Bishop's empire faces an uncertain future

Some here suspect that he did it. Some wonder if he needs help.

Some reject outright the possibility that Bishop Eddie L. Long — charismatic pastor of the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, the man his flock calls the "beloved shepherd" — could have had sexual relationships with four of his young male proteges, as the men allege in lawsuits.

"I know his anointing by God would never allow that to happen," said a clerk recently at a nearby bookstore, which prominently displayed Long's latest self-help hardcover, "60 Seconds to Greatness."

But for others in Atlanta's sprawling eastern suburbs, the reaction to the scandal is more complicated. Even if the allegations prove true, they argue, Long still deserves credit for building an institution that has provided material aid and a spiritual framework for those who have flocked to the area in pursuit of the American dream on African American terms.

Nationwide, the preacher's predicament has reignited a national conversation about the black church and gay rights, and about the rightful heirs of the civil rights movement.

In South DeKalb County, the more prevalent question is whether New Birth could survive without a preacher whose personality seems central to the enterprise: Visitors to the church campus turn down Bishop Eddie L. Long Parkway and pass a sign flashing the message "Thank you Bishop for being our advocate," before arriving at the heart of the campus and its Bishop Eddie L. Long Family Life Center.

The suits against Long, 57, and the church allege that he plied the young men with expensive gifts and trips and performed sex acts with them. They seek unspecified damages for negligence, fraud and infliction of emotional distress, among other things.

On a recent Monday — a day after Long vowed to fight the allegations — V.J. Slocum, a 55-year-old finance executive from nearby Stone Mountain, was sitting in a cherry red Dodge Charger, waiting for his children to emerge from New Birth Christian Academy, the school Long founded in 1993 "to rival premier schools everywhere."

The handsome modern school is part of a 240-acre complex that features a 10,000-seat cathedral, a Christian bookstore, offices, athletic facilities, and Samson's, a gym and spa that offers reflexology sessions and "pamper parties."

Even if Long — a married father of four and noted gay rights opponent — falls from grace, Slocum said he would "absolutely" keep his children in the school, which promises rigorous academics and a focus on "God's word." Eighth graders are exposed to a course "designed to help young entrepreneurs" launch their own businesses.

"The ministries are bigger than the man," Slocum said. "I don't know what Eddie did or didn't do, but he's done great things for the community. That's proven fact."

The story of Long's kingdom is tightly intertwined with the story of its surroundings. The suburbs of South DeKalb County first blossomed as a locus of African American wealth in the 1990s, as new high-end subdivisions found favor with prosperous black families.

In 1987, the 300-member New Birth church chose Long after an extensive search for a dynamic pastor. Long, a North Carolina native with a business administration degree, exceeded expectations: By 1997, his exuberant preaching style and message of self-empowerment helped expand the church to 18,000 members, prompting the move from nearby Decatur to the 240-acre site in the small city of Lithonia.

One of Long's central tenets: that Christians should not be content with poverty, but strive to be prosperous. Some labeled it "the prosperity gospel." Slocum discussed its relevance in the context of a broader black church that began ministering to a people who were once barred from owning property.

"In the old days, the preachers said you could be poor but happy — or you had to die to get happy. But then people said, 'Hey, I'm poor but unhappy.' … All [Long] was ever saying was you've got to be 12 years old and stupid to think that God don't want you to get ahead in life."

According to a 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, Long established a charity that made $3.1 million in donations between 1997 and 2000. It also paid the preacher more than $3 million in salary and benefits, including use of a Bentley and a $1.4-million, six-bedroom home.

Long defended the salary. "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," he told the paper.

Long vigorously promoted homeownership for those of more modest means, as well: In the online church history, member Lakia Arrington recalled Long telling all the "renters" in a 2002 Bible study group to stand up. He declared they would all be homeowners.

These days the church continues to offer financial guidance to its flock. One recent evening — on a campus buzzing with boys in football pads and mothers power-walking the vast church parking lots — about 75 locals gathered for a financial empowerment seminar in a cavernous church auditorium. Deirdre Cox, a loan officer at a local mortgage company, stood in front of a PowerPoint slide that read, "WHAT IS FINANCIAL STEWARDSHIP?"

"You all are in the midst of wisdom tonight," she said. "Amen?"

"Amen," the crowd assented.

She argued that homeownership, like prayer, was "a lifestyle." She told them to maintain excellent credit. She told them there was still a way — using something she called a "Grace and Mercy Loan" — to get into a house with a credit score of under 620.

Cox, in an interview, said she thinks the church is strong enough to thrive no matter what happens to Long. "I think he's done a phenomenal job of manifesting the word of God." His congregants, she said, "have now taken that word and are manifesting it in their lives."

If New Birth's goals remains ambitious, that's in keeping with its founding. The church history compared it to the cathedrals of Notre Dame in Paris, and the Durham cathedral in northern England — "significant spot[s] in the history of the cultures in which they were built."

"What, in 100 years, will they say about the New Birth Cathedral of America?" the authors asked.

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