Miami —Among those tuning in to watch the most anticipated sermon of Bishop Eddie Long’s career were two of the four young men who a week earlier filed suit claiming the powerful Lithonia pastor coerced them into sexual relationships.
“It was like the Super Bowl for us,” said Jamal Parris, 24, describing the anxiousness he felt before Long took to the pulpit last September. “This might be the day he finally says something.”
Neither Parris nor fellow accuser Spencer LeGrande, now 23, expected an admission of wrongdoing or an apology.
“I knew who he was,” LeGrande said. “I knew what was coming.”
Speaking to 25,000 New Birth Missionary Baptist members who packed the church and watched on TV and online, Long vowed to clear his name.
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“This thing I’m going to fight,” he said, comparing himself to the biblical David, turning the table on his accusers.
Ironically, the two young men said in an interview in Miami last week, Long often compared his young charges to David, casting them as metaphoric armor-bearers to the bishop’s King Saul. Now they were being portrayed as Goliath.
“I just got quiet,” Parris said. “I started crying. I couldn’t even stop crying because I was angry. The way he walked up [to the stage]. The way I saw people stand up and applaud this man. [I thought] how dare you.”
A year later, the wounds are still raw for both men who, with two other plaintiffs, sued last September alleging the charismatic pastor “uses monetary funds from the accounts of New Birth and other corporate and non-profit corporate accounts to entice the young men with cars, clothes, jewelry, and electronics.”
Each alleged that, once they reached the age of consent, Long coerced them into sexual relationships.
The cases were settled in late May after months of mediation.
Long has, through a spokesman, denied the allegations. He did not respond to requests from the AJC for an interview. Following the announcement of the settlement, the bishop, 58, released a statement saying the agreement was made “to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry.”
Documents filed May 27 in DeKalb State Court confirm the lawsuits have been dismissed.
Parris and LeGrande declined to discuss specifics, per the terms of the agreement.
By speaking out, Parris and LeGrande risk losing undisclosed monetary rewards outlined in the settlement, which is sealed.
“The truth should’ve set [us] free,” said Parris. “I thought I could cover the pain up. I thought I could move, start over and everything would go away. I was terribly wrong. I’m living a lifestyle meant to crash.”
The money is irrelevant, LeGrande said.
“I’m going to tell the world – money does not buy happiness,” said LeGrande. “When you sleep at night, the problems are still there. The money stuff, who cares about the number.”
“I feel like burning [the money],” he said.
The Armor Bearers
LeGrande was 15 when he met Long at one of New Birth’s satellite churches in Charlotte. The sermon, on the importance of fathers, left him in tears.
“When I started crawling, that was the day [my father] left,” LeGrande said. “A lot of years I didn’t even see him.”
LeGrande said Long embraced him. “I got you ... I will be your dad,” the bishop told the teen. Soon they were talking regularly on the phone.
Parris said he too was raised without a strong male influence.
“My dad was abusive,” he said. “My dad would flake out … that’s all a predator needs.”
Long was the father figure both youths craved. He called them his armor-bearers and rewarded their loyalty with exotic trips, expensive gifts and, more importantly, a role model.
“He did teach us good things,” LeGrande said, “but something had to be wrong with him.”
In 2004, when LeGrande was 16, he accompanied Long to Kenya. On a later trip to Johannesburg, they dined with Winnie Mandela.
“You’re thinking you’re the luckiest kid in the world, like someone’s always got your back,” LeGrande said. “For me, it was more of a spiritual connection. It was about God.”
Parris met Long a few years earlier, in 2001 when he was 14 and new to Atlanta. He was at choir practice when he met the man he’d soon be calling “daddy.” Parris said he left that day with the preacher’s cell phone number.
The power wielded by the bishop made an impression on Parris.
“It’s the power he commanded when he walked into the room. It’s like I’m with the president,” he said.
Neither young man was aware of the other until after they broke away from Long.
Beyond the gifts — each more expensive than the last, Parris said — and the trips, there were deep, spiritual conversations.
“Out of nowhere he hits you with the most emotional question,” LeGrande said. “‘I know what you’re feeling. I know what it’s like.’”
Expensive trips, gifts
When Spencer returned to Kenya with Long at age 17, the two shared a room in an exclusive Nairobi hotel. Soon they’d be sharing a bed, LeGrande said.
The teen was jet lagged and the bishop encouraged him to take a sleep aid, LeGrande said. According to LeGrande’s lawsuit, a prolonged hug followed, as did “kissing and rubbing.”
LeGrande said he felt powerless and conflicted. Doubts mixed with feelings of indebtedness, while Long used scripture to rationalize the intimacy, he said.
After that trip, LeGrande said, Long encouraged him to move to Atlanta and study for the ministry at Beulah Heights University.
The bishop paid his tuition, bought him a new Dodge Intrepid and supplied a suite at the Hyatt Place in Lithonia, LeGrande said.
But there were stipulations, he said.
Parris said he had a similar experience of restrictions.
“Let me alienate you from all that you knew,” he described. “You’re not allowed to talk to females. You’re isolated. Everyone thinks you’ve abandoned them.”
Parris went to Honduras and the Bahamas with Long, with first-class accommodations. Then, when he was 17, the sexual advances began, he said.
But LeGrande said doubts were overwhelmed by the addictive lifestyle.
“I didn’t have a dad my whole life,” LeGrande said. “Just to have a man love me for who I was … I had to love him back.”
Meeting Their Maker
Last summer he learned otherwise. Church members Maurice Robinson and Anthony Flagg, then 20 and 21, respectively, said they, too, had been sexually involved with the bishop.
A fifth accuser, Centino Kemp, came forward during the mediation process, which began in February.
Several months had passed since Parris or LeGrande had seen Long. They no longer felt like armor-bearers.
“Now I have a voice,” Parris recalled thinking in the mediation sessions. “I was that kid who talks back to his parents for the first time.”
Long avoided eye contact, they said.
“I was this tall in that room,” LeGrande said. “He was that little.”
Both are living in Miami on the proceeds of the settlement.
They plan to write a book, promising to reveal details of their relationship with Long.
Parris acknowledges he’s still dealing with his relationship with Long. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and was sentenced to a year’s probation. A weapons charge was dropped.
He’s in therapy, though perhaps nothing has proven more healing than his friendship with LeGrande, whose calm demeanor contrasts sharply with Parris’ frenetic bluntness.
“I’m fighting not to pull the trigger,” Parris said. “I’d love to take pills and never wake up.”
“[Spencer] has been my bro,” he continued. “I do know there’s someone in my corner who’s experienced what I’ve experienced.’