Powerful pastor has more than one reason to rejoice

January 11, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

For nearly two decades, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III has been the shepherd guiding one of the Baltimore area's largest and most influential congregations.

Virtually every serious candidate for citywide and state office visits his church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal -- and this year, at least two leading contenders for mayor are members. The Upton church plans to break ground on a Baltimore County location this year to accommodate the thousands who attend weekly services. Reid has even been immortalized on The Wire television series.

Now, barely six months after open-heart surgery, the minister who plans to spend 2007 teaching his congregants how to lead an abundant life has won city approval for a deal with one of the nation's most prominent developers.

The Baltimore Board of Estimates voted yesterday in favor of a plan for the Cordish Co. to manage the city-owned Pier Six entertainment venue on the downtown waterfront -- and give Bethel AME 10 percent of any profits.

The deal, unlike anything previously approved by the city, would further cement Reid's reputation as one of the city's most prominent religious leaders.

Reid is not a Baltimore native, but his father was pastor of Bethel in the 1960s, one of a long line of ministers in the family. His sermons attract some from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania, and others watch on television.

And politics have long been part of the mix for Reid, from crucial candidate endorsements to his own 1995 Democratic primary campaign for the congressional seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume. His stepbrother is former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

But Reid, 55, who earned degrees from Yale and Harvard Divinity School, spent much of the last half of the year easing back into the pulpit after bypass surgery.

The pastor had dangerously high blood pressure during a checkup in June, and Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors discovered that four of his coronary arteries were blocked.

It shocked the man who ran cross country in high school and had earned a black belt in karate. But Reid said his dedication to physical fitness waned as his ministry became more demanding. "You get so busy that you don't do what you know you need to do," he said.

His family lived short lives by today's standards. Reid's great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle all died of heart attacks. His father succumbed to colon cancer, though an autopsy showed that he, too, had suffered a heart attack. Three of the four died by age 63.

"While I knew all these things, I was one heart attack away from dying and not seeing one daughter married," he said. "My children did not know their grandfathers. ... I'd like to see my grandchildren."

Just weeks after the diagnosis, he was on an operating table, but the surgeons performed bypass surgery on only two of the four arteries -- the others were too damaged. That's a constant reminder, Reid said.

"It was fast. It was traumatic. It was dramatic," said his wife, Marlaa. "We were all looking at the fact that it was a miracle."

He now walks an hour six days a week, waking up as early as 4 a.m. Sundays so he can finish hiking in his Owings Mills neighborhood in time to lead Bethel's 7 a.m. service. He has lost 30 pounds and also makes time for rest and tai chi.

"Every day I will be making choices that will help me live or lead me down a path of early death," he said.

"If we don't make a winning lifestyle a priority, we will be robbed," Reid said. If gifted and talented people die young, "the graveyard will become one of the richest places on the planet."

While Reid recovered, other ministers filled in. "I was antsy to come back," he said. But a cardiologist warned him to back off on preaching, because the adrenaline-powered, energizing sermons could strain his heart. "I was afraid to preach hard."

His youngest daughter, 14-year-old Faith reminded him that his calling didn't come from a doctor but from God. "Do what the doctor says, but trust God," he recalls her saying.

Reid returned to Sunday services Oct. 8, his 18th anniversary with the church, and he re-entered the pulpit the following week. At first he held back, but he eased into preaching as he felt more comfortable. "I had to be guided by the spirit."

Bethel's vision for 2006 was "the year of miracles." The minister said the congregation studied last year how "messes" of human life could be "God's opportunity for a miracle".

"We spent the year encouraging and equipping people to become miracle workers," he said. "Little did we know that some seven months later that we would have an opportunity to take a mess and make a miracle out of it."

Now he said the church is talking to foundations and hospitals about developing a community of healing. They plan to bring in speakers as well as yoga and tai chi instructors.

Politics are sure to play a large role in the church this year. City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, both longtime members, have indicated they plan to run for mayor.

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