An ex-governor, an NFL Hall of Famer and thousands of others paid their final respects Wednesday to Bishop Eddie Long, a pastor who built a Georgia megachurch but whose final years fell under the shadow of sexual misconduct allegations.
Long, 63, was senior pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Lithonia, about 19 miles east of Atlanta. He died Jan. 15 after battling cancer.
"This man taught me how to face adversity, this man taught me how to stand in the midst of the storm," former NFL player Deion Sanders said during the service. "This man taught me so much of how to even be a man."
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes recalled Long as a friend and confidant who was "a force of nature," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The service, which began at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, ended about 4:10 p.m. EST.
Bishop Neil C. Ellis delivered the eulogy for his longtime friend, describing Long as "a gift from God, who's meant so much to so many."
"He was a life changer called to birth something new in this generation," Ellis said. "I truly believe that heaven is applauding him for a work well done."
Ellis said Long was a giver who "lived for others," noting the generosity he showed to his family and members of his church and the community by paying mortgages, college tuition, furnishing houses, buying groceries and giving people cars when they had no transportation. "He was at his best when he was giving," Ellis said.
Long had been the church's senior pastor since 1987, and oversaw its explosive growth. Its membership soared from a modest 300 to 25,000 to become one of the largest congregations in the United States.
The church operated television and international ministries, and built satellite churches in several cities, including Miami, Denver, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Long, who was also an author and gospel singer, was known for preaching and practicing a "prosperity gospel" in which the faithful would be rewarded with wealth.
In 2010, four young men filed lawsuits accusing Long of sexual misconduct. Lawyers for the four accused him of seducing them into sexual relationships in exchange for trips, clothes and cars.
Two of the men accused Long of grooming them for sexual relationships through the church's LongFellows Youth Academy. The other two, one of whom attended a satellite church in Charlotte, made similar allegations in the legal cases.
Long settled the cases out of court for an undisclosed amount and never admitted any wrongdoing.
As details of the lawsuits became known, some members of New Birth changed their opinion of Long. But many others continued to rally around their charismatic leader.
At Wednesday's service, Sanders defended Long, calling him brave, courageous and "full of faith until the very end."
"This man is real and just perhaps, perhaps, perhaps all the media, all the naysayers, all the doubters, perhaps, perhaps you were wrong about this man," Sanders said.
Long's wife, Vanessa, and children also spoke to the packed church.
"This is so overwhelming," she said. "I was holding it together until I turned that corner and saw that balcony. I can hear Eddie saying, 'See, I filled that balcony after all. It's full again.'"
She said her husband lived "an extraordinary life and those who knew him, know he died empty but he finished strong."
Long encouraged the church to move forward after their leader's death.
"Let's get back to the ministry. Let's serve the community. Let's bless others because that's what he would have done. But don't do it because of him, do it because of the God he served," she said.
Ellis ended the celebration saying, "Now that he's taking his well-deserved rest, please people, let him alone now. Let my friend rest in peace." The plea drew thunderous applause in response.