Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, died Sunday, according to reports from various media outlets, like the AJC and CNN. The Root has a pretty comprehensive story on Long’s death here.
I offer an observation because he was a dominant presence in many people’s lives on the east side of Atlanta. One cannot drive through DeKalb, Rockdale or western Newton counties without seeing a New Birth car magnet on someone’s trunk or car flags fluttering over the driver and passenger side windows.
Most media accounts follow the same narrative, noting the cause of death, Long’s accomplishments at New Birth and the controversy that followed him. Long faced a sex scandal, questions about church finances tied to his expensive lifestyle and lawsuits from former church members.
My head-scratching moment about Long came in 2012 when a Messianic rabbi oversaw Long wrapped in a large scroll that most identified as the Torah, story here and here. Later in the ceremony, Long sat in a chair wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl and holding the scrolls while men lifted Long while proclaiming he to the “kingship.” Jewish leaders took offense that symbols of their faith were used to uplift Long in his church. My offense was that it appeared they elevated Long as an equal to Jesus. I also saw it as pure theatrics.
I spoke with Long once while at the Citizen. It was years ago during the building boom before 2007 and the Great Recession. There were a lot of new people moving here, and New Birth saw fertile ground for new members. The church was announcing a community outreach program that was coming to Rockdale County.
The phone rings, I answer, and Bishop Long’s assistant is on the other end, “Bishop Long would like to talk to you.” I can’t remember what the outreach was specifically, only that the church wanted a story in the Citizen. I said sure and with a click on the other end I’m talking to Long on speaker phone. “Hey, Jay. How are you doing?”
It was a brief call, and he drove the conversation. I remember finding it odd that Long would take time out of his day to talk to me about something that anyone on his staff could have done. The cynic in me thinks that Long or someone convinced him, that the star power of his name would be enough for us to listen to him and get a story on the front page. I typed up the information and the story, a brief really, ended up on our Religion page. Regardless, I do recall Long was passionate and persuasive even for a church event in Conyers.
Faith can have a strong pull on people and at New Birth Long with his larger than life personality made the pull stronger. He was like an anchor of a Tug-of-War team with his charisma. Twenty-five thousand people call New Birth their home church. When Long started as pastor there, New Birth had 300 members. You can call him the devil or an angel, but you can’t deny Long’s accomplishments. Many are drawn to New Birth thanks to Long.