Controversial megapastor Bishop Eddie Long dies from cancer

LITHONIA, GA - SEPTEMBER 26: Bishop Eddie Long (L) embraces a friend, at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church September 26, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a Georgia megachurch was accused of sexual coersion by three men whom were members of the New Birth Missionary Church. Long has said that he denies all the allegations and that all people must face painful and distasteful situations. (Photo by John Amis-Pool/Getty Images)

LITHONIA, GA - SEPTEMBER 26: Bishop Eddie Long (L) embraces a friend, at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church September 26, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a Georgia megachurch was accused of sexual coersion by three men whom were members of the New Birth Missionary Church. Long has said that he denies all the allegations and that all people must face painful and distasteful situations. (Photo by John Amis-Pool/Getty Images)

Bishop Eddie L. Long, a former corporate salesman, who went on to build New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, one of the most prominent ministries in the nation, if not the world, died Sunday after a battle with cancer.

He was 63.

Long’s influence was felt in cities beyond Lithonia such as Charlotte and Birmingham and outside the United States. He was a presence in DeKalb County, where he lived and often hobnobbed with business, government, celebrities and other prominent religious leaders. He visited with President Bill Clinton at the White House and authored numerous boooks.

However, Long was both beloved and reviled after both he and his ministry were rocked by one of the biggest church scandals in the nation in 2010 when four young men accused him of sexcual coersion in seperate lawsuits.

Before the infamous scandal, he had also faced criticism by the LGBTQ community for his views against homosexualtiy. In 2004, he led a march in Altanta against same-sex marriage and other issues.

The Lithonia church issued a statement Sunday that Long, who became the pastor of the church in 1987,”is now spiritually healed and home with the Lord.”

“Bishop Long, senior pastor of New Birth, transitioned from this life early Sunday morning after a gallant private fight with an aggressive form of cancer,” the statement said.

There had been much speculation about Long’s health after he posted a video last year of him looking extremely thin. He never publicly disclosed the nature of his illness.

Before his illness, Long, the son of a Baptist minister, was a physically imposing figure known for wearing clothes that accentuated his physique, particularly his bulging biceps and pectoral muscles.

In a previous story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Long joked, “It helps in the board meetings. In the old days, the deacons ran everything. So the pastor had to come into the board meeting pretty buffed.”

He was a business major who graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1976 and maintained his close ties to that state. He was sometimes called “daddy” by the congregation and had several spiritual sons who now pastor other churches and inspired fierce loyalty.

His voice, a rumbling, sometimes warbly and baritone, was unmistakable, and he often puncuated his sermons with “watch this…watch this”—a habit sometimes picked up by other pastors.

Long recently celebrated his 29th pastor’s anniversary with a grand fete at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, followed closely by a three-day summit at the church that brought pastors from both New Zealand and the Bahamas, and topped off with a performance by gospel giant Israel Houghton.

New Birth was a place often visited by local, state and national politicans, including former Georgia attorney general Thurbert Baker and former Gov. Roy Barnes. His church had a vibrant ministry, which supported youth programs, an academy, and provided services for the poor and those in prison.

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said Long’s influence cannot be dismissed.

“He was a big proponent of the prosperity gospel,” she said. “He was able to grow a church from 300 people to more than 25,000. He sits alongside pastors like Creflo Dollar, Ted Haggard and T.D Jakes in a way. He was a big part of the megachurch movement.”

He also placed a big emphasis on “hyper-masculinity, which attracted a lot of men to the black church in a time when women were the primary focus,” Buter said. Part of ministry, though, was also against same sex marriage and homosexuality. Butler continues, “For this unfortunate ministry, which ended up culminating in four young men filing suit against him for coersion (and) the very thing he preached against, his ministry never really recovered from that.”

People described Long as personable and friendly and said he committed to helping his members achieve financial stability.

However, he was also very guarded when it came to personal matters and, later, his health.

Elisabeth Omilami, CEO of Hosea Helps, had known Long for several years. She said he and the church often donated to her nonprofit that feeds and clothes the poor, among other things.

“He was the first one to ever provide financial assistance at the level of $100,000 a year for about four or five years,” she said. “He was the first and only person that did that and continued to support us even after his own personal struggles. He made us open our eyes to what kind of funding that we should be getting.”

She also came to know generousity of another sort. Years later, she found out that Long had donated money to help bury her father, civil rights veteran the Rev. Hosea Williams. “We didn’t found out about that until later,” she said. “We assumed that since dad was a veteran that there was enough money to pay for his funeral, but that was not the case.”

Yolanda Stewart, who owns a financial services business in Stone Mountain, joined the church in 2009, although she visited the church previously and watched services on the internet. She learned of Long’s death on her way to Sunday service and didn’t want to believe it.

“Bishop Long was like a daddy to me and my kids,” said Stewart. “He taught us don’t give God small dreams. Give him big dreams…He taught us to love everybody and to make sure we look out for each other (and) that community starts in our own backyard.”

She credited Long with teaching her how “to be the best Christian that you can be and to be the best person you can be…We lost a person that we loved.”

Questions about Long’s health were raised in August after he posted a startling video that showed a dramatic weight loss. In it, he said he was eating raw vegan, which had contributed to the weight loss.

It was still enough to raise concern.

Just months before a much bigger, healthier-looking Long appeared on the “Steve Harvey” show to promote his latest book, “The Untold Story: A Story of Adversity, Pain and Resilience.”

Long finally conceded that he was suffering an unspecified “health challenge.”

He later told the congregation that God had healed him and that “the manifestion was coming through.”

As his illness progressed, Long was sometimes absent from the pulpit as rumors circulated about his condition. Most recently, during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Long, looking even more guant and fragile, returned to the pulpit.

During the New Year Eve’s service, he told church members that the devil had wanted him to stay home, but he refused.

The devil, he said, asked him,’“Why are you going to church? You need to rest. You’re in recovery.’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something.’ I said, ‘If I was going for my ego, I’d lay here. If I was going trying to prove something, I’d lay here.’ I said ‘God ain’t through with me and sometimes you need to see the skinny Eddie and the big Eddie and all that. It ain’t got nothing to do with physical appearance, it’s what in your heart…You are a scripture… I want to see you struggle I want to see you fight the devil and get victory.’”

At it’s height, New Birth had more than 25,000 members, but it declined after the lawsuits filed by Jamal Parris, Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg and Spencer LeGrande. All four alleged that Long gave them gifts and took them on trips and when they reached the age of consent, developed sexual relationships.

They were all subsequently dismissed “with prejudice” in 2011. A fifth person was also part of the settlement. Long repeatedly denied all allegations.

The scandal, though, took it’s toll on Long, his family and the church. Membership declined after a settlement was reached between Long and his accusers.

Earlier this year, Long told his congreation at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church that when it seemed like he was getting “condemned from the four corners of the Earth, I had a moment…I had a moment…I wanted to kill myself and was ready.”

Long said that what prevented him from doing so. “It’s not a Scripture. What kept me is that every time I showed up here, you were here.”

A tearful and trembling Long said in the video that he did not take his life because “My family loved me. My church loved me…Regardless of what anybody said, love lifted me and carried me. And you didn’t judge me. There are folk here who know what I mean, that you’re alive because somebody loved you. They didn’t give you a sermon. They didn’t question you. They didn’t call you before a council.”