Bishop Eddie Long | Powerful pastor’s ministry put to test

Last Sunday, the faithful filled New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia and watched dancers impart a message about “tying up loose ends” in spiritual life.

Today, those pews surely will be filled again, but the message will be different. The pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, has promised to use his pulpit to answer allegations that he coerced young male church members into having sex with him.

Four men — Anthony Flagg, 21; Maurice Robinson, 20; Jamal Parris, 23; and Spencer LeGrande, 22 — filed lawsuits in DeKalb civil court last week accusing the 57-year-old minister of lavishing gifts and money on them in exchange for sexual favors.

For church members, the suits were like waves — two were filed on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, a fourth on Friday — each threatening to erode the foundations of the largest church in Georgia.

Flagg, Robinson and Parris say the relationships began when they were teens, “spiritual sons” in a church ministry called LongFellows Youth Academy.

LeGrande’s suit said his relationship with Long began after the New Birth pastor met him at the first service held at a satellite church in Charlotte and continued for two years after LeGrande moved to Atlanta.

Long, who denies the accusations, stands on a precipice. What happens within the confines of his 10,000-seat sanctuary today could derail a nationally renowned, multimillion-dollar ministry that has experienced remarkable growth for more than for two decades. Or it could reaffirm the power of a man who once made a reformed gang member weep in front of thousands.

“I have been through storms and my faith has always sustained me,” Long said in a statement released Thursday. “I am anxious to respond directly to these false allegations and I will do so.”

For Long, the lawsuits demand that he make the greatest sermon of his career. He must make it today.

Charisma, change

His ascent began in 1987, when Long became pastor of New Birth. Started in 1939, the church had changed its name when the new preacher took over. For the church, and Long, the change was prescient; a new birth would take place in the 300-member Decatur church.

For Long, it was right place, right time, said Shayne Lee, a Tulane University sociology professor and an expert on the black church.

First, the pastor attracted former members of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Decatur. The Cathedral’s head pastor, the Bishop Earl Paulk, a white Pentecostal preacher who had long crusaded against racism, faced charges of sexual misconduct with female church-goers. Long, they discovered, shared some of the traits they liked in Paulk — an emotional response to the Almighty, a man big enough to cry and not be ashamed of it. Word got around about the preacher at New Birth.

Long became an ardent, high-profile member of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, an organization formed by younger black ministers eager to create more-contemporary churches. Its first conference in 1994 attracted more than 20,000 believers. They soon became familiar with an energetic, muscled minister from metro Atlanta who did not shy from TV cameras.

The fellowship, said Lee, “gave him tremendous exposure.”

Another development gave Long authority few pastors ever enjoy. In 1994, New Birth’s deacons relinquished control of the church to the preacher. The change was comparable to a city council telling the mayor he could make all future decisions without its input.

In his book “Taking Over,” Long said the deacons had been “telling the man of God when to jump and how high.”

Long was poised to jump, and heaven was the limit.

‘I want to be part of this’

Claudine Cheatem planned to hit the road early after spending the night with a friend in Atlanta, splitting the long drive from Oklahoma to Florida. But her friend was adamant: Come to church with me. It was Father’s Day 2004.

Cheatem still remembers what happened at New Birth that day. The pastor, she said, called all the fathers to the front of the packed building. There, he prayed for the men to be good fathers, to avoid temptation. Cheatem was dazzled by Eddie Long.

Walking out, Cheatem turned to her friend. “I told her, ‘I’m going to go back home, quit my job and move to Atlanta. I want to be a part of this.’ ”

She was as good as her word and lived in Atlanta for five years before moving in 2009 to Iowa to be closer to her family. Cheatem remains a New Birth member, watching sermons online every Sunday. She likes his excitement, his presence on the stage. He is a good man, Cheatem believes.

“I stand behind him 100 percent,” she said. “My heart is hurt — for him, for his family.”

Friends in rap, politics

Check out Eddie Long on YouTube, where the small screen can barely contain the tailored presence of the man with the big rings on his fingers and even bigger smile. It’s like looking at tiny bolts of lightning.

“Let me tell you something,” Long says in one clip. “Bling is fine. I got some. But I got some after I pay God, after I save some and after I pay my bills.”

He hangs with rap royalty. The rapper Ludacris featured the preacher on his 2006 song “Freedom of Preach.” Long invited hip-hop luminary T.I to an Easter Service to deliver the message. The bishop officiated at the 2002 funeral of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.

He knows the politically powerful. His church was the site for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King. Savoy magazine named him one of the most influential black people in America.

And he exhorts young people to respect their elders. “Sometimes,” he says in another clip, “you need to sit at the feet of wisdom.”

‘Spiritual corporation’

Church attendance figures tell the story.

In 1994, Long said his church had 10,000 members. By 1997, 18,000 people had joined. In 2000, New Birth had a membership of 25,000.

The next year, it opened a $50 million church in Lithonia, a building so big that its green metal roof resembles a mountain in springtime. New Birth, Long declared, was a “spiritual corporation.”

A corporation that has been generous to its leader, said Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University. Long, she said, got wealthy with a simple message: God wants you to be well-off.

New Birth members “definitely believe that God wants to bless them and that the blessings aren’t just spiritual,” she said.

For Long, the blessings were immense. In 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Bishop Eddie Long Ministries Inc. provided its founder with roughly $1 million a year in salary, benefits and the use of property between 1997 and 2000. This was nearly as much as the charity gave to all other recipients during that period.

Such prosperity did not go unnoticed. In 2007, Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, wondered if some rich preachers were abusing their ministries’ tax-exempt status. The Iowa Republican sent financial queries to six high-profile preachers — among them Atlanta-area evangelists Creflo Dollar and Long.

Long sneered at the senator. Grassley, he told church members, had launched “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights.”

Dollar refused to answer anything. Long eventually provided an incomplete list of answers to Grassley.

An aide to Grassley last week said the senator’s query is not done. The office, she added, is still waiting for the rest of Long’s answers.

Polarizing public stand

He works out regularly. Long has biceps nearly the size of cantaloupes. He routinely exhorts his church members to stay clean, stay fit.

The bishop preaches “muscular Christianity,” which emphasizes power, wealth and a big dose of testosterone, said Jonathan L. Walton, an assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School who’s written a book about black televangelism that includes Long.

He also preaches the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. In 2004, Long held a torch, lit from the tomb of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and led thousands on a downtown Atlanta march in support of a constitutional amendment opposing same-sex marriages. With him was Bernice King, the slain civil rights leader’s daughter.

For some civil rights figures, the march was about as welcome as rebel flag hoisted over King’s church, Ebenezer Baptist.

“If Dr. King were here today, he wouldn’t participate in this march,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and a longtime civil rights activist, said at the time. “During the civil rights movement, we were trying to take discrimination out of the Constitution.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, opposed the march, too.

“Marriage,” he said in 2004, “is a private affair.”

Long didn’t blink. “This march was not derived out of an idea to protest same-sex marriage,” he said in a statement issued before the march, “but to present a unified vision of righteousness and justice.”

Teen saw no wrongdoing

Bryan Dorsey was in the first group of teens in 2004 to join a new church program, LongFellows Youth Academy. The Stone Mountain seventh-grader was thrilled.

He remembers bringing the bishop coffee — decaf, black, two sugars. He also recalls what Long did for him, said Dorsey, now a student at Georgia State.

“He almost raised us,” said Dorsey. And, like a dad, he paid some of the young man’s speeding tickets, Dorsey said. Others he helped out with school costs.

Some of Dorsey’s best memories are the domestic and foreign trips he and other LongFellow participants took with the pastor. Among his fellow travelers, he said, were Flagg and Robinson, two of the men who have filed lawsuits against Long.

“I never saw anything [wrong],” Dorsey said. “Never, ever!”

Soul-searching ahead

Tough times may be ahead for New Birth and its pastor.

“I think he’s going to lose some folks in his church,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, who’s known Long for years. “Unfortunately, even if he is innocent, his integrity has been damaged.”

The lawsuits should prompt some soul-searching, said the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain. He was New Birth’s pastor before Long assumed the position.

“Whether it’s true or not, the church has an issue of duplicity, hypocrisy and denial in terms of human sexuality that the church has to deal with,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I think Bishop Long is emblematic of a culture ... that causes pastors and parishioners to preach and testify one thing and practice something else.”

The “something else” may be the question in thousands of minds today, as Bishop Eddie Long delivers the sermon of his life.

Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this article.