In 2004, Eddie Long, one of the richest and most powerful pastors in the black megachurch movement, led a march in Atlanta against homosexuality. This week, Mr. Long faces civil charges, which he has denied, that he took sexual advantage of two teenage boys from his flock.
Bishop Long is one of the most visible members of a group of high-powered black evangelicals, often sporting muscle-cut shirts that show off his thick arms. He has called himself the "spiritual daddy" to young black men in search of salvation. One of his books is "Gladiator, the Strength of a Man."
The nature of the complaints in two civil lawsuits and the involvement of one of the black church's most popular leaders have shocked the black community, especially in Atlanta, where Long made his name and fortune.
But because Long through his ministry helped perpetuate homophobia, his critics say, the case could affect his career, challenge the antihomosexual stance of many black church members, and even offer hope to black gay men who struggle for acceptance and a role in black society.
"This might be a time of scandal [for the black church] ... but it will also spark a renewed dialogue," says Shayne Lee, a Tulane University sociologist and author of "Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace." "The fact is, Eddie Long is one of the most respected black Christians in the country, he's very popular and very influential, and that's why this is going to get a lot of people talking about the issue of sexuality [in the black church]."
Homophobia in the broader black community – which some say is fed by the black church, as well as by prevailing views on masculinity and family – has in the past spilled into violence. In 2007 and 2008, Chicago saw a number of shootings and even killings aimed at gay black men, including a choir director who was shot shortly after coming out in a TV interview.
Longtime black gay activist Billy Jones, in an interview last year with the online magazine Blacklight, said many blacks see the gay movement "as a means of destroying the black family" and see gay black men as "unmanly, weak."
But many blacks take a different view when faced with a family member who comes out as gay. Black families, Mr. Jones said, tend to accept gay members and "really make an effort to try to understand them and the love stays there."
How black evangelicals will respond to the allegations against Long is difficult to tell. Some in the African-American community worry that the allegations will deepen mistrust of homosexuals, especially because of the age of the alleged victims (although no criminal charges have been filed).
"The point is not whether [Long] is gay or not or he denies or admits it, but this is really about how people [in the black community] feel that black people should be represented in public, and that is about being heterosexual," says Melinda Chateauvert, an African-American studies professor at the University of Maryland, in College Park. "There are [millions] of black people who are gay, members of families, pastors of churches, who serve in the military – they're everywhere. But the deliberate closeting – not necessarily by them, but by other people – is really problematic."
On "The Frank and Wanda Morning Show" on Atlanta's V-103 station, host Frank Ski, one of Long's parishioners, said much of the reaction has been disbelief. If true, "it's going to cause a lot of destruction in our community," a caller told Mr. Ski during the show.
The two young men alleged that Long instructed them as "spiritual sons" to "follow their master," while enticing them "with cars, clothes, jewelry, and electronics," according to the two lawsuits filed by a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old that describe events going back to 2008. More damaging, potentially, to Long is that one of the men said Long used Scripture to justify their sexual relationship, which the men allege included kissing and oral sex.
Church spokesman Art Franklin told the V-103 morning show that Long categorically denies the allegations, adding, "The plaintiffs, these are not innocent victims. ...I just caution people to consider the sources and their motives."
In June, one of the men was arrested for allegedly burglarizing Long's office, taking an iPhone and an iPad, according to police. The man's lawyer has said it was an attempt to retaliate against the pastor for what had happened.
Long, who is married, built his megachurch on his prodigous charisma, often defending his ostentatious lifestyle, which includes a $350,000 Bentley and a $1.4 million home. Close friends of Long told CNN Tuesday that the pastor has become more humble in recent years, even complaining of a sense of loneliness. One way Long connects with his church members is by talking about his failings, including a first marriage and rejection from his father, writes CNN's John Blake, who covered Long during a stint as religion reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Long story may not ultimately challenge the "don't ask, don't tell" view of homosexuality in the broader black community, says Mr. Lee at Tulane. But it could have a powerful impact on many blacks struggling with their sexuality, he says.
"The fact that this story is out there is going to help many black Christians in these churches who are struggling, who are being prayed over and fasting to try to get rid of these same-sex urges," he says. "They may look at a powerful man like Long, that if he can wrestle with same-sex urges and indulge in them, that means there's nothing wrong with a lowly Christian who's not a preacher to have these urges."