The famed pastor of a Georgia megachurch said Sunday that he will fight allegations that he lured young men into sexual relationships, stressing that he'd be back to lead the church the next week.
Addressing a New Birth Missionary Baptist Church sanctuary packed with thousands, Bishop Eddie Long declined to discuss specifics of lawsuits filed against him – or flatly deny the accusations. But he drew thunderous applause when he told his church that while he's not perfect, the picture painted by the allegations is far from accurate.
"There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me. That is not me," he said as applause interrupted him.
Long told the crowd that his lawyers had advised him not to "try this case in the media." While the remarks were short on details of the legal case, Bishop spoke at length about enduring painful situations.
"We are all subject to face distasteful and painful sitauations. Bishop Long, Eddie Long – you can put your name in that blank – will have some bad situations," he said. "The righteous face painful situations with a determined expectancy. We are not exempt from pain, but He promises to deliver us out of our pain."
About 100 people waited at the doors of the church more than an hour before the first service. Some held signs of support, while others prayed for their embattled leader. A small group sang the hymn "White as Snow" while outside.
Members in their seats clapped and swayed as the service began around 8 a.m., with several people with microphones singing on stage. Later in the service, hundreds began dancing and chanting, "Jesus, Jesus." A small group of young people held Apple iPads high over their heads, with the screens scrolling white letters against a black background reading, "It's time to praise him."
Long took the stage to loud applause from the crowd.
The lawsuits claim Long – who is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage – lured the four into sexual relationships with gifts including cars, cash and travel.
Long, a married father of four, previously denied the allegations through his lawyer but has not spoken publicly about them.
Over the past 20 years, Long became one of the most powerful independent church leaders in the country. He led New Birth as it grew from a suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 to a 25,000-member powerhouse with a $50 million cathedral and a roster of parishioners that includes athletes, entertainers and politicians.
He flashed his prosperity by wearing diamonds and platinum jewelry, while building strong political ties and a close relationship with the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The 2006 funeral for King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was held at New Birth. Their daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, is also a pastor at Long's church.
Bernice King took the stage at the first of Sunday's services.
Three of the young men who filed lawsuits this week live in Georgia, while the other was a member of a satellite church in Charlotte, N.C., run by Long.
Two of the plaintiffs were once members of a youth program called the LongFellows Youth Academy, which teaches teenage boys lessons on financial discipline and sexual control. In their lawsuits, the men say Long used the program to groom them for sexual relationships and lured them into trysts with cars, jewelry, and cash.
The other two plaintiffs make similar claims that Long served as a mentor, gave them gifts, then convinced them to engage in sexual acts.