ATLANTA (CNN) — I was hanging out with Bishop Eddie Long one day when he decided to surprise me.
He invited me to watch him work out. Wearing Air Jordans and a black Yankees cap turned backward, he walked into a gym and grabbed two 50-pound barbells. As he curled them, he watched himself in a full-length mirror.
“It helps in the board meetings,” he said playfully, nodding at his bulging biceps. “In the old days the deacons ran everything, so the pastor had to come into the board meeting pretty buffed.”
I placed that scene at the start of my profile of Long for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was a story about a preacher on the cusp of greatness. It was 1999; Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church would soon swell to 25,000 members, and he would become an internationally known televangelist who would meet with presidents and foreign leaders. This was a decade before his ministry was derailed by accusations that he pressured young men into sexual relationships.
But there was an odd encounter in the gym that I didn’t include in the story because it was too risqué.
As I watched Long banter with a group of young men in the gym, I spotted a woman who was a member of his church. She was a friend of mine who happened to be there working out as well. She noticed the quizzical look on my face as I watched Long flex with his entourage and approached me with a wry smile.
“What do you see?” she asked me, nodding in Long’s direction. “What do you see?”
I didn’t know what to say back then, but I do now. I’m not sure how many people would want to hear my answer, though — not just because of what it would reveal about Long, but about all of us in the pews.
I thought of that moment in the gym recently after hearing that Long died. The 63-year-old pastor was buried last Wednesday at New Birth after battling what his church called an “aggressive form of cancer.” He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Vanessa, and four children.
At the funeral, Long was eulogized as “one of the 21st-century generals of the kingdom of God.” I remember him another way. He was the pastor I wrote about for close to 20 years. My relationship was an accident of geography. I was a religion reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I was assigned to cover him. I lived near his church and knew many New Birth members. I talked to him so frequently that he gave me his cell phone number.
He was a phenomenally gifted leader: funny, charming, audacious. Only now do I also realize how smart and innovative he was. His generosity was legendary. He bought people homes and cars and steered them through dark patches in their lives. Few people helped as many as he did.
It would be a charade, though, to ignore the other part of Long’s legacy. Some of his most important lessons didn’t come from his victories but from his mistakes.
Here is what I saw:
He was God’s CEO
Here’s a dirty little secret about so many pastors: They like to preach to large crowds, but they don’t particularly like being around them. Most of the pastors I meet are bookish introverts. I recall watching one pastor smile and hug his parishioners — and then later tell me they got on his nerves and had bad breath.
Long, though, was different. I never met a pastor who seemed so energized by being around people. I lived near him, so I would often see him stopping at a gas station or walking through a shopping center with his entourage. I would hear about him speaking at a local high school. He was once a concert promoter for funk groups like Kool & the Gang. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when he once told me that one of his hobbies was “people watching.”
Yet people loved to watch Long, too. Part of that was because of the distinctive message he preached and the way he embodied it.
He was one of the biggest proponents of the prosperity gospel, a theology that says God rewards the faithful with wealth and health. He saw himself not just as a pastor but as the CEO of an international spiritual corporation. And he embodied his message by driving around town in his Bentley and dressing in tight muscle shirts in the pulpit.
Wealth, Long said, was a side benefit of “saying yes to God.”
“It’s strange, but when a preacher gets a Bentley, people get mad,” Long wrote in his book, “What a Man Wants, What a Woman Needs.” “That’s why I have two of them. God has launched me into my culture like an arrow, and I’ll go to almost any lengths to plant the kingdom in the ‘hoods.”
But when you build your ministry on financial prosperity and physical vigor, what do you do when it’s gone?
Long’s reputation, along with that of his church, had collapsed by the time of his death. New Birth used to hum with energy. Long lines of cars flying New Birth’s purple banners snaked outside its entrance Sunday mornings. The church seemed to be everywhere in the community, offering ministries to drug addicts, prisoners and AIDS patients. It was more than a church; it was a movement.
Yet when a church is built around a charismatic leader, there’s no Plan B when that leader is compromised. That’s what happened at New Birth. A series of scandals surrounding Long culminated in 2010, when four young men filed suit claiming he used his spiritual authority to coerce them into sexual relationships. Long denied the allegations and publicly vowed to clear his name. He later settled out of court with his accusers.
Church attendance plummeted. Three Sunday services were reduced to one. The televangelists, celebrities and gospel music stars who once clamored for a spot on the pulpit next to Long vanished. People weren’t flying New Birth car banners anymore.
Then last year rumors began to spread that Long was ill. He lost so much weight that he released a video last August telling followers he was on a new vegan diet. He was shockingly gaunt but tried to project an image of vitality by doing curls in a gym.
A month later, the story changed. He admitted through a church spokesman that he faced a “health challenge.” The mystery about his health followed him to the very end. When he died, the church refused to be any more specific than saying he had an “aggressive form of cancer.”
Who am I to say how anyone should face a terrifying illness? Sometimes hope is all people have; let them believe what they want if it helps them get through the night. But there was something undeniably sad about Long not being able to level with those at New Birth who’d stuck by him when everyone else had fled.
I suspect some of that inability comes from the prosperity theology he preached, which is pervasive in contemporary churches. I’ve heard scholars call it a heretical belief that distorted the life of Jesus. I think it fails on another level:
It doesn’t equip people to deal with loss.
If you preach that wealth and health are a sign of God’s favor, what do you do when you begin to lose both, as Long did? That’s the question one woman explored in a remarkable essay on death and the prosperity gospel.
Kate Bowler is a Duke Divinity School professor and author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” She recently learned she had Stage 4 cancer. When people in the prosperity community heard of her diagnosis, she said, they didn’t know how to respond. They had been taught that if they follow certain rules and speak aloud positive thoughts, “God will reward you, heal you, restore you,” she wrote in a New York Times column last year entitled, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.”
“The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end,” Bowler wrote. “If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. There is no graceful death in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.”
In some of Long’s last sermons, you could see him bravely fighting to live on. He thanked people for calling him to find out if he was ill but told them, “I don’t want to rehearse facts.” He playfully told his congregation they were just seeing different versions of him: “Big Eddie, skinny Eddie, bald-headed Eddie.”
I wonder if he ever felt he could appear before his congregation with all of his frailties — and just be Eddie.
He was God’s anointed
I still remember the day Long glared at me as if he wanted to punch me in the face. It was the angriest I’d ever seen him. My relationship with him would never recover.
I was writing a story about a charity he had created. It was nonprofit and tax-exempt, and its biggest beneficiary was Long himself. Formed ostensibly to help the poor, the charity provided Long with the use of a million-dollar home, a $350,000 Bentley and at least a million dollars in salary over a four-year period.
It was a sunny weekday when I drove to New Birth to meet with Long about his charity. The church’s massive parking lot was empty. I could see Long’s Bentley parked in two handicapped spots that were the closest to the church. When I walked into New Birth, I was first greeted by a gargantuan portrait of Long in the church lobby. Long waited for me in a conference room, flanked by two lawyers and two publicists.
I soon realized he had devised a strategy. He was not going to say anything. Whenever I asked him a question about his charity, he would motion to an attorney who answered with a torrent of legalese. Long simply sat back in his chair, glared at me and said nothing. I didn’t want the story to be a bloodless examination of tax policy, so I asked him: How can you drive around in your Bentley when you have people in your congregation who can’t even pay their light bills?
That’s when he sat upright and looked at me.
“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” he said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. … 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.”
After the story appeared, everyone seemed to talk about that quote and the Bentley. Yet when I interviewed New Birth members for the story, it was clear no one knew about the charity or how Long had used the church’s money — nor did they care.
This is what I realized:
It’s easy to talk about unscrupulous pastors who get rich off of unsuspecting congregations and have absolute power. But we don’t talk enough about how some megachurches may be accomplices in that process. Members often don’t have a clue how their money is handled or how decisions are made.
I discovered this pattern at New Birth and plenty of other megachurches during 20 years of writing about religion. I marveled at how bright, educated people parked their brains — and their cars — in the church lot every Sunday morning. They wanted to be herded like sheep.
Long exploited that. He was a savvy operator when it came to amassing church power. His father, the Rev. Floyd Long, was known as the “cussing preacher,” a pugnacious man who built churches and left after clashing with the deacons — those members who traditionally ran Baptist churches.
Long wasn’t going anywhere when he arrived at New Birth in 1987. He conditioned people to not question his authority. Then he got rid of the church’s deacon board. He told the church he had received a revelation from God telling him a deacon board was an “ungodly governmental structure.”
Unquestioning submission to authority became a recurrent theme in his preaching and books. In “Gladiator,” Long warned parishioners not to get overly familiar with a pastor who is “God’s anointed” because “their insurrection kills their blessing.”
“A disrespectful or adversarial attitude causes otherwise good people to look for mistakes, weakness and flaws in their human leaders,” he wrote.
Why do people accept such autocratic leadership in a church? Part of it is fear, a woman whose church imploded after a scandal once told me.
“There is a suspension of common sense, a refusal to put two and two together,” said Sue Thompson, an author and professional speaker. “For a lot of people, [the pastor] is the man who gave them the keys to a whole new way of living. They can’t separate the good they received from the man himself, so they feel it would be a betrayal to turn on him now.”
But I think there’s something else going on besides fear, particularly when this type of autocratic leader emerges in the black church.
When I grew up in a black Baptist church in Baltimore, my congregation was poor but the pastor drove a Rolls Royce with a water fountain inside. I still remember how my aunt would talk with such pride about our pastor’s car.
In the black community, the pastor was often the only person who didn’t depend on white folks’ goodwill for their livelihood. He made his money through the support of his parishioners. Most parishioners felt poor and powerless, so they wanted to live vicariously through their pastor. They wanted that pastor to live large, have a huge ego, occupy the biggest house. I still remember “Rev. Ike,” a flamboyant black pastor who used to rule the pages of Jet magazine. He thrilled many poor blacks with his ostentatious lifestyle and declarations like “My garage runneth over.”
Yet a leader can exploit that type of need. Even when that leader is tarnished by one revelation after another, if he remains defiant in public and displays a little “I’m not perfect” humility, a congregation will stick with him to the bitter end. And nobody will be able to persuade them to leave that church.
I remember talking to a woman at New Birth who claimed there was nothing to the lawsuits by the four young men who claimed Long pressured them into sex. Maybe she was right. I then asked her if she would be willing to let her teenage son go on a field trip with Long.
She looked at me in horror.
Last I heard, she’s still a member of New Birth.
He was God’s scarred leader
Which brings us back to the encounter I had in the gym with Long years ago.
Whenever someone learns that I’ve written about Long, they ask me about his sexual orientation. Many assure me they already have an opinion. That’s what I encountered years ago when I went to the gym with Long. The woman who approached me wanted to share her conclusions on Long’s sexual proclivities.
I don’t know if Long was gay or how he died. Those kinds of questions, though, ignore another important point about Long and sex: The way he talked about homosexuality was destructive, whether or not he was closeted.
Lots of pastors preach homosexuality is a sin. Yet they and their churches still find a way to treat with respect those struggling with their sexual orientation. Like many churches, New Birth once offered ministries to “deliver” gay and lesbian people from their “sin.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, called Long “one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.” The center said Long’s message was: “Hate the sin and the sinner.”
The center quoted from an early sermon Long gave entitled “Back to the Future.”
“It’s the most unattractive thing I have ever seen, when I see women wearing uniforms that men would wear, and women fighting to get in the military,” Long shouted to his congregation. “The woman gets perverted to turn towards woman … and everybody knows it’s dangerous to enter an exit. …
“God says you deserve death!”
According to the center, Long said gays and lesbians who don’t change will go to hell — and that those who say they were born that way are calling God a liar.
“Homosexuality and lesbianism are spiritual abortions,” Long says. “Homosexuality is a manifestation of the fallen man.”
In his book, “I Don’t Want Delilah, I Need You,” Long blamed some women for turning men into homosexuals.
“In a society where little boys are exposed to grubby, cursing, dirty, cigarette-smoking, road-construction-worker women, is it any wonder they stop chasing women and start chasing men?”
In the same book, he wrote that “men can look attractive when they’re dirty.”
“We see sweating, dirty, hardworking men on television all the time and we say to one another, ‘There’s a macho guy.’ But women were not made from the earth. God made women to be lovely, gentle, clean and beautiful on the inside and outside. They are to be strong in character.”
He did more than use harmful words against gays and lesbians. He invoked the legacy of black America’s most revered leader to deny their equality.
One of the most notorious controversies Long faced came in 2004, when he led a march in Atlanta calling for a constitutional ban against gay marriage. He carried a torch lit at the gravesite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while accompanied by the civil rights leader’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King.
The march was widely denounced by those who knew King, like Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Joseph Lowery. They pointed out that one of King’s closest aides was Bayard Rustin, an openly gay organizer who King refused to abandon when people pressured him to do so.
Consider how many people Long could have helped had he moderated the language he used against gays, says Shayne Lee, a sociologist at the University of Houston and author of “Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.”
“Think of all the people who were suffering, who wanted to serve God, who wanted to tap into that spiritual power but were wrestling with their sexuality,” Lee told me after Long’s death. “Their angst is deepened by the very leaders they respect.”
Long was not always insensitive in the pulpit. He could be tender toward outsiders and achingly vulnerable. I remember watching him tell his congregation he thought about taking his life after he had experienced so much public condemnation. He once told me he thought of himself as “God’s scarred leader,” a man who knew rejection by his father and had been through divorce and career failure.
Yet it would be another failure on our part if we ignored the scars that Long inflicted on others. He wasn’t unique, and neither was New Birth. The religious landscape in America is filled with megachurches, prosperity theology and pastors who continually remind their cowed congregations to “touch not God’s anointed.”
What do I see when I look at the rise and fall of Bishop Eddie Long?
I see something that will happen again.