ATLANTA – A billboard near an Atlanta highway reads, "Love Like Him, Live Like Him, Lead Like Him." The motto refers to Jesus Christ, but the smiling face next to it is that of Bishop Eddie Long.
Long built a humble suburban Atlanta congregation into a giant TV ministry on the strength of his charisma and his interpretation of the Gospels, including the magnetic idea that the faithful will be rewarded with wealth. It's a doctrine the architect and leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church embodies with his own luxury lifestyle, including a private jet, jewels, a luxury automobile and a mansion.
"It's like the 'in' church to be associated with," said Terry Belton of Charlotte, N.C., who has attended the New Birth church there with his wife. "You feel like you're going to prosper by being associated with that church. A lot of people go there because of him. We went ... because of him."
Now the shepherd needs his flock more than ever. Long, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, has been sued by four young men who say he used his money and power to coerce them into sexual relationships. No criminal charges are likely because the men were beyond the age of consent, but the allegations and the hypocrisy they would expose if proven could threaten his leadership of New Birth, which boasts more than 25,000 members, a sprawling campus and a $50 million, 297,000-square-foot cathedral.
Less than two weeks after the allegations emerged, Long's congregation seems to be behind him; they gave him an enthusiastic welcome at services last weekend and have taken to social media to defend him. To his followers, Long and the church built with their money under his leadership are nearly inseparable.
"Eddie Long is the embodiment of their way of life, the pathway to their salvation," said branding expert Goldie Taylor, who lived for years in the neighborhood where New Birth is located and has watched the church's phenomenal growth.
"If something happens to negatively impact the power of the brand that is Bishop Eddie Long, you have to ask yourself, where will New Birth be?" Taylor said. "If they can't believe in him, what can they believe in?"
Long built a fiercely loyal and insular community inspired by his message of prosperity and his personal journey from a modest background as a preacher's son into an influential leader of a multimillion-dollar ministry.
"He's top of the line, one of the best at it," said Bishop Carlton Pearson, a friend of Long's for 20 years. "He's a tall, muscular, well-spoken, handsome black man with power and influence and authority. It's very intoxicating, both for him, and for those who drink from that same spiked fountain."
Eddie L. Long was born on May 12, 1953, in Charlotte, N.C., one of four sons of the Rev. Floyd Long, a Baptist preacher, and his wife, Hattie. He played football in high school and attended North Carolina Central University, where he was a radio personality, a promoter and president of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. He graduated in 1976 with a degree in business administration.
His first job was with Ford Motor Co. in Richmond, Va., where Long was a factory sales representative. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution years later that he was fired from that job for putting personal phone calls in an expense report. In 1979 he moved to Atlanta and worked for Honeywell for eight years before entering the ministry full-time.
He was a pastor for two years at Cedar Springs Baptist Church in Cedartown and earned a master's of divinity from Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta in 1986.
In 1987, he began working at the church that would become his legacy. New Birth Missionary Baptist was a modest church of about 300 members. The church's founder and former pastor, the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, had been ousted after clashing with the deacons who ran the church's affairs.
Long was much more adept at church politics, Samuel said.
"After some years of dealing with (the deacons), he dismissed the whole board," said Samuel, who now leads the 3,000-member Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Ga. "He just took unilateral control over the church. He was more savvy at church politics than I was."
New Birth grew quickly under Long. According to a history on the church's website, by 1992, the church boasted more than 8,000 members and moved into a $2 million facility. Long opened the New Birth Academy.
In 1994, Long was consecrated as the third presiding bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship under Bishop Paul S. Morton of New Orleans.
A decade after he arrived, Long's congregation swelled to 18,000. A lucrative land deal gave the church an $11 million profit that it used to pay off its debts and buy 240 acres in DeKalb County for its current site.
New Birth's rise paralleled Atlanta's growing reputation as a draw for upwardly mobile blacks. DeKalb County, where the church is located, is home to one of the country's most affluent black enclaves.
"The growth of New Birth ...had just as much to do Eddie Long as it had to do with how New Birth really became the epicenter of the emergence of the black middle class in South DeKalb County," branding expert Taylor said.
Long became a fixture in black Atlanta society, sitting on numerous boards of directors and being honored by organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Omega Psi Phi fraternity and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2005, he was given the Trumpet Award, one of the highest honors devoted to African-Americans.
The church's explosive growth is built largely on what is known as prosperity gospel, which has also attracted attention to Long and his ministry. In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Long was the biggest beneficiary of the charity he established to help the needy, receiving more than $3 million in salary, benefits and property between 1997 and 2000 — including his $1.4 million six-bedroom, nine-bath home and $350,000 Bentley.
Long told the newspaper that New Birth was "not just a church, we're an international corporation."
"We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies," he went on to say. "I deal with the White House ... I deal with presidents around this world ... You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."
Long's lavish lifestyle was the subject of a Senate probe launched by Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who inquired about the finances of half a dozen televangelist preachers with a prosperity message. Grassley's office has issued no final report on the inquiry.
Denise Blount, a church member who has known Long since he went to college with her brother, said the bishop's wealth doesn't bother her.
"The things I want, I work for them," Blount said. "I don't see him being any different. Whatever I could afford, that's what I would want to have. When you grow as Bishop has grown, you basically earn the right to have a nicer home or nicer car."
Such trappings also play well into his message of muscular Christianity, which has attracted many black men to his congregation. From the pulpit, Long projects an image of strength, fatherhood and leadership rooted in religion.
Anthony Cannon, who attended New Birth as a teenager and formed a father-son relationship with the pastor in college, said Long's presence in his life meant everything.
"He knew I didn't have my father in my life," said Cannon, now 25. "As a young man growing up, you gravitate to male figures in your life. With him being there for me, having someone to talk to ... that meant a lot to me."
One of Long's accusers, Jamal Parris, has said he also considered Long to be a father figure, but also a "predator" and a "monster."
As a young man spending time with Long, "You can't believe the place you are at in your life and the things you are doing and the cars you are driving, and the people you are meeting," Parris told Fox TV affiliate WAGA. "So, it becomes, if I want to continue to feel this love and this power, I'll do whatever my dad wants me to."
Long's views on masculinity include his strong opposition to gay marriage. He made headlines in 2004 when he led a march protesting gay marriage with the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an elder at New Birth. King participated in the march over the protests of her mother Coretta Scott King, an advocate for gay rights. To begin the march, Long lit a torch using the eternal flame next to Martin Luther King's grave.
Two years later, Coretta Scott King's funeral was held at New Birth. Civil rights leader Julian Bond, a longtime friend of King's, did not attend because of his opposition to Long's views on gay rights. Bond has condemned Long in the wake of the allegations against him.
"I knew that Bishop Long was a raving homophobe," Bond told Atlanta's WXIA-TV. "And I knew she would be twisting in her grave if she were buried there. And I'd be twisting in my grave if I went to the funeral there."
Pearson, Long's longtime friend, said Long's views and outspokenness on the issue could be an effort to deflect. "Anybody who points at something like that is fearing that aspect of themselves," he said.
Whatever comes of the lawsuits, members of New Birth may be inclined to stand by their leader because of how he transformed their church, which Spelman College professor William Jelani Cobb called "the spiritual equivalent of Yankee Stadium."
"To say that you're a member of New Birth has a certain cachet," Cobb said. "When you see the plain size of the grounds and the campus, if you're one that believes in this idea of God's elect, that's the most compelling argument that they must be teaching a valid gospel."
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church: http://www.newbirth.org/