A Powerhouse In The Pulpit Bethel's Frank Madison Reid

June 30, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

There was no way Frank M. Reid III was going to be a preacher.

No way.

His daddy was a preacher. So was his granddaddy, his great-granddaddy and his great-great granddaddy before him. For generations, the Reid men were preachers, and everyone expected Frank would follow suit.

He had other plans.

It was 1969. Race riots and the slaying of Martin Luther King had rocked the nation. Predominantly white colleges were seeking black students, and Frank was wooed by the best. Harvard came courting, but he chose Yale and, a year later, his plans had taken shape. He would make contacts. He would study law. He would land on Wall Street.

But something happened.

It was the summer after his sophomore year. Frank was visiting a girlfriend in Cambridge, Mass. She was sitting on his lap and they were listening to music. Curtis Mayfield wafted through the air, crooning a funky version of the Carpenters' hit song "We've Only Just Begun."

Suddenly, something stirred Frank. His heart filled with the force of God's love. His soul shook with the reality of Jesus' saving grace. He wanted to, he needed to share the message. He rose, strode around the room, and preached as if his life depended on it.

He preached.

No sooner did he realize what he'd done than he --ed to the telephone. He called his daddy with the news: He wanted to be a preacher, too.

Today, 20 years later, Frank Madison Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, is one of the nation's hottest soul-winners.

Burly, bearded and broad-shouldered, Mr. Reid looks more like an overgrown graduate student than the scion of an A.M.E. dynasty. He has a student's curiosity, too. Haunting bookstores in his spare moments, he is happiest with a stack of reading materials piled under his arm.

Reading books, which Mr. Reid does zealously, is part of his pursuit of excellence. Whether it's a brown belt in martial arts, a wardrobe of well-cut clothes, or a calendar-full of high-power preaching engagements -- what Frank Reid does, he does well.

But his greatest triumph is his ministry.

The street-smart, school-savvy graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School has fashioned a ministry of the heart with a mission to humanity. He has opened resistant middle-class churches to alcoholics, addicts and prisoners. He has called on the black community to become economically responsible and has begun programs to bolster black men's self-esteem. He has cultivated an image of strong but sensitive manhood -- hip to M. C. Hammer and Motown but humble before the saving power of the Lord.

Mingling evangelical belief, social service, Afrocentrism, and spirit-filled inspiration, Mr. Reid created a pastiche of elements not commonly found together.

But the mix works.

That mix is at work during three services at Bethel every Sunday and twice weekly during Bible studies in the Bethel sanctuary.

During one Wednesday noon gathering, Mr. Reid launches into a discussion of spiritual balance.

"If you just deal with people on a spiritual level, then you cop out on their material needs," he explains, pacing up and down the aisle that separates the altar from the pews. "Jesus was not only concerned with people's spiritual needs, he cared about their physical needs -- that's why he healed them and fed them."

Printing on a blackboard, Mr. Reid lists how the church gets out of balance.

"Some people would rather shout than serve, preach not practice," he says, pitching his low baritone to a sing-song growl. Some want evangelism without empowerment or the pastoral without the prophetic.

"Well, church, listen up. One reason the life expectancy rate of African Americans has decreased is a pastoral problem -- cancer, high blood pressure, disease. But we also live in the midst of political and social struggles that cause stress, addiction and which prevent us from going to doctors when we need to. So there's a prophetic side that needs to be addressed, which means calling for national health insurance."

Mr. Reid sees the congregation bobbing their heads, following him all the way.

"Now turn to your neighbor and say, 'Amen,' " he says. "Amen!"

THE DESIRE FOR A RELAtionship with God -- or one of his preachers -- is not a driving passion for many inner-city kids today. Ice T or Michael Jordan: Those are heroes who deserve a hearing. But the church seems sissified -- havens for the weak led by the meek. Mr. Reid doesn't believe it has to be that way. He believes the church can offer tough love, too.

Mr. Reid's theories were put to the test in 1980. He was 29, fresh off his first church in Charlotte, N.C., when he was asked to come to Los Angeles' Ward A.M.E., a faltering black church in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Ward was a challenge -- a chance to see whether his vision of the ministry worked.

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