Bishop Eddie Long’s life was a life lived for others.
That sentiment seem to permeate the celebration of life held Wednesday at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta to both remember and honor the legacy of the late pastor.
And it reminded me, midway through the more than five-hour service, midway through all the more than two dozen tributes, of a poem I read once titled “The Dash.”
The dash referred to the time between the day we’re born and the day we die. The gist was this: What matters most is the dash between those years because that dash represents all the time that we spend alive on earth and how only those who love us know what that little line is worth.
We can fill the dash with goodness or waste it doing nothing.
I didn’t have the pleasure of ever meeting Bishop Long. What I know about Long’s dash is only what I have read and what I heard Wednesday at his beloved New Birth.
Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond were among those who called him friend, who remembered all the good that he did.
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes recalled meeting him during his first run for statewide office.
“Eddie Long was a force of nature,” Barnes said. “You couldn’t help but like him because he was immediately your friend.”
And like those who spoke before and after him, Barnes said that when times got tough and he called Long, he was always there with words of encouragement.
“The reason he could do that is he knew God.”
By now, all of us know that Long’s life was not without controversy. No sooner did his church release a statement announcing his death than did his critics unleash a barrage of venom recounting what they believed were his sins.
I won’t rehash that here, but Long was named in a 2010 lawsuit by former New Birth members Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson, who alleged the bishop used his influence, trips, gifts and jobs to coerce them into sexual relationships.
The case was dismissed and Long settled out of court.
He died Jan. 15, his church said, after “a gallant private fight with an aggressive form of cancer.”
Even in those final days, his wife, Vanessa, said the bishop wore his signature smile. And despite the excruciating pain he endured, his daughter Taylor said he never complained.
He’d simply say, “Thank you, Jesus.”
With that, she thanked the crowd, which numbered more than 10,000, for accepting and loving him. Without them, she said, Long would not have become the man he was and she and her siblings would not be the people that they are.
At exactly 3:27 p.m., five hours into the service, the Most Rev. Neil Ellis rose to deliver Long’s eulogy.
Ellis, presiding bishop of the Global United Fellowship, a Christian fellowship based in Nassau, in the Bahamas, said Long was one of the most generous people he’d ever met.
“He was at his best when he was giving,” Ellis said. “His was a life lived for others.”
Ellis was talking about Long’s dash, about how he emptied himself into the lives of others, the men, women and children whom he met and who shared their stories in the hours before Ellis rose to speak.
Every time the bishop gave scholarships to young people who couldn’t afford to go to college, or handed car keys to a member who needed transportation, bought groceries or made mortgage payments for those who’d fallen on hard times, he was emptying himself.
Ellis said that it was never God’s intention for us to live our lives for ourselves.
When we’re born, we were born full of everything we needed to impact God’s kingdom for good. Full of dreams. Full of creative ability. Full of potential.
“If you are not making someone else’s life better, you are wasting yours,” he said.
The cemetery is perhaps the richest, most valuable property in any city, he said, because there are people there who never emptied themselves. They went to their graves full of thoughts, full of solutions, full of books and full of people in their hearts that they should’ve forgiven because love is something that you give away.
“Live your life in such a way that you die empty.”
It was how Christ lived. It was how Long lived even up to the moment he died.
Ellis said that Long called him shortly before he preached his final message during New Birth’s Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve.
“Though he was a little weak that night, he poured into the New Birth family,” Ellis recalled. “He didn’t make it back that Sunday. His son Edward stood up for him because his father had given the flock everything he had the night before.”
Then Long spent the last two weeks of his life, Ellis said, pouring into his wife and family.
“Say what you wish,” Ellis said to applause, “Eddie Long died empty.”
Then apparently referring to the controversy that dogged the bishop during his last years, Ellis made a plea for people to finally leave the bishop alone.
“Please, people all across this world,” he said, “please, let my friend rest in peace.”
Yes, let’s. Our dash could use some goodness. And Bishop Long’s family deserves at least that much from all of us.
Gracie Bonds Staples writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.