Bethel AME belongs in the city

November 28, 1997|By R. B. Jones

THE RECENT disclosure that Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church backed out of its effort to purchase 37 acres in Owings Mills to build a sprawling complex was good news to me, a non-churchgoer and lifelong Baltimore City resident.

An urban congregation

It's hard for me to imagine Bethel, the quintessential urban congregation, setting up shop in that yuppie paradise of shopping malls and condos. There may be people in Owings Mills due for a spiritual conversion, but Baltimore City needs Bethel more.

Of course, Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, has said the historic congregation would maintain two churches, if it built in the suburbs. The mother church would remain at Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street, and the new church-school-business complex would be located in the suburbs.

But everyone knew that meant Mother Bethel would probably suffer from neglect, while most of the congregation's resources -- and most of its 10,000 members -- headed for the suburban branch.

The historic roots of Bethel run deep in this city. It's hard to separate Bethel's history from the political, social and cultural history of the African-American community. Bethel's members fought against slavery and later segregation. Some of the country's great preachers and activists rose from Bethel.

And still today Bethel is an important resource to the community. It has welcomed such disparate voices as Louis Farrakhan and mystery author Walter Mosley.

It is a focal point of the community, providing social programs and a beacon of hope to many who are hopeless.

It is a focal point of the community, providing social programs and a beacon of hope to many who are hopeless.

Mr. Reid says the city administration was lukewarm to cries for help in locating property for the church's expansion.

With the Owings Mills plans off for now, let's hope the administration does whatever is necessary to help Bethel stay in Baltimore.

After all, large churches like Bethel can be engines for change in a community. For example, New Psalmist Baptist Church, which moved from downtown to near Irvington a few years ago, is seen by many residents there as a great asset, attracting homebuyers who are church members.

New Shiloh Baptist Church, located on Clifton Avenue in West Baltimore, plans to transform a long-vacant dairy into a multi-purpose facility, offering educational and social programs.

Certainly, the city needs Bethel's large congregation, which provides a volunteer base for programs to benefit residents like those who live right outside the church's doors.

Though I'm not a prophet, I see very clearly that Bethel's mission is to revive its section of West Baltimore. And that doesn't mean that I don't sympathize with the congregants who endure an overcrowded sanctuary and little parking.

Couldn't architects and engineers come up with some creative ways for the church to expand to provide the larger sanctuary needed for the burgeoning membership? Behind the church is a row of dilapidated alley houses -- couldn't they be razed for such an expansion?

Just blocks away from the church is the huge State Office Complex parking lot at Eutaw Place and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which sits virtually empty on Sundays. Couldn't Bethel members park there and take chartered buses to services?

The Druid Heights neighborhood needs help to turn back the tide of urban deterioration. And Bethel AME, along with its Druid Hill Avenue neighbor, the venerable Union Baptist Church, can make an even greater impact there.

If Bethel moves to a suburban location, the congregation will have more space and parking, but the essence of the church's historic role would be lost. So many rallies and marches began at Bethel. How do you march on City Hall or the police department from outside the Beltway?

Dependent relationship

Bethel AME needs Baltimore as much as Baltimore needs Bethel AME. A suburban setting may give Bethel more physical space, but the city would lose the social and spiritual fount that Bethel AME has been for more than 200 years.

Just as the New Testament uses the metaphor of Jerusalem, an ancient urban center, as the site of God's Kingdom, Baltimore City can fulfill a similar role as a center for Bethel AME's kingdom building.

R. B. Jones is poet in residence at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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