Black churches may join exodus from Baltimore

January 29, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

The towering Bethel AME Church at Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street has been a center of theological ferment, the civil rights movement and a spirited activism for the hungry and homeless since 1913.

But Bethel, an architectural and political anchor of the city's west side, is considering a move to Baltimore County, where nearly half of the church's 10,500 members live.

For Bethel and other historic black churches in Baltimore, it is a time of reappraisal.

Baltimore's black community has high regard for the beauty, history and social significance of landmark churches such as Bethel AME, but many of those churches also must confront an array of vexing urban problems -- from high restoration costs and a lack of sufficient parking to street violence and encroaching neighborhood decay.

Blacks are feeling the same demographic pressures that a few generations ago led many white congregations to abandon their old neighborhoods.

"You used to walk to church," the Rev. Arnold W. Howard, new president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, told a group of black clergy recently. "Now you ride."

The move of black congregations away from the neighborhoods of their churches has been widespread. Driving to church is not in itself considered an inconvenience by many worshipers, however. Parking is the problem.

When New Psalmist Baptist Church bought the old landmark building at Franklin and Cathedral streets in 1978, it had 500 members. With the recent move to a big new church on 20 acres at the southwest edge of the city, 3,000 members come from all parts of Baltimore and nearby counties, and from as far away as southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, said the Rev. Walter S. Thomas, pastor.

Leronia A. Josey, a Baltimore County resident who is Bethel AME's attorney, said City Hall's seeming indifference and failure to help it find a suitable site for expansion within Baltimore might prompt the church to move to the county.

In sharp contrast, she said, development officials in Baltimore County have courted the church aggressively with suggested sites along the Liberty Road corridor since the church made known to them several years ago its need to expand into a new, larger sanctuary.

Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's stepbrother, acknowledged the county's efforts but said he is committed to staying in the city if possible.

He and Ms. Josey confirmed that Bethel is interested in negotiating with Baltimore Development Corp. for the possible purchase of the 26-acre Eastern High School site across from Memorial Stadium. The BDC formally sought proposals for the property last week and announced a Feb. 27 deadline for submissions.

Heart in city

"The pastor's heart is still in the city," Ms. Josey said. "However, the lack of parking space near the present location has become a pressing problem."

Phoebe Platte, a Bethel member who lives in Baltimore County, is typical. "To get to Sunday's 8 o'clock service in time to find a parking space, I have to leave the house at 6:45," she said.

Bethel's need for parking is not unique. The Rev. Jonathan A. Thompson, pastor of the Berea Temple of Seventh-day Adventists at Madison Avenue and Robert Street, said fewer than 100 of its 1,000 members live within walking distance.

Berea's pastor, who lives in Owings Mills, said his congregation is struggling to pay the $1.5 million cost of repairs to the imposing landmark that were begun nearly a decade ago.

The distinctive twin-towered temple, rising from a maze of closed streets and unrealized urban renewal efforts north of Bethel AME, was built in 1891 by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. It was acquired by Berea in the early 1950s.

Room to grow

Some of the larger black congregations that have elected to remain in the city are holding their own, but the attraction of suburban locations for those seeking growth was described by the Rev. Norman Horn, who is on the staff of Randallstown's Union Bethel AME Church.

Since the church took over a vacated synagogue at 8615 Church Lane three years ago, Mr. Horn said, attendance has grown from about 300 to nearly 800.

Baltimore's Bethel AME bought its handsome Gothic Revival sanctuary, which seats about 1,700, more than 80 years ago from the former St. Peter's Episcopal congregation, which now is part of Grace and St. Peter's.

For Bethel's two Sunday services, attended by about 5,000, Ms. Josey said, many congregants must be seated elsewhere and participate through closed-circuit television.

'Runaround' from city

"We need a new church with a minimum of 3,000 seats," she said.

She said Bethel had "gotten the runaround" from a "disorganized" city government. By contrast, she said, Baltimore County had assembled representatives of relevant offices in one room and offered coordinated help in finding a new location for the church.

Mrs. Platte said many of Bethel's members feel the city "has not been very cooperative."

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