At Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church, preaching and politics go hand in hand

January 12, 1992|By Arch Parsons

If you go to the Bethel A. M. E. Church on Druid Hill Avenue, don't expect to sit quietly in your pew and watch the service.

The Rev. Frank Madison Reid III won't let you. He makes sure that everyone is fully engaged.

That means that six times during a nearly three-hour service recently, all 1,500 worshipers -- always "brothers and sisters" -- were urged to hold hands with, or hug, their pew neighbors and exchange the Lord's blessings. "Only holy hugs!" he warned.

It means that when collection time came, all 1,500 made their way, singing and clapping, to the altar to give money. On that Sunday, very nearly all of the 1,500 people were served $l communion -- all who wanted to partake.

Despite two morning services and one in the evening, each Sunday the church overflows. Then the two "overflow rooms" overflow, and those who can't watch there on closed-circuit television find standing room in the back of the sanctuary.

There was a special recognition for the men at the service. As in all churches, dwindling male membership has been a problem. Since Mr. Reid's arrival at Bethel three years ago, male membership, once down to a quarter of the congregation, is up to about half.

At the time of the service, Election Day in Baltimore was not far off. Mayor Kurt Schmoke was seeking re-election and was generally regarded as a shoo-in -- which, it turned out, he was. Mr. Reid made no mention of the coming election. The mayor is his stepbrother.

An article about Mr. Reid in The Sun Magazine last summer described his political stance this way: "He has been slow to establish himself as a local player on the political scene -- held back, friends say, by his desire to solidify his position at Bethel and to move carefully in a town where his stepbrother is king."

Two weeks before this service, the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached the sermon at Bethel. Mr. Reid was a Jackson delegate at the 1988 Democratic convention, and Mr. Jackson is godfather of one of Mr. Reid's daughters.

In return for Mr. Jackson's sermon, there was a collection of funds after the service for his National Rainbow Coalition, a regular practice for both him and the church. Similar collections have been taken for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and to help the financially troubled black weekly newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, church members say.

Mr. Jackson can command several thousand dollars for a paid lecture these days, but he preaches for free at black churches. In return, he raises funds for his tax-exempt base of operations, "the Rainbow."

"Everyone had the option to stay or leave," one member said of the collection. "A lot do one and a lot do the other."

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