New Birth Missionary Church Hosts King's Funeral

The funeral for Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is being held Tuesday at the New Birth Missionary Church in a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. Bernice King, the couple's youngest child, serves as an elder at the church, the largest predominantly African-American church in the region. Charles Edwards of Georgia Public Broadcasting profiles its congregation.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Today's funeral service for Coretta Scott King is being held at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, east of Atlanta in Lithonia, Georgia. It's the largest African-American Church in the area with more than 25,000 members. Charles Edwards of Georgia Public Broadcasting now on the mega-church holding the funeral for a civil rights icon.

CHARLES EDWARDS reporting:

Just past the church gates on the right is a massive fitness center that includes several indoor and outdoor basketball courts and a high school-size football field. On the left sits a fifty million dollar complex that includes a ten thousand-seat sanctuary which you would think was a civic center if it weren't for the cross and steeple. On Sunday, New Birth Pastor Bishop Eddie Long reminded his congregation of the tireless efforts that Coretta Scott King made in commemorating the life of her husband, the late Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bishop EDDIE LONG (New Birth Pastor): And Coretta Scott King wanted to make sure that they understood at least once a year you need to pause and thank God for somebody who stood up for you when you didn't know who you were, and you still don't know who you are, and show you what power you have when you put your hands in Jesus.

EDWARDS: New Birth has come a long way from its origins in nearby Scottdale, Georgia in 1939, with only 150 members. It was known then as the Travelers Rest Baptist Church. But even though it has ballooned into a mega-church, reporting veteran Jeff Dickerson says New Birth still has a small church feel.

Mr. JEFF DICKERSON (Public Relations for New Birth): It does not have some sort of rigid religious rules that you may have found in a more traditional setting. But despite its size a lot of people say that they can feel as if they're the only person there in the sanctuary.

EDWARDS: Dickerson reported for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for 17 years before opening up a public relations company that has New Birth as one of its clients. Dickerson says New Birth is not the site of Coretta Scott King's funeral just because of its 10,000 seats.

DICKERSON: It is inviting, it's welcoming, and it speaks so much to the kind of progress that we've made in just a generation and the kind of progress, you know, that Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted so much for African Americans.

EDWARDS: Dickerson says New Birth has been instrumental in setting up a hospital in Kenya and the church includes members that have increased home ownership in predominantly African-American areas of Atlanta. But there have been critics they say that Bishop Long has used his own charity to buy a luxury home and a luxury car. They also say Long's stance against same-sex marriage is in direct contrast to the civil rights that Coretta Scott King, her husband, and others fought for. Both Bishop Long and church officials declined to comment for this story. However, Long is known for his close relationship with the King family. He affectionately calls Coretta, Mom. One of Mrs. King's real daughters, Bernice, is an elder of New Birth. After hearing of Mrs. King's death in Mexico, Long let the King family use his private jet to bring her back to Atlanta. Those actions are part of what Bishop Long calls an effort to pay back the debt that is owed to Coretta Scott King and her family for leading the civil rights movement.

Bishop LONG: Our response to Coretta Scott King is well done by good and faithful service. We will not let you down.

EDWARDS: Long will be just one of many speakers at today's funeral, alongside notables like President Bush and Oprah Winfrey. For NPR News, I'm Charles Edwards in Atlanta.

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