Pastor Passes The Mantle

March 27, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Near the end of services and his career at Douglas Memorial Community Church yesterday, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom Sr. retrieved his shepherd's crook from a corner of the sanctuary where he has preached for 45 years.

He demonstrated how a shepherd uses a crook to prod stray sheep back into the fold and to grab sheep by its hook if they fall.

The 70-year-old minister then brought his successor up to the pulpit and ceremoniously handed him the crook, telling him to watch over what was now his flock.

"Accept this as a token of my hopes and my dreams," Mr. Bascom told the Rev. Brad Braxton, handing him the 6-foot staff. "I hope that you will always guide these people with the skillfulness of your hands and the integrity of your heart."

With that, Mr. Bascom stepped down from the pulpit, ending a career as one of Baltimore's most well-known and distinguished ministers, civic activists and civil rights leaders.

He went out on a high note: a 2 1/2 -hour service largely consisting of choral singing, solos and stirring piano and organ music. It brought out about 600 worshipers, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a member of Douglas Memorial since boyhood, and dozens of people from churches in New York City and Detroit, where Mr. Bascom has been a guest minister.

"He's always had the audacity to be Bascom. That's just the best way I can put it," said the Rev. George Davis, pastor of St. Paul's Community Church on New York's West 145th Street, who came to Baltimore yesterday to see his friend of 20 years retire.

Admirers said Mr. Bascom practiced what he preached in his church at Lafayette and Madison avenues.

"He doesn't just read the Scripture, he acts the Scripture," said Joseph L. Washington, a member of Douglas Memorial since 1958 and a former chairman of the church's board of trustees.

Mr. Bascom was born in Pensacola, Fla., and was a child preacher there.

A graduate of Florida Memorial College and Howard University Divinity School, he served as pastor at two churches in St. Augustine, Fla., before coming to Douglas Memorial in July 1949.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Bascom marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, led marches himself in Annapolis and on government facilities in Baltimore to fight for racial equality.

On July 4, 1963, he was one of 283 people arrested during a peaceful protest of the exclusion of blacks from the privately owned Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn.

As a result of those arrests and protests that followed, the Baltimore County Council created a Human Relations Commission that brought the park's owners together with the protesters and eventually led to an agreement opening the park to all.

But Mr. Bascom's friends say his ministry went beyond the fight for integration.

He was the first black commissioner of the Baltimore City Fire Board, developed a Meals on Wheels program for the community around his church, established a summer camp that serves 400 underprivileged children in Carroll County, and was instrumental in the development of Douglas Village, a 49-unit apartment complex for the disadvantaged on Madison Avenue.

"He's really been a driving force and an institution around here," Mr. Washington said.

He said church officials have been planning events since October to celebrate Mr. Bascom's retirement and to ensure a smooth transition for Mr. Braxton.

"It took a long time for all of us to understand that this change has to come about, that this had to happen," said Mr. Washington, who was co-chairman of the retirement celebration.

A dinner in Mr. Bascom's honor last night at the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency attracted 1,200 well-wishers, said Mary Summers, the other co-chairman.

Mr. Bascom, a powerful and charismatic preacher, said after yesterday's service that he was a bit overwhelmed by the festivities.

"This church has given me so much to be grateful for," he said in a quiet voice, after shaking hands with most of the 600 people leaving the 1857 Classical Revival church.

He said he expects to spend the first few days of his retirement "just relaxing." After that, he said, he will spend much of his time reading and writing.

He will leave behind a church that, like many in the city, has a shrinking congregation.

Its membership has dropped from 1,000 members in 1949 to about 600 this year, with only about 20 living in the immediate neighborhood.

"The affluent people moved out and the poor, the disenfranchised, moved in in their place," Mr. Bascom said.

He said that trend will add to pressures on the church to perform more outreach work and help the community around it. "This church is going to have to meet this community head-on. To assess those needs and to address them -- that's going to be where the challenge is."

But Mr. Bascom said that he is not so much worried about the church, as about the nation around it.

"My fear is not for how well the city goes, but how well the nation goes," he said.

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