Atlanta: Sunday`s services at a Georgia megachurch will give its famed pastor the chance to address the congregation for the first time about allegations that he lured young men into sexual relationships with gifts and travel.
Bishop Eddie Long is scheduled to speak at services at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, several days after lawsuits were filed accusing him of exploiting his authority to push four former members into trysts when they were 17 or 18 years old.
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.
People began filling the 10,000-seat sanctuary shortly before 7 a.m. Some headed to the altar and fell to their knees in prayer. From her seat, a woman could be heard thanking God for the controversy.
Members in their seats clapped and swayed as the service began, with several people with microphones singing on stage.
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, has 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.
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.