about the high-profile religious leader.

Standing before thousands of supportive congregants, Long used the pulpit of his DeKalb County megachurch, New Birth Missionary Baptist, to respond to a week of lawsuits by four young men who say he used his influence to coerce them into sex.

In his first public appearance since the lawsuits, Long said the past few days have been among the most painful in his life.

The 57-year-old pastor did not say much beyond the written statements issued earlier by himself and his attorney. Those statements declared his innocence against the sex accusations. His sermons on Sunday did not address the accusations directly.

He never specifically proclaimed his innocence. But he vowed to clear his name.

"This thing I'm going to fight," he told the throngs of faithful who at the Lithonia church. And they cheered the pastor who built the church into a huge community of 25,000 followers.

B.J. Bernstein, the Atlanta lawyer for all four of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said she had no comment on Long's remarks.

Dressed in a khaki-colored suit bearing the New Birth emblem, Long walked onto the stage accompanied by his wife, Vanessa. He spoke of his aim to "vigorously" defend himself, and that he would not play out the battle in the media but in a court of law.

Despite conjecture that he might step down or stop preaching during this church crisis, Long told his congregants: "I will see you next week," and later, "I'm not leaving you, if you don't leave me."

The reaction to Long's short sermons during two morning services ranged from enthusiastic approval to lingering uncertainy.

"I totally applaud him," said Willie Brown, a 10-year member, after attending the 8 a.m. service. "I feel that his statement was just and accurate; not too little, not too much."

Nikki James, 27, of Atlanta, called Long's remarks "genuine" and said she's ready to move on.

"I don't believe any of the allegations," she said. "It's deterring us from what we want -- building a closer relationship with God. And that's what the bishop wants."

But if Sunday was Long's chance to strike back against the accusations, he failed to deliver the knock-out blow, said Carol Alexander, 51, of Mableton.

"Do we know if it's true? No," she said. "We're praying that it's not true."

Christina Brown and a friend, Marcia McDonald, drove to New Birth from Covington to hear Long speak in person.

"This wasn't very convincing," said Brown, 34.

McDonald said she found the Bishop’s message “very vague.”

Long said he has not begun to fight in earnest.

In both sermons, among the most important of Long's career, the embattled preacher compared himself to the biblical David against Goliath. "There is a giant in front of me. And I'm going to fight and fight vigorously," he said. "And I've got five rocks and I haven't thrown one yet."

He did not elaborate on what form those "rocks" might take.

He made clear that he understood the gravity of the moment, as did his parishioners.  Members of his DeKalb County megachurch started arriving before dawn. One couple slept in their green Lexus parked in a visitor's spot. A platoon of reporters and camera crews joined them, and CNN broadcast his appearance.

"I realize many have been waiting on me to say something," he said.

Long said he has never portrayed himself as a perfect man. "But I am not the man being portrayed on the television," he said. "That's not me. That's not me."

Long used Psalm 34:19 as his sermon scripture: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but Lord delivereth him out of them all.”

At a media conference between services, Long made a short statement but did not take questions.

He said, "I am going to fight, fight very vigorously."

Long let it be known that, on the advice of his attorney, he would not address the accusations head on at this time.

Tamadis Young, 36, of Atlanta, said Long was smart not to say too much: "It should wait until trial," he said.

Long thanked the congregation for their support and prayers, saying,  “I’m humbled by such a loving congregation.”

Long essentially repeated his remarks at the 11 a.m. service, but he appeared more buoyant and confident, smiling as he took the stage.

The four men's lawsuits all claim Long, in his role as a church leader, coerced them into sexual relationships. Three lawsuits also name a mentoring program, LongFellows Youth Academy.

His latest accuser, Spencer LeGrande, whose suit was filed Friday, claims he was 17 when he began a sexual relationship with Long while accompanying the bishop on a trip to Nairobi, Kenya.

“Bishop Long categorically denies the charges,” church spokesman Art Franklin said Friday. “We believe that it is unfortunate the young men have chosen to take this course of action. The defense team will review the complaints and respond accordingly at the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum.”

Great anticipation accompanied Long's first public appearance. Long was scheduled to appear on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, but that appearance was canceled at the last minute by his attorney, who went on in his place.

In another of the suits, Jamal Parris, 23, a former member of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, claims Long had Parrish call him “Daddy” and coerced him into sexual acts. Parris’ allegations are similar to claims made by Anthony Flagg, 21, and Maurice Robinson, 20, who filed suits earlier.

New Birth wasn't the only church where Long's troubles were mentioned Sunday. Rev. Jesse Curney, a former youth pastor at New Birth who now preaches at New Mercies Christian Church in Lilburn told his congregation he was "trying to get through the day without tears."

“I’m praying strongly that he will be vindicated," Curney said. "I have known him as a man of good character.”

Curney said he went to New Birth last week "to let (Long) know that I am with you whether you are right or wrong,” Curney said. “Nobody knows what happened but those involved. That’s why I say pray for everybody.”

Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta and a longtime friend of the bishop, did not attend New Birth on Sunday but was happy Long addressed the allegations.

“I think a lot of us were waiting to hear from him,” said McDonald.

McDonald said the issue has implications for African-American churches.

“It’s about how we counsel and relate to parishioners,” said McDonald. “We have to be careful what we do and what we say to folk.”

David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, said Long's remarks seemed crafted from a legal strategy.

"It seems to me that today Rev. Long took a legally-based approach of avoiding a direct denial of the accusations, while also avoiding any confirmation of any charges or acknowledgement of responsibility,” said Gushee. “ Eventually the truth will probably come out, but it was not revealed today.”

-- Aileen Dodd and Peralte C. Paul contributed to this article

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