New York Times – At the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta. With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders.
He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.
But life inside Bishop Long’s home had been crumbling. And on Sunday, members of his dwindling congregation heard news they had been bracing for.
Their charismatic bishop, who in May settled with five young men who accused him of sexual coercion and who has fought a series of other legal battles, said he was temporarily stepping away from the pulpit to try to save his marriage.
The announcement came after his wife, Vanessa Long, 53, filed for divorce Thursday. Friday, she recanted after “prayerful reflection” but later in the day changed her mind and said she did intend to end their marriage of 21 years. They have four children.
“Vanessa and I are working together in seeking God’s will in our current circumstances,” Bishop Long, 58, said in a statement issued by the church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
During services on Sunday, he told congregants that he was still their senior pastor and would continue to provide spiritual direction, but that he needed time to take care of “some family business.” Members attending services pledged support and said they would stay until his return.
“He needs to be with his family,” said Marilyn Arnold, a business manager. “It’s hard on his family. When he comes back, we’ll be here.”
But not everyone remains a believer. Valencia Miller, a property manager in Lithonia, said she left the church after the young men who accused the bishop of sexual impropriety came forward.
“A lot of us left. I mean, a lot,” she said in an interview Sunday.
Like others, she hopes that Bishop Long turns this temporary break into a permanent one.
“The church needs a cleansing,” she said. “I’m real disappointed. He was a man we all looked up to.”
Bishop Long took over the congregation in 1987 when it had a few hundred members. He built a following of 25,000, according to the church’s Web site, and reached millions more on TV.
Just after Easter, Bishop Long settled a lawsuit in which young men claimed that the pastor offered gifts, trips, and emotional and spiritual guidance that eventually led to sexual relations. One of the young men, Maurice Robinson, said in court records that his relationship with Bishop Long began when he was 15 and that on a trip to New Zealand the two engaged in sexual acts.
Bishop Long initially vowed to fight the charges, proclaiming his innocence and comparing himself to David who fought Goliath.
“I have five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet,” he said when the charges were revealed.
Details of the settlement were to be kept secret, but people with knowledge of the case have put it at several million dollars paid over a period of years.
Some of the men have since spoken out, so lawyers for the church have tried to get part of the money returned, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
There have been other legal battles. Ten former members who attended church investment seminars are suing him, claiming he coerced them into investment deals that cost them their retirement savings. He recently reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a $2 million bank loan, much of which went unpaid after a real estate deal that went bad.
In 2007, Bishop Long was one of a half-dozen ministers whose tax-exempt status was investigated by a Senate committee.
Support for Bishop Long continues to shrink. Just before the sexual coercion settlement was announced, the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left the church.
On Sunday, a small group of antigay, religious protesters stood outside the church urging Bishop Long to step down permanently. They said they planned to return every month until he left.
“He has a serious moral character flaw,” said Isaac Richmond, 73, the minister at the Church of Human Development in Memphis. “It’s a moral question and he’s a religious figure. We don’t want that image as a role model for young men in the African-American community.”
The Rev. Timothy McDonald, a Baptist minister in Atlanta and chairman of the group African-American Ministers in Action, said that attendance at the church had dropped to 4,000 from about 8,000 at one point this year. Still, he said, it remains a powerful force. “Even on his bad days, if he gets 4,000 or 5,000, he’s still larger than 94 or 95 percent of most churches,” he said.
Frank Cook, a contract administrator who has been a member for 20 years, is not going anywhere. “It’s all about restoring, forgiving and loving,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “We love Bishop Long and we’re going to keep coming.”