BALTIMORE CITY'S inability to find a location where 212-year-old Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church can expand is disturbing. This summer, at the same time Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said numerous relocation sites had been suggested to Bethel, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III admitted he had not even discussed the matter with church officials. Mr. Henson said his phone calls weren't returned.
Now the city has a second chance. Possible Owings Mills relocation sites were deemed too expensive to develop by Bethel. Mayor Schmoke, Mr. Henson and Bethel's pastor, Rev. Frank M. Reid III, have another opportunity to find a way to keep this African-American institution so significant to Baltimore's history in town. The task isn't easy. The Owings Mills site was 37 acres. There isn't a similar tract for a church in Baltimore.
However, the city has announced plans to tear down 800 units of public housing in the George B. Murphy Homes and adjacent Emerson Julian Gardens. In their place will be 362 low-rise dwellings and townhouses. Mr. Henson and Mr. Reid should see whether this major redevelopment in West Baltimore can accommodate the expansion of Bethel which already has its historic main sanctuary nearby, on Druid Hill Avenue. The church's membership is nearing 12,000. It desperately needs a bigger sanctuary and more parking.
The church has said it would like enough room for a broadcast station, a school and a family recreation center with a gymnasium, health center and banquet rooms. Such things are common among mega-churches with large congregations. But the space they require understandably disturbs government officials, who worry about so much land being removed from the property tax rolls by a tax-exempt organization.
Still, it is important to keep Bethel AME in the city. The church's roots go back to 1785. It ran a school for free black and slave children. Through the years, Bethel has contributed to Baltimore's quality of life by running soup kitchens, a job bank, counseling pregnant teen-agers, etc. Reverend Reid says that work will continue even if Bethel moves. The church's commitment for the future would be stronger, by far, if it stays at home.
Pub Date: 11/29/97