Bishop Eddie L. Long had a magnanimous personality as big as his biceps, but what loved ones say they’ll miss the most are the personal, quiet times where his spirituality and humanity truly defined him.
Corey Smith, who met Long when he was a confused 14-year-old, told a story of how Long helped him through tough times over Hardee’s apple pies.
“It became a private joke with us,” Smith said, choking back tears. “He said when you think I shouldn’t preach anymore, get some apple pies and tell me to come talk about it.” Smith pulled out two pies from a fast-food bag, saying it’s time for Dad to rest.
And staffers said he loved a tie-dyed shirt they called a “coat of many colors” so much that they grew weary of seeing it. They tried to hide it from Long to no avail.
Those are just some of the stories that friends, family and members told Wednesday during the memorial service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church for Long, who died of cancer Jan. 15 at age 63.
The overriding theme of the service though was the megachurch pastor’s commitment to helping the community and those less fortunate — from mothers who needed transportation, children who needed school supplies and men who had given up on finding jobs.
“This is so overwhelming,” said Long’s wife, Vanessa, who sat with her children and grandchildren on a front row of the church. “I tried to hold it together until I came around the corner and I saw that balcony,” which was nearly full. She said she could hear her husband saying, “See, I filled that balcony after all. Didn’t he look wonderful … Bishop didn’t do ordinary … that wasn’t how he rolled.”
The service was lengthy, stretching roughly six hours and including more than two dozen tributes, including a video message by Dallas megachurch pastor and television host T.D. Jakes and an emotional testimony from Deion Sanders Sr. that brought many of those in attendance to their feet.
The former player for the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves wore dark sunglasses as he praised Long’s commitment to community.
Although the service was nearly as long as Coretta Scott King’s that was held at New Birth back in 2006, it didn’t quite have the star power. Metro Atlanta political leaders such as former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton spoke of his service.
Gospel legend Dottie Peoples brought back the old-time religion with a rousing rendition of “He’s an On-Time God.” The Rev. Byron Cage and the Rev. William Murphy performed selections as well.
At least 10,000 people attended the service. Some apparently slept in their cars overnight, said a church spokesman.
Vanessa Long, an elder in the church, said her husband finished strong and “died empty,” an apparent reference to his willingness to help so many people. It was a theme continued by the Most Rev. Neil C. Ellis, presiding bishop and general overseer of Global United Fellowship in the Bahamas.
Ellis, who was overcome with emotion after delivering the eulogy, praised Long for making a meaningful difference in the lives of so many people.
He called Long a “drum major in the Christian faith” and said a great man shows his greatness by the way he treats the little man. Such was his friend.
He told mourners that people are born full of everything they need, including being full of dreams, full of solutions and full of creative ability.
He urged them to live their lives “in such a way that you die empty” because you gave so much of yourself to help others.
He said he last spoke to Long after the New Year’s Eve Watch Night service. He was tired. His son, Edward, was in the pulpit the following day. As tired as he was, he continued to “pour” into his wife, their four children and grandchildren.
He alluded to the challenges Long faced in recent years.
“Please, people all across this world,” he implored. “Please, let my friend rest in peace.”
Long was appointed pastor of the church in 1987 when it was located on Snapfinger Road. Over time, he built the membership from 300 people to more than 25,000.
He hobnobbed with celebrities and politicians alike but never lost touch with the common man. At some point, the congregation built a huge new church on Woodrow Road in Lithonia.
During a public viewing Tuesday, Long was dressed in red “bishop’s” shoes, red and white clerical robes, symbolizing the blood of Christ and purity, with a cape and a large gold cross draped around his neck.
On Wednesday, he wore a white robe with a red brocade stole, which symbolized his position as king of the church, presiding clergy explained. The rings and the large, gold cross around Long’s neck were removed before the casket was closed, draped with a symbolic pall and wheeled out before the service continued for another five hours.
His casket, a Batesville Presidential model with a carved top, was made of African mahogany. It had a weight of about 400 pounds.
It was a tough time for Gregory B. Levett, whose business, Gregory B. Levett and Sons Funeral Home & Crematory, was in charge of arrangements.
The two had known each other for years. In fact, during his last sermon at New Birth on New Year’s Eve, Long recognized Levett and his wife, Betty, and thanked them for all the work they had done for people at New Birth and the community over the years.
“It was tough,” said Levett. He said he had to let his daughters and sons and staff handle the work.
There had been much speculation about Long’s health after he posted a video last year in which he appeared extremely thin. He never publicly disclosed the nature of his illness.
He is survived by his wife, Vanessa Long, and four children: Eric, Edward, Jared and Taylor; and three grandchildren.
In his sermons, his television interview with Steve Harvey and in his book, “The Untold Story: The Story of Adversity, Pain, and Resilience,” Long pulled back the curtain on some of the struggles he had, such as once considering suicide and falling into the trap of celebrity.
He told his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church congregation in an emotional service last February that when it seemed like he was getting “condemned from the four corners of the Earth, I had a moment … I had a moment … I wanted to kill myself and was ready.”
Long didn’t say what was going on at the time, but it appears to be a reference to allegations in 2010 that he coerced several young men into sexual relations.
The accusations made in 2010 against Long by Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson alleged that the bishop used his influence, trips, gifts and jobs to coerce them into sexual relations. At the time, Long vowed to fight to clear his name. In 2011, the case was settled, then dismissed with prejudice. Long always denied the allegations. A fifth young man also became part of the settlement.
When asked why he settled, Long told Harvey that he decided he had to save himself, his family and the church.
“It’s not a Scripture,” he said in that sermon. “What kept me is that every time I showed up here, you were here.”
New Birth officials said Long will be buried in a private ceremony. No further details were available.