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King's suburban funeral site raises concerns
Los Angeles Times
ATLANTA — The church where Coretta Scott King's funeral will be held is not the historic inner-city church where her husband preached but a suburban mega-church headed by a controversial pastor who subscribes to the "prosperity gospel" — the idea that the godly will be rewarded with earthly riches.
With a seating capacity of 10,000, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is well-suited to host today's service. The long list of mourners expected includes President Bush, former President Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Maya Angelou.
But some here are concerned that the message of New Birth's pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, does not mesh well with the precepts of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a champion for poor and disenfranchised blacks.
Long, a fitness buff with an energetic style, has emerged as one of the nation's most influential black pastors. Since he took over the church in Lithonia in 1987, membership has expanded from 300 to more than 25,000. Long's weekly program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, "Taking Authority," is seen nationwide.
While his ministry may emphasize the relationship between spiritual and economic success, it does not ignore the downtrodden. After Hurricane Katrina, Long's church mobilized to help about 5,000 Gulf Coast residents, providing meals and housing.
But his style does not always sit well with some members of the civil-rights era's old guard.
In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Long received more than $3 million in salary, benefits and perks — including the use of a $350,000 Bentley — between 1997 and 2000 from a charity he founded. In response, Long told the paper that "Jesus wasn't poor."
Long has angered some pastors with his support of Bush's "faith-based" initiatives and his opposition to gay marriage. The latter position put him at odds with Coretta Scott King, who interpreted her late husband's message as one that was tolerant of gays and lesbians.
"Thus far, Long has not been connected to the social-justice movement in the city of Atlanta," said Robert Franklin, a professor of social ethics at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.
New Birth does boast an important tie to the King family: Bernice King, Coretta and Martin's youngest daughter, is a minister there.
Still, Ebenezer Baptist has played a role in the weeklong celebration of King's life. On Monday, hundreds of mourners waited in a driving rain to enter the church's worship hall and file past her casket. Across the street, an estimated 1,700 people filled the church's newer facility for a musical tribute, including Oprah Winfrey and other entertainers such as Gladys Knight.
But that nod to the past did not appease critics such as Franklin. It is the funeral, he said, that is "the high, holy moment in the African-American village." And he argued that the best place for her funeral was in the heart of the inner city — not just for symbolic reasons, but logistical ones as well.
"I'm frankly a bit sad for all of the poor and homeless people in the downtown area who will not be able to make it to the suburbs," he said. "The King legacy was their legacy too."
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company