Cars were wrapped around Lithonia’s back roads in stopped traffic for at least a mile up to an hour before the 8 a.m. service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on Sept. 26.
It was not a typical Sunday for Bishop Eddie Long or his 25,000-member congregation. Long used the pulpit to fight charges that he lured four former church members into sexual relationships in exchange for costly gifts and lavish trips. The four men have filed civil lawsuits against Long and the church and are seeking unspecified damages.
Kim Ballard, a 21-year-old church member from Stone Mountain, said she supported her pastor. She said she has attended services for 10 years.
“I believe in my bishop. I’m behind him 100 percent,” Ballard said. “If you’re a true believer in God and that things will work out, you know not to judge people.”
Long has built the church up from a congregation of about 300 parishioners since he became pastor in 1987. Fond of luxury vehicles, designer suits and jewelry, he preaches prosperity in his sanctuary, claiming God blesses his followers with wealth and success.
Long is also known as a vehement opponent of homosexuality and same-sex marriage and has hosted programs seeking to recondition gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. His influence is vast, reaching into the highest corridors of American power. Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were guests at the funeral service for Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr. The service was held at New Birth and officiated by Long.
Goldie Jones, 62, of Lithonia said he’s not a New Birth member but has friends and family who are. He said he didn’t support Long and believes he waited too long to address the public.
“I don’t care how much money he’s got,” Jones said. “Right is right, and wrong is wrong. … If somebody accused me of something, I’m going to call a meeting right now and figure this out.”
Kevin Walee, 37, of Stone Mountain said he didn’t feel it was his place to judge Long. He said he hoped the allegations were not true.
“It puts a bad taste on the church,” Walee said. “Eventually, God will judge that situation.”
But Shawn Powell, 40, said he’s not so sure. The Lithonia resident said he’s not a New Birth member.
“That man got power,” he said. “Why would (the plaintiffs) make something up like that if it’s not true?”
Words for the congregation
Inside the church, Long addressed his congregation in his first public appearance since the lawsuits were filed.
“I’m not a perfect man, but this thing I’m going to fight,” Long said to an overwhelmingly supportive congregation packed inside New Birth Missionary Baptist Church’s 10,000-seat sanctuary. “I’m under attack. I feel like David against Goliath, but I’ve got five rocks, and I haven’t thrown one yet.”
Long addressed the public in two Sunday services that attracted thousands of congregants to his Lithonia megachurch, the nerve center of an international religious empire that’s helped make Long both wealthy and widely known and an occasional target of criticism.
Though Long said in a statement the allegations against him are false shortly after they became public, he did not directly address them or deny them again before the congregation. He also spoke briefly to local and national media but declined to answer questions, he said, on the advice of his attorney, Craig Gillen.
“(I’m) not going to try this case in the media,” Long said. “It will be tried in the court of justice and dealt with in the court of justice. That’s the only place I think I’ll get justice.”
The address was Long’s first public appearance since four men filed lawsuits against the pastor, claiming Long lured them into sexual relationships with money, employment, gifts and lavish trips. The plaintiffs are Anthony Flagg, 20, of Lithonia; Maurice Robinson, 21; Jamal Parris, 23, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Spencer LeGrande, 22, of Charlotte, N.C.
Long said he felt an obligation to address his congregation before the greater public.
“My first responsibility was to my family, and then my next responsibility was not to address the word before I address my family at New Birth,” he said.
The first two lawsuits came at the same time – Sept. 22, sending shockwaves through metro Atlanta. Flagg and Robinson were the first two congregants to come forward. Both are – along with the third and fourth plaintiff – represented by Atlanta defense attorney B.J. Bernstein, known for her history of high-profile legal representation.
Flagg, who lives in Lithonia, said he was one of Long’s “spiritual sons,” a designation the pastor reserved for a small group of young, male parishioners who agreed to a covenant between Long and themselves in candlelit ceremonies that included an exchange of jewelry and Bible verse discussion – a ceremony most congregants are not aware of, according to Flagg’s lawsuit. Long sought to create a lasting bond between the young man and himself, assuring him that he would protect him from harm forever, the suit said.
Long allegedly used money from the church and its LongFellows Youth Academy, among other corporate and nonprofit accounts, to entice spiritual sons with cars, clothes, jewelry and electronics, the suit indicates.
Flagg was 16 years old when he joined the youth academy, the lawsuit said. The academy, designed as a mentoring program for young men, claims 100 percent of its participants have graduated high school. It also promotes abstinence and has partnered with corporations including Chick-fil-A and BB&T.
Shortly after Flagg joined, Long allegedly took an interest in mentoring Flagg, who told the pastor about his difficulties growing up without a father. Long made him a spiritual son and asked him to move into a home at 4708 Golod Way, Lithonia, after he was arrested for simple assault in May 2007, the lawsuit said. Flagg’s mother agreed, hoping it would bring stability to his life. Flagg moved into the home owned by New Birth minister and athletic director Andrew Moman. Long also gave Flagg a 2000 Ford Mustang convertible registered to church elder and chief ministry officer Darius Wise and placed Flagg on the church payroll.
Shortly thereafter, Long would visit the house and sleep with Flagg in the same bed, and he began sending Flagg sexual messages, the lawsuit said. The relationship escalated to include oral sodomy, and the two went on trips together to places like New York, Memphis and Las Vegas, and sexual activity continued as they shared hotel rooms. They suit also names several church employees who knew the two were sharing bedrooms, including Moman, Anthony Render and April McLaughlin. Long also allegedly told Flagg a sexual relationship was a healthy part of his spiritual life.
Robinson, the second plaintiff, had been in the news before. Robinson, 21, and a 19-year-old were charged with burglary in June when they broke into Long’s office and stole an iPhone, iPad and other random items worth more than $1,300. At the time, Robinson and Long were in a sexual relationship, and Robinson stole the items to get back at Long, according to the lawsuit.
Robinson’s relationship with Long began roughly a year after his mother enrolled him in the youth academy when he was 14, the lawsuit said. They joined the church in 2003. At some point, Robinson was placed on the church payroll, and Moman bought him a Chevrolet Malibu. They traveled to exotic locales, including Turks and Caicos and New Zealand. During the New Zealand trip, the two allegedly engaged in sexual activity, including touching and oral sodomy. Long would use scripture to justify his relationship to Robinson, the lawsuit said.
Long regularly gave Robinson cash, and Long or the church paid for Robinson’s tuition at Georgia Perimeter College, the suit said.
The third lawsuit came a day later from Parris. He joined the church with his mother when he was 14 in 2001, his lawsuit said. Parris did not have a good During the 2004-05 school year, Long, who encouraged Parris to call him “Daddy,” would take Parris to a guesthouse on Snapfinger Road where they allegedly engaged in sexual activity. The lawsuit alleges the same pattern as the other complaints.
But Parris found a girlfriend in 2009 and began to distance himself from the pastor. By the end of that year, he had left the church feeling disillusioned, confused and angry about his relationship with Long. He began reaching out to other Spiritual Sons he believed had also had sexual relationships with Long, the lawsuit said.
LeGrande was the fourth to sue. He and his family joined a New Birth satellite church in a Charlotte suburb after its first service around March 2003, his lawsuit said. He was 15. He was moved during a conference when Long visited gave a sermon about forgiving fathers who had not been present in their sons’ lives. LeGrande’s father had not been an active father since LeGrande was an infant, the lawsuit said.
The two began to speak on the phone, and Long asked that LeGrande call him “Dad.” The relationship progressed, and Long took LeGrande to Kenya when in 2005 when he was 17. One night, Long allegedly asked LeGrande to come to his room, where they took a sleep agent, hugged and kissed. At Long’s request, LeGrande moved to Atlanta to attend Beulah Heights University to pursue ministry in 2007. Long paid for his tuition and covered his accommodations. Their sexual relationship progressed until LeGrande became disillusioned with the relationship in spring 2009, according to the lawsuit. He left the university and moved back to Charlotte in October 2009.
All four plaintiffs are asking for a trial jury and an unspecified amount of damages. Bernstein said she believes her clients because they’ve put their reputations on the line to challenge the pastor.
“Young men, to put themselves out there, that they had any sort of sexual contact with another man is incredibly difficult,” she said. “I knew it was right. I knew these guys would be incredibly brave.”
Gillen, Long’s attorney, could not be reached for comment.
Staff writers Travis Hudgons and Donna Turner contributed to this report.