That's what happened at New Birth. A series of scandals surrounding Long culminated in , 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.
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. When he died, the church refused to be any more specific than saying he had an "aggressive form of cancer. 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.
A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. 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. 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.
He thanked people for calling him to find out if he was ill but told them, "I don't want to rehearse facts. 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. 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.
Did they worship the message or the messenger? New Birth members prepare to hear Bishop Eddie Long. 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. 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. 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 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. In "Gladiator," Long warned parishioners not to get overly familiar with a pastor who is "God's anointed" because "their insurrection kills their blessing. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Bernice King confers with Long at her mother's funeral. 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. God made women to be lovely, gentle, clean and beautiful on the inside and outside. They are to be strong in character. He invoked the legacy of black America's most revered leader to deny their equality.