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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Bishop Eddie Long dies at 63: Gospel community remembers influential minister

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Tributes poured in across the country this week for Bishop Eddie Long, who passed away last Sunday. 

Long, 63, had served for nearly 30 years as pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which is located in Lithonia, Georgia, near Atlanta.

His controversial tenure as pastor of one of the nation’s largest congregations included both the heights and the pitfalls of high-profile service in ministry. 

According to a statement released by New Birth, Long died after a “gallant private fight” with an “aggressive” form of cancer.

Despite his illness and its complications, Long was able to minister to the church almost to his last day, ushering in the new year with the congregation. Cancer would not kill his faith or his spirit, he said.

“He told the church that God was already working in our favor and what we have been praying for was already manifested,” New Birth’s statement noted. “In his departure, we receive that and as faithful members of New Birth, we praise God for the life of Bishop Long.”

National recording artist Byron Cage, who has also been a music minister at New Birth, was the first to confirm Long’s death in a posting on Twitter.

“My heart is heavy, but God is in control,” Cage said. “See you in the rapture Bishop Eddie Long. It was an honor to serve New Birth for 12 years.”

Prayers of dedication to Long and support for his family were quickly offered by prominent gospel figures such as televangelist T.D. Jakes and singer and radio host Yolanda Adams. 

Tributes were also presented by entertainers such as actress Kimberly Elise, comedian D.L. Hughley, radio personality Rickey Smiley and R&B singer Chrisette Michele. 

Long was famous for having a clear, dynamic preaching style that seemed to electrify listeners who attended New Birth, as well as millions of people who saw him on television and social media. He grew New Birth from 300 members to a height of over 25,000.

“Quite the teacher he was,” gospel singer Earnest Pugh said in admiration of Long.

However, limiting Long’s influence to the gospel community would understate his impact. He built a multi-million dollar ministry that spearheaded vast community programs domestically, as well as outreach initiatives for people in need that operated in several overseas countries.

In 2006, Long’s church was chosen to host the memorial service of activist Coretta Scott King, the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which saw attendance by then-President George W. Bush and many other dignitaries. 

However, Long’s reputation suffered in 2010 after four young men filed a lawsuit and accused him of coercing them into acts of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers. Long’s attorneys said the minister just wanted to support the young men as a father figure and mentor.

No criminal charges were filed against Long, because the men were of legal consenting age when the alleged misconduct occurred.

Long vigorously denied the accusations, and the lawsuits were settled out of court in 2011 on undisclosed terms. Soon after, Long said he would take a sabbatical from the church for an unspecified period of time to work on his marriage with his wife Vanessa, who ultimately decided that she “believed in” him. 

“Although his transition leaves a void for those of us who loved him dearly, we can celebrate and be happy for him, knowing he’s at peace,” Vanessa Long said in a statement.

It appeared that Bishop Long was able to heal his marriage and retain much of his church membership. However, he mostly disappeared from public view until last year, when new footage emerged of him preaching with a sickly and uncharacteristically slender physique. This led to widespread concern about Long’s health. 

Over the past five years, supporters of Long have said the charges against him were never proven or upheld in a court of law. For them, it is a matter of observing the scripture in the book of John, where Jesus encourages a group of men who are about to stone an adulterous woman to withhold their judgment, telling them, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Even if he did make personal mistakes, Long’s supporters have said, it is up to a higher spiritual power to judge him, not people.

Skeptics, however, have viewed the settlement as a tacit admission of guilt by Long. 

“When you settle outside of court, it implies that there’s some guilt involved,” Shayne Lee, a Tulane University professor, said in an earlier interview.

Lee, the author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, added, “To the average Black congregation, those are very serious charges. They are the kind that you roll up your sleeves and fight, not settle.” 

At the time, though, Long said the settlement was arranged so that his family and the New Birth congregation could move past the pain of the situation.

“This decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry,” said Art Franklin, a spokesman for Long. 

Still, Long’s critics believe the accusations exposed what they call his “hypocritical” stance against same-sex marriage. Some of them, for example, spoke out with anger and disappointment after Byron Cage posted his tribute to Long. 

Someone who goes only by the name “Jon” replied to Cage, “How do you just ignore the molestation?”

Another responder, calling herself “A Social Critic,” stated, “Byron r u serious? This is why folks find it hard to take church folks seriously . . . You pastors need to stop covering each other’s nonsense, you know, sin! SMH.” 

Many of the people who actually knew and met Long, however, have asked everyone to pray for his family in their time of grief. They choose to remember the positive things he brought to their lives and to be thankful for his contributions in helping to “build the Kingdom of God” — contributions they say can never be denied. 

T.D. Jakes said he was “deeply saddened” by the passing of “a mighty man of valor, embattled warrior, learned and beloved pastor and man I call friend.”

Jakes added, “We will miss his enigmatic catchphrase uttered just above a whisper, ‘watch this . . .’ He shared his love for the Gospel liberally and had a ministry that impacted lives around the globe.”

Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, offered her condolences to Long’s family as the nation celebrated the birthday of her father this week.

She remembers Long’s support during the passing of her mother in 2006 and the loss of her sister Yolanda in 2007.

“During these devastating moments in my life, he was there for me and my family in many ways,” said King, who once served under Long’s leadership at New Birth. “I will be forever grateful.”

Indianapolis native Diana Watson, who moved to Atlanta in 1988, will never forget the first time she saw Bishop Eddie Long.

When her daughter lost a child in 1990, Watson took her and other family members to Long’s church before it had reached the mega-church status it eventually became known for. 

“I brought them to Bishop Long’s church for him to pray over my daughter when I thought I was going to lose her from grief,” Watson said. “I’ll never forget his kindness and prayers. Although he’s had issues in recent years he was a great pastor. Bishop Long will be missed. My prayers are with his family and his church.”

Long is survived by his wife of 27 years, Vanessa, along with their four children and three grandchildren. Grief counselors have been on hand at New Birth this week to assist the congregation. Visitation for Long will be held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia on Jan. 24 from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Funeral services will be held on Jan. 25 at 11 a.m. at New Birth. Long will lie in state from 8 a.m. until the service begins.

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