Thousands of mourners, including dignitaries such as former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and Bernice King, the youngest child of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., gathered in Georgia Wednesday to celebrate the life of late megachurch pastor Bishop Eddie Long.
The main sanctuary of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which seats 6,000, was standing room only prior to the start of the service, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And once the service got underway, ushers were busy handing out tissue despite a minister warning the gathering that the family had "come to celebrate."
"You can make it a whole lot easier for the family if you come to celebrate," said a minister who was not identified on a livestream broadcast of the service.
Sanders, whom Long described as one of his closest friends, had to celebrate through hidden tears as he delivered an emotional tribute to the gathering.
"This is the first day that I have really come to grips that this is real," said Sanders as he apologized for wearing shades to the podium in order to cover the grief in his eyes.
"This was a father figure to me. This was a man I looked up to, I adored, who called me when many had walked out on me and left me, who made sure I was straight," he said.
"This man was brave, this man was courageous, he was dedicated to all of you ... this man was full of faith until the very end. He was a giver, a giver, a natural giver ... This man helped many of us and he didn't even desire nothing in return," he added.
Barnes described Long as a "force of nature" who knew the Lord and the Lord "shown through him."
Long was viewed in his casket wearing a gold cross, rings on his fingers and an off-white robe with a patterned stole. His casket, however, was removed from the sanctuary at the beginning of the service because he did not want the church to focus on him.
"Because we've come to celebrate by the wishes of the family, we're going to close the pall but we want you to know that Bishop Long will be removed from the sanctuary with the wishes that you focus on Jesus and not on him," a minister explained at the start of the service.
He also explained the reason behind Long's funeral attire.
"Bishop is dressed to meet the King. A bishop is the prince in the church so he is dressed to meet the King as a member of the royal priesthood. That's the legacy you're going to leave with. The man of God is dressed in coronation tapestry and he is dressed in his ring and his cross," the minister explained before the rings were eventually removed and given to Long's wife, Vanessa.
Long's casket was then covered with a pall to symbolize humility then removed from the church as the celebration continued. You can watch the livestream below.