AME faithful ponder Reid's words

Conflict: The clergy reacts to a city pastor's attack on the church's `satanic' bureaucracy.

July 12, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In launching a blistering attack on the bureaucracy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III has broadcast long-standing concerns about the nation's oldest black denomination into the public arena.

He has also left many of the faithful wondering why he did it.

At the group's convention in Indianapolis last week, the charismatic leader of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church and one of the nation's most prominent black pastors hammered a church electoral system that he said has been marked by back-stabbing, betrayal and money passed out in envelopes.

He also criticized a church bureaucracy that he said values career advancement over ministering to the needy.

In a 24-page booklet sold at the convention for $7 a copy, he called the AME bureaucracy a "satanic system." As the document spreads online, it is provoking strong reaction in Baltimore and around the country.

Many AME laymen and clergy say they're heartened to see someone of Reid's stature airing criticisms that they have shared privately for years. Others view his broadside as short on specifics and long on rhetoric.

Some see the document, Up From Slavery: A Wake Up Call for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as part of a scheme to win Reid a bishop's post - or as a sign that he is preparing to leave the church for good. Reid, 53, has said he has no plans to quit.

Perhaps most of all, the booklet has many asking why this fifth-generation AME pastor would air the dirty linen of an institution to which he and his forebears have devoted their lives.

"That's the $64 million question," said the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, a Reid protege who now heads Empowerment Temple, the city's second-largest AME church behind Bethel.

Larry G. Murphy, professor of Christian history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois, likens Reid's assault to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suddenly joining liberal gadfly Michael Moore in criticizing the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Bishop Vashti McKenzie, a Baltimorean who serves as titular head of the 3 million- member denomination, said the church leadership was blindsided by the document.

Calling Reid "a disgruntled pastor," she said his attack should not diminish the conference's successes. They included the election of two female bishops and three from Africa, providing the continent with a greater voice in church decision-making.

Reid, who holds degrees from Harvard and Yale universities, said last week that he expected a counterattack from those who support the status quo. Apprised of the criticism from McKenzie and others, Reid declined to comment further.

"He was not interested in engaging in a battle via the media," his wife, Marlaa Reid, said Friday. "He respects what the bishops have said and will respond later. There is a forum and a place for that."

Act of conscience

The dispute continues to reverberate in the AME church, the third-largest black denomination in the country.

African Methodism was founded more than 200 years ago by Richard Allen, a former slave who bought his freedom. The movement espouses a liberation theology that encourages people to free themselves from all forms of slavery, including poverty, illiteracy and drug abuse - themes Reid cites in his booklet.

Reid said he wrote the pamphlet as an act of conscience after again witnessing a corrosive electoral process in a recent campaign for bishop.

In the introduction, Reid recalls how, as a college student, he helped his father pass out money to defray the cost of delegates' lunches during the elder Reid's race for bishop at the 1972 General Conference in Dallas. "My father sent me to give a Presiding Elder from another Episcopal District a group of envelopes with five dollars in each one," Reid wrote.

When he learned that the elder had pocketed the money, Reid was furious. But he recalled his father telling him to let it go, saying, "It's the system, son. It's the system."

"In 2004, thirty-two years later, I am clear that the false AME system can and will not be changed incrementally," Reid declared in his booklet. "This demonic system is too slick and flexible for mere reform. To save African Methodism from the system will require a revolutionary commitment to radical change."

By most accounts, Reid's criticisms resonated with many at the convention, even if some questioned his motives and yearned for a more specific prescription.

"I agreed with a great deal of what he had to say," said the Rev. Ellis I. Washington, pastor of St. Matthew AME Church in Philadelphia. "It has really become an [electoral] system that borders on corruption. I supported the fact that he is probably one of the few who have been bold enough to stand up and say what they feel."

Even Reid's critics say the process of electing bishops can stand reform. Murphy said major candidates typically raise more than $100,000 to pay for campaign workers, rallies, display booths and related travel - a highly politicized process for a religious denomination.

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