Photographer Nina Berman has been going to a lot of mega-churches, including Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist in Lithonia, Georgia, near Atlanta. Eddie Long was in the news recently, accused of using his position to coerce gay sex with young men, even as he espouses explicitly anti-homosexual views from the pulpit.
But as Nina explains, what is more salient is that “There is a ‘Prosperity Gospel’ movement. What’s most overtly preached is that to become rich is to be closer to God, especially by giving money to the church. To be poor is a sin, to not give enough to the church. More traditional ideas of modesty, charity, humility are not part of this celebration of material possessions. It used to be a little shameful to flash your bling, but no longer. Nor is this exclusive to African-American churches.”
At the end of each service, Long sets up rope lines and tables, complete with credit card machines, to sell and sign his books. Surrounded by his entourage, this is usually the only chance that a parishioner might have to exchange a few personal words with him, while buying a book. Here he laughs at a joke. Long is above all a successful CEO, a consummate performer perfecting his brand, to a middle-class and wealthy congregation of 25,000.
Nina notes that Eddie Long is “super pumped, he’s a body builder” and that the art in the church is intensely masculine, depicting Christ as a warrior, not a peace-and-love figure surrounded by lambs.
Elaborating on her experience at the New Birth Church, Nina also observed that it was men in suits who distributed communion in those platters, while young women managed the plastic buckets collecting donations.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Atlanta, Pastor Creflo Dollar runs the equally large Creflo Dollar Ministries in College Park, Georgia. There, if the World Dome is filled to capacity, worshippers have to go into overflow rooms where they watch the sermon on television screens. Nina saw that “Creflo Dollar demands money with intensity, even though his audience is much poorer than Eddie Long’s. There was more desperation.”