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Funeral Site for King Stirs Unease

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Times Staff Writers

Coretta Scott King’s funeral will not be held at the historic, inner-city church where her husband preached, but at a suburban mega-church headed by a controversial pastor who subscribes to the “prosperity gospel” -- the belief that the godly will be rewarded with earthly riches.

The New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which seats 10,000, is well-suited to host today’s service. The long list of mourners expected includes President Bush, former President Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Maya Angelou.

But some here are concerned that the message of New Birth’s pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long, does not mesh well with the precepts of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a champion for poor and disenfranchised blacks.

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Long -- a fitness buff with an energetic speaking style -- has emerged as one of the nation’s most influential black pastors.

Since becoming pastor of the church in Lithonia, Ga., in 1987, he has expanded membership from 300 to more than 25,000, in part by offering nontraditional services -- such as a fitness center. Long’s weekly ministry program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, “Taking Authority,” is seen nationwide.

Although his ministry may emphasize the relationship between spiritual and economic success, it does not ignore the downtrodden. After Hurricane Katrina, Long’s church mobilized to help about 5,000 Gulf Coast residents, providing meals and housing.

But his style does not always sit well with some members of the civil rights era’s old guard.

In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Long received more than $3 million in salary, benefits and perks -- including the use of a $350,000 Bentley -- between 1997 and 2000 from a charity he founded. In response, Long told the newspaper that “Jesus wasn’t poor.”

The news drew criticism from nonprofit watchdog groups and from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is looking into questionable spending by nonprofits.

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Long also has angered some liberal pastors with his support of Bush’s faith-based initiative, which directs taxpayer money to church-sponsored groups, and his opposition to gay marriage. The latter position put him at odds with Coretta King, who interpreted her late husband’s message as one that was tolerant of gays and lesbians.

“Thus far, Long has not been connected to the social justice movement in the city of Atlanta,” said Robert M. Franklin Jr., a professor of social ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “People wonder if this [funeral] is a passing on of the mantle to one of the new leaders who hasn’t been a part of the grass-roots struggle.”

New Birth has important ties to the King family: Bernice King, Coretta and Martin’s youngest daughter, is an elder there. And although Coretta King was a longtime member of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church -- where her husband preached from 1960 to 1968 -- Long became “perhaps her closest pastor,” said the Rev. Gerald L. Durley of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta.

Last week, Long sent his private plane to pick up family members in California and fly them to Georgia for the funeral services.

Neither Long nor members of the King family could be reached for comment Monday. But friends said the family decided it made sense to hold the funeral at New Birth’s arena-style worship center, which could accommodate a large crowd.

Still, Ebenezer Baptist has played a role in the weeklong celebration of Coretta King’s life. On Monday, thousands of mourners waited in a driving rain for the chance to enter the church’s worship hall and file past her casket.

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But that nod to the past did not appease critics like Franklin. It is the funeral, he said, that is “the high, holy moment in the African American village.” And he argued that the best place for Coretta King’s funeral was in the heart of the inner city -- not just for symbolic reasons, but logistical ones as well.

“I’m frankly a bit sad for all of the poor and homeless people in the downtown area who will not be able to make it to the suburbs,” he said. “The King legacy was their legacy too.”

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a former Ebenezer pastor, said he thought the King family was “trying to be fair” by holding services at both churches. But, he said, the funeral plans highlighted the differences between Long and Martin Luther King Jr.

“The prosperity gospel is only prosperous for leadership; it doesn’t trickle down to the people in the pews,” McDonald said. “When King died, he was not poor-poor, but he was not far from it. He was most comfortable among the poor. When he was killed, he was with the sanitary workers. All that pomp and circumstance -- that was not his style.”

Vernon Jones, a New Birth parishioner and the chief executive of DeKalb County, Ga., said he was proud the funeral would be at his church. And, he said, he saw no disconnect between the messages of Long and the King family.

“Dr. King preached prosperity -- he said feed the poor ... but he didn’t say be poor yourself, right?” Jones said. “So that’s what Bishop Long is saying. He just went a step further. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, but at the same time be in a position where you can help.”

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Down the street from Ebenezer Baptist on Monday, three men were hanging out inside a post-office box business, trying to stay dry and watching the line of mourners form in front of the church. They all agreed that Ebenezer had lost some of its connection to this historic black neighborhood, drawing in more suburbanites over the years.

But they also said that it should have been the site of Coretta King’s funeral.

Ulysses Crawford, 66, said that Long and TV preachers like him were “charlatans.”

In contrast, he said, Coretta King and her husband stood up for the downtrodden. Besides, Ebenezer was their family church.

“Do you know how long she was a member of that church up there?” he said.

In a phone interview, James C. Cobb, a professor of Southern history at the University of Georgia, said that King created the kinds of social opportunities for African Americans that made a church like New Birth possible.

“On the other hand, it’s a long way from the message of humility and sacrifice that was Dr. King’s stock in trade,” he said.

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