New Birth wielded influence with political leaders, black and white

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New Birth wielded influence with political leaders, black and white

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KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
JANUARY 15, 2017 LITHONIA Scene at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Sunday, January 15, 2017, in the wake of the news that senior pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long has died, according to the church. His passing was announced to parishioners during the morning's service. "Today it is with great sadness I announce that our bishop has transitioned,” Bishop Christopher C. Smith said. A statement released by the church this morning confirms Long died early Sunday morning after “a gallant private fight with an aggressive form of cancer.” He was 63 years old. KENT D. JOHNSON/ KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
  • Story Highlights
  • The personality of Eddie Long was central to the church

More than two decades ago, when he was consecrated as a bishop in a growing coalition of churches, Eddie Long said he and his cadre of youthful ministers were seen as something of a joke among more traditional black churches.

“We’re being kind of laughed at, ” he said, when, in 1992, he became a bishop in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.

Back then, his fast-growing New Birth Missionary Baptist Church had only about 11,000 members, and was already attracting political candidates such as Jerry Brown, the well-known California politician who wanted to be president.

It was huge by comparison with its membership of just 300 when Long took over in 1987. But 1992 was still the early days. The church would go on to see even more explosive growth, reporting membership as large as 25,000 in the early 2000s at the 240-acre campus in Lithonia.

The church would grow under Long’s guidance to be a kind of community center, offering programs for single women, young men, teenagers, the homeless, prisoners, first-time offenders, drug addicts and AIDS patients. Business entrepreneurship and wealth accumulation were among the values that Long preached. In 1999, businessman-politician Steve Forbes spoke to the church about wealth accumulation and the nation’s tax structure.

“It was more than just a church, it was a culture,” said Justin Lambert, a Cobb County pastor who knew Long through the ministry. He said Long, who put his sermons on YouTube, was innovative, expanding his church beyond Georgia into several other states. Indeed, the news of Long’s death was delivered to the congregation Sunday by Bishop Christopher C. Smith, the senior pastor of New Birth Church in the California Bay Area.

As the black voting population grew, white politicians for local office would appear at Long’s church to appeal to the congregation for votes. New Birth also wielded influence with the rising black leadership in DeKalb. Lee May, who would temporarily become county CEO, was an elder at the church, and Long was an informal advisor and campaign contributor to a prior CEO, Vernon Jones.

The church became so relevant among African Americans that it was selected to host the public funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006. Then-president Georgia W. Bush came for the nationally televised event, along with three prior presidents — Bill Clinton, Bush’s father George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

It was perhaps the pinnacle for the church, which by then was gaining notoriety for Long’s lifestyle. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a decade ago that Bishop Eddie Long Ministries Inc., a non-profit, provided Long with at least $3 million in salary, benefits and the use of property, including a Bentley automobile, between 1997 and 2000. 

In 2010 four young men alleged Long had coerced them into sexual relationships. Their lawsuits against Long, his church and his youth academy were dismissed in May 2011 after months of mediation and intensive news coverage ended with an undisclosed financial settlement. A fifth man was also part of the settlement. Long consistently denied their allegations.

The church hasn’t publicly reported its membership numbers since that trying period, but members say the allegations took a toll. “A lot of people left; a lot of people stayed,” said Aaliyah Butler, 41, a longtime church member who referred to the allegations as an “attack.” She praised Long for intervening in the life of her own son, who had gotten into “some trouble.” Long mentored him onto a straighter path, she said.

Now 24, her son is trying to start his own used car sales business. Butler said she plans to remain at the church despite Long’s death. But, she said, “it is a sober moment for us.”

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