By Adelle M. Banks
c. 2010 Religion News Service
(RNS) Bishop Eddie Long was once best known as an Atlanta-area megachurch leader and internationally known religious broadcaster. Now there’s another title: Accused sex offender.
As the Lithonia, Ga., pastor faces charges of using money and gifts to coerce young men into sexual relationships, experts say the man who built New Birth Missionary Baptist Church into one of the nation’s largest black megachurches has long been as controversial as he was influential.
“There’s people who he considers to be his spiritual brothers and sisters or children around the world,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The three men who were considered his “spiritual sons” are accusing Long of a range of sexual advances; a fourth, with similar charges, said Long told him, “I will be your dad.”
Jamal Parris, one of the “spiritual sons,” described Long to an Atlanta Fox News television as a “monster.” Long’s lawyer responded that his accusers are “attempting to try their lawsuits in the media” instead of the courtroom.
Long, 57, became the leader of a multimillion-dollar ministry complex by transcending traditional pastoral labels. He was also a pioneer among a generation of young baby boomer preachers who attracted younger congregants, especially from the black middle class.
His association with the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship made his congregation part of a network of what are called “Bapticostal”
“He was part of a movement that was quite adept at blending the best of Pentecostalism with the best of black mainline denominationalism,”
said Shayne Lee, associate professor of sociology at Tulane University.
His popularity among younger African-Americans did not always sit well with the old guard of black church leaders, who launched their ministries in the civil rights movement or climbed the ranks of state Baptist conventions.
“They think he’s too much about self-empowerment and not much about challenging structural conditions that hurt black people,” Lee said.
Long, a native of Charlotte, N.C., combined his education in business administration and theology to build a collection of ministries that range from the spiritual to the educational to sports and fitness.
His financial success allowed him to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of African-American seminaries in Atlanta that he attended. His support abroad has helped fund an AIDS hospice in South Africa and the 65-bed Bishop Eddie Long Bondeni Hospital in Nakuru, Kenya.
Yet his ministries have drawn scrutiny, including from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who probed allegations of lavish spending and questionable finances at six high-profile evangelical organizations, including Long’s.
Grassley’s office, which inquired about Long’s income and million-dollar donations received by his ministry, said Tuesday (Sept. 28) the new allegations against Long would not be part of the senator’s review of tax laws.
Part of the success of Long’s ministry has been his emphasis on “muscular Christianity,” which rejects notions of feminine Christianity and emphasizes male leadership.
Jonathan Walton, an assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School, said Long has one of the few churches in the country where male membership equals or surpasses female membership.
“His ministry is filled with themes of virility rather than meekness,” said Walton, who wrote a book on black religious broadcasting and first noted Long’s televised sermons a decade ago on British television.
“The symbol for the New Birth Church is a sword and shield.”
Walton said Long’s LongFellows Youth Academy — which some of his accusers attended — was viewed positively for mentoring young black males.
“It’s speaking to the anxieties of African-American communities and particularly the anxiety around the absence of fathers,” he said.
Now, after previously marching in a protest against gay marriage, charges of hypocrisy swirl around Long.
“He definitely had a very heterosexist kind of view of the way society should run,” said Lee. “A person who has made public statements against homosexual activity now may be guilty of that activity.”
Long, who is not granting interviews, told his congregation Sunday:
“I am not a perfect man but this thing I’m going to fight.”
Atlanta-area ministers gathered to pray with Long on Tuesday evening, including prayers for his accusers and their families.
“I think in times like these we sometimes forget the good a person has done,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church, and a friend of Long’s for more than 20 years.
“I believe it is a crisis of faith and church and the best remedy for a crisis of faith and church is prayer.”
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