I’m not certain if I attended a church service this weekend in Atlanta, or a prizefight. Eddie Long’s defiant “But this thing I’m gon’ fight” rang out in the 10,000 seat New Birth complex amidst shouts of support, as he made his first appearance since the first two civil lawsuits for sexual coercion were filed on September 21, 2010.
With that declaration, Long made it clear that he was both in charge and in the fray. Although I was personally surprised by the bishop’s stance, I was not surprised at his tempered statements like “I am not a perfect man, but I am not the man being portrayed on the television—that’s not me,” leaving room for speculation about what was not perfect about him. The New Birth congregants didn’t seem to mind, shouting support, waving New Birth flags, and even holding up signs that read: “We support you, Bishop.” The call and response was especially pointed: “You don’t have to say anything Bishop/We Love you Bishop.”
It has often been said that African-American churchgoers have a special relationship to their pastors, but I have never seen a religious leader anticipated and greeted the way Bishop Long was this morning—except perhaps for the Pope. The anticipation was palpable during the protracted prayers at the altar; first by both men and women, then interestingly enough, from a group of 200 men who seemed to lead the prayers right before the beginning of the service.
They were loud, fervent, and most of all strident, as was the music which featured verses such as You are the defender of the weak, you comfort those who weep, and Our God is greater. The praise leader, male, was also strident, and the choir, energetic. Yes, it was my first time at New Birth, but I felt as though I’d been before, having watched it so often on television. Still, I was not prepared for the fervor of the congregation as they sang loud, with flashing lights designed to draw out every emotion. No matter how emotive it appeared, however, something was still missing.
Next, confessions were broadcast on the big screens for the congregation to speak out, proclaiming faith and health. These confessions were especially interesting in light of the fact that the church had just completed a 21-day fast. One confession, “I will profit through the prophets and the Prophetic ministry,” seemed a clear call to stick by the Prophet Bishop Long. Failure to do so would be failure to profit. It is easy then to understand why the lawsuits could be construed by those who believe in “prosperity” as an attack on the bishop by the enemy (the devil). When your prosperity is wrapped up with the prophet’s, it is very tough to turn away—even if he is having a bad time.
Following confessions a video, featuring a ministry of hospice for AIDS patients in Africa, with Bishop Long gathering around the children, was screened. The woman who ran the hospice, Agnes Rathlagame, had been flown into Atlanta from Johannesburg for the service. It was not clear if this was planned or not, but it certainly seemed to enhance the stature of Bishop Long’s and New Birth’s generosity. To round out the early card, Bernice King announced the offering, adept at inviting the visitors to contribute so they could “prosper” as well.
All of that, however, was the preliminary to the Main Event: Bishop Long and New Birth versus the Media. As Long and his wife approached the podium, the sanctuary erupted in shouts and clapping so loud it rivaled a rock concert. After the week he’d had it must have been rather gratifying for the bishop. You can watch the rest here, but let me just say a few things about the service. It’s clear that Long believes he has no choice but to remain in his pulpit. Unlike Ted Haggard, Eddie Long cannot afford to step down for a time. Whether he did anything wrong or not is immaterial; the fact is, he is New Birth. He is the religious product. If he’s not there, it will not prosper. Money will not come in. The complex I visited on Sunday requires a lot of money to run, and it won’t run without its pastor.
There’s more to come with this story, and I intend to stay on it. The tantalizing reference (four times in the 8 a.m. sermon alone) to “I’m not a perfect man” sounds like someone trying to prepare their loved ones for some difficult news. Will New Birth congregants accept more revelations about their beloved “Bishop”? The people I encountered today were either sold out to Bishop Long, or looked a little stunned that they didn’t hear a strong denial. Doubt may begin to work on the hearts and minds of the faithful if the allegations mount, and the time to trial drags on.
Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, was the sense that I could not tell who the object of ‘worship’ was. Many members wore T-shirts emblazoned with the church motto “Live Like Him, Love Like Him, Lead Like Him,” though for the life of me I’m really not sure who that ‘He’ is: Jesus, God, or Bishop Long? It’s very clear that most of New Birth would follow the bishop anywhere, because they believe in him. They may remain with him despite the result. But it has already tested the faith of members, which for prosperity believers cannot afford to waver.
As Eddie Long closed by comparing his plight to that of David against Goliath—but he had “five smooth stones, and he hadn’t thrown one yet”—I looked around at the rapt, hopeful faces. They need Long to be a hero, though Eddie Long is no David. He’s no little shepherd boy, anointed but not appointed. Bishop Long’s scriptural equivalent may be closer to Saul. After all, the people of New Birth want him desperately to remain their spiritual leader—though whether he can remain or not is up to the court or an out-of-court settlement. Stay tuned. This “Bible story” might become hotter than the O.J. trial.