Fisher of Men

A Baltimore Minister Promotes Black Christian Manhood

by Herbert H. Toler, Jr.

The alienation of African-American men from the churches of their communities is perhaps the single greatest tragedy facing black America. "While 75 percent of the mosque is male, 75 percent of the black church is female," laments Jawanza Kunjufu, author of Adam Where Are You?: Why Most Black Men Don't Go to Church. It wasn't always so: In earlier generations, black men were much more involved in the church, and their religious faith bolstered their commitment to families and neighborhoods. The most effective way to reduce black crime, and to strengthen black families, may be to return African-American men to their spiritual roots.

A church in Baltimore that is itself returning to its roots is making great headway in its ministry to men. Bethel AME Church, founded in 1785, is the second-oldest church in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and a venerable institution squarely in the black political mainstream. Bethel hosted much of the NAACP's national summit last year. Its pastor, Frank Madison Reid III, is the son and grandson of AME bishops, and his step-brother is Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Reid was educated at Yale University and Harvard Divinity School. A veteran of the civil-rights movement, he served later as pastor of Ward AME Church, an important congregation in Los Angeles. He has earned a black belt in karate, a prominent image as a local television personality, and a position as an intellectual leader of the African-American church.

A Growing Concern

When Reid, 43, was named pastor of Bethel in 1989, the congregation had 7,000 members, 25 percent of them men. Today, its membership numbers 10,000, 40 percent of whom are men. Each week, 4,400 of the faithful attend one of the two Sunday services, and 45 percent of them are men. Secular agencies and politicians who want to improve urban life should take note of Reid's ministry. Black men in his congregation have reconciled with their wives, resumed responsibilities to their children and communities, committed themselves to becoming productive citizens, and dedicated themselves to God.

Rare among traditional black churches, economic classes mix at Bethel. The church is located in the Druid Hill section of Baltimore, a historically working-class neighborhood now infested with drugs and dilapidated public-housing projects, but it draws its membership from middle-class suburbs as well as the surrounding neighborhood. At services, blue-jean-clad youths pray while holding hands with middle- aged professionals and families dressed in their Sunday best.

Reid attributes the growth of his congregation to a return to its Methodist roots. The Methodist movement, started by Charles and John Wesley in England in the 18th century, was spread throughout America by preachers such as George Whitefield. When Richard Allen and other blacks were barred from praying in a Methodist church in Philadelphia in the late 1700s, they established the AME church. Early Methodism emphasized moral rectitude and discipline, revivalism, the study of Scripture in Bible groups, and personal conversion. The movement played a leading role in the national crusades against drunkenness and slavery. "We meet the spiritual needs of the people because of our focus on prayer and the mystical nature of connection between the individual human being and the Holy Spirit," says Reid.

Worship at Bethel is boisterous; dancing and shouting infuse the atmosphere. Reid sees this as a return to the spirit of early Methodism, when religious intensity energized powerful campaigns for the betterment of society. Reid points with pride to the 18th-century English Methodists who "went into the prisons and streets with a revival that saved England from the same revolutionary fate as France." And he cites as a model the 1870s revival at Philadelphia's Bethel AME Church, which prompted a moral uplift in the city's black population.

Reid's ministry to men is in the early Methodist tradition of vigorous outreach to the unchurched, wherever they may be found. As the pastor of Ward AME in the early 1980s, Reid concluded that the church wasn't addressing the needs of young men on the street. He also wondered why black males were joining the Nation of Islam or Los Angeles gangs like the Bloods and Crips, but not the Protestant churches. "Jesus said, `I will make you fishers of men,' " he says. "But either the church wasn't using the right bait or the lines weren't strong enough to bring the fish into the church."

How does Reid reel the men in at Bethel? His television services encourage men to visit the church. Highly approachable, he invites men to attend his church when he meets them on Baltimore's streets in his daily travels. His use of the term "brother" suggests kinship and inspires male members to actively urge their friends to accompany them to Bethel.

Reid also uses a four-step plan that relies on "respect" for black males, teaching the "roots" of Christianity, "reformation" of habits, and "resurrection" of lives. At Sunday services, male visitors are welcomed with applause and hugs. "We want to express our joy for your presence in the Lord's house," Reid says from the pulpit.

Reid recently invited Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to speak at Bethel. Reid disagrees with Farrakhan's theology and racial and religious separatism. But Reid wanted men who are attracted to Farrakhan to be exposed to a church that emphasizes Christian manliness.

Men who visit Bethel also find an atmosphere that is masculine as well as feminine, unlike many of the churches they are used to. At age 13 or so, many black youths tend to drop out of church. "At that age, black males who were once drawn to the choir as youth no longer sing, because robes look like dresses," says Reid. "Their Sunday school teacher, superintendent, and youth adviser are women. Their reaction to the religious femininity of the church drives them out of the church and into the seduction of a gang."

At Bethel, men as well as women occupy important board and teaching positions, and Reid makes sure that men won't have to leave the church to find opportunities for brotherhood. In addition to all-female Bible study and family Bible programs, Bethel offers weekly all-male Bible classes. There, stories from Scripture inspire men to talk freely about difficulties in their relations with women, and--Reid calls this a common problem among black men--the resentment they may feel toward absent, domineering, or abusive fathers.

Every November, Bethel hosts a month-long celebration of men. Last year's activities included a retreat, African martial-arts experts, scholarly lectures, a Men's Day with noted personalities like talk-show host Tony Brown, and a week-long revival service at which 67 men, including some substance abusers, joined the church.

Reid also attracts men to Bethel by setting strict standards of individual moral responsibility. Foul language, lying, cheating, and adultery are simply not tolerated. No drinking, smoking, or blasphemy is allowed in the congregation. In his sermons, Reid cautions the men against excessive anger, spitefulness, and abusive behavior created by high stress and low self-esteem. He advises them to restrain their anger through a close relationship with Christ. "If men are unable to handle their emotions," he says, "then they become prime candidates for abusing their wives or girlfriends and children, as well as their friends and neighbors and, ultimately, the community."

Reid is convinced that exacting standards of behavior do not drive men away, but attract them. Men are empowered by morality, he says; they gain courage and conviction when they know they are acting responsibly. He argues that the appeal of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan comes more from their moral authority than their religion. Christianity, too, must emphasize its firmness along with its love and compassion. "Jesus drew strong fishermen to him," Reid says. "His moral authority was a magnet."

Reid challenges the males in his congregation to be men rather than boys. "You can be 65 and still be a boy," he preaches. "You can be 45, married with children, and still be a boy. The difference between a boy and a man is that a man loves God and takes responsibility for himself and others."

Many congregants fail to live up to the church's standards. But all men are welcome. No stigma is placed on former convicts and drug-abusers. At each service, Reid asks men who have been incarcerated to stand and be applauded. Reid preaches that everybody in the church is sinful, citing the biblical injunction, "We were born in sin and shaped in iniquity, and we all have fallen short of the glory of God."

Bethel provides wrongdoers with encouragement coupled with discipline. Biblical passages are cited to show why the behavior in question is wrong. The church is firm in response to wrongful deeds, but forgiving. The man admits his error, and he and Reid discuss ways to make restitution and bring healing for the wrongs he has committed. Reid strongly emphasizes restitution, arguing that one has a responsibility to bring wholeness to that which one has broken.

Changa Onyanga used to be a lieutenant in the drug culture. When he first entered Bethel to visit a former member of his gang, he had no respect for ministers like Reid. "I looked him up and down and pressed on." Onyanga says now. "I did not speak to him. Besides, preachers had a bad rap because they were not doing anything for people who needed a cause to champion."

Reid noted Onyanga's "terrible disposition" and responded. "No one walks around this church and does not speak," Reid said to him. "We are friendly and we speak to one another as Christians should." Reid had Onyanga's friend talk to him and teach him about the decorum of his church. Onyanga has since joined Bethel.

In preaching personal responsibility, Reid acknowledges his own errors. Happily married with two daughters, eight and two, Reid also fathered a son out of wedlock during an earlier pastorate in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I do not deny my 15-year-old son," says Reid. "He is a reality." Although his son lives with the mother, Reid remains a significant part of his life. He provides monetary and moral support and communicates regularly. Reid even has him stand up in the congregation when he comes to visit.

Reid tells the men that he has been where some of them are. Once they see that their spiritual leader is not above temptation, he believes, the men in his congregation can grapple more easily with issues of manhood and sexuality.

Reid argues that spiritual leaders must be honest with men about their own failings. Some black men resist attending church because they regard the preachers as hypocrites. Reid chides his fellow clergy for not practicing what they preach. "Just because they received the calling," he says, "does not mean they are above the struggle or the contradictions." Citing St. Augustine and other great religious teachers who have acknowledged their sinfulness, he says pastors must realize they are preaching to themselves as well as to their congregations.

Reid's ministry to men includes working with women to restore male authority in the home. Men will be better fathers and husbands and will participate more willingly in church and community life, Reid argues, if they are allowed to exercise authority as head of the household. This does not mean tyranny or dictatorial control, but rather loving responsibility. Reid teaches men to be the protector, priest, provider, and partner of the household. The Old Testament instructs the man to be "watchman for his family."

"We teach that the man should be the first person his wife goes to for prayer," Reid says. "If there is need for the pastor to come into the household, then it should be to pray for the family. But that can only happen if the man takes the leadership in making prayer a part of the household. The man should take the leadership for making sure Bible study is part of family life." Reid preaches that wives should submit to their husbands, but also that husbands must not abuse this authority. "Paul's letter to the Ephesians teaches us: `Woman, submit thyself if your man loves you as Jesus loves the church,' " he says. "If the husband does not love his wife as Jesus loved the church, then she has no responsibility to submit to him. We submit to Jesus out of the fact that he loved us."

The principle of male headship does not mean that the husband must be the primary breadwinner. "We teach the men that wives' earnings should not bruise their ego," says Reid. "A husband should be thankful when a woman who earns more, or has more education, looks to him as protector and provider." The word "provider," Reid points out, comes from the Latin for "seeing." It means supplying a family's vision as much as providing its material sustenance.

Reid also teaches women how to respond to men in the household. Annette Brown, for example, used Reid's sermon on "a loving God" to endure six years of estrangement from her husband, Kevin. "There were times when my husband was gone for four days without contact," says Brown, "but pastor Reid's message told me to look beyond his faults and see his needs." Annette and Kevin are back together, and their relationship is stronger. He has joined Bethel and resumed his role as father of their two sons. He has even begun to prepare for the ministry.

Brown is the religious leader and disciplinarian of the household. He is also in charge of sex education. Brown settles family decisions after family prayer. Matters in which he reserves the final say include private school for their children, vacations, family transportation, his work hours, visits to relatives, and house-buying. But his wife controls the household finances. She submits to him because he submits to the church. "Kevin takes the authority in the household," she says. "When there is a decision, he makes the final decision." She reserves the right to veto any decision not in the family's best interest, but she adheres to Biblical scripture: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. "I always uplift my husband," she says.

Reid denies that this approach oppresses women. "I have not talked to a single African-American woman," he says, "who has said `no' when I have asked whether she would gladly submit to a man who loved Christ, who provided for her and her children, who would protect her, and was spiritual. They recognize that the submission would not be an oppressive submission, but a submission in partnership."

Reid encourages men to marry or, if they are separated, to reunite with the mothers of their children. But he does not always counsel marriage. "It makes no sense," he says, "to push together a couple that does not love each other. If the mother has become pregnant for the wrong reasons--out of lust, for example, or to get welfare payments--then it may not be possible for the father to exercise loving authority as head of the household."

"In an ideal world, it is easy to say, `if you make a baby, then marry the mother,' " Reid says. "But as a pastor, I have to deal with the hard facts of family conflict. What happens to the child who grows up in a home where the parents hate each other because you made them get married? The child will grow up with their hostility and take it out into the world."

Reid thinks public policy treats African-American men with illegitimate children too harshly. He is especially troubled by a court system that cuts fathers off from their children. Men are presumed guilty in disputes over child support; visitation can be denied at the mother's request. Reid says the system "tortures fathers, who often want to do the right thing for their children, and is unfairly slanted toward the mother."

According to Reid, models of Christian manhood from African and African- American history are essential in attracting black men to church. Before becoming full members of Bethel, men must spend an hour with the pastor, who teaches them about Africans in the Bible and African-American church history. In this portion of his ministry, which he calls "roots," Reid tries to dispel the notion that Christianity is a Eurocentric, slave masters' religion. He teaches about the Africans Simeon (also called Niger) and Lucius of Cyrene, who ordained the Apostle Paul and Silas. He talks about the black abolitionist David Walker, who in 1829 published an anti-slavery tract known as the Appeal. This seminal publication demanded the end of slavery and appealed to the "God of the Ethiopians."

Another of Reid's models of black Christian manhood is Bishop Henry McNeil Turner. Born a slave in South Carolina, Turner became the first black chaplain of the Union army, a member of the South Carolina Legislature, and an advocate for the black emigration to Africa in 1874. His status as a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church allowed him to carry the African-American religious tradition to South Africa more than 100 years ago.

Reid also likes to point out to his African-American audience that Jesus may not have been as European-looking as Hollywood and other forms of popular culture typically have portrayed him--white, blue-eyed, and fair-haired. He quotes a passage from the Old Testament book of Daniel that describes the Messiah, whose "feet were like burnished brass and his hair was like lamb's wool," and the New Testament book of Revelation, which similarly describes Jesus with feet "like bronze glowing in a furnace." Some church members, such as Charles Wiggins, say they were greatly affected by Reid's more raw, human portrait of Christ. "I had never heard a minister talk about Jesus who looked like me," says Wiggins, who joined in 1991. "I have found a home."

Reid brings in guest lecturers to talk about African-American manhood. In a recent program, Na'im Akbar, a Florida State psychologist who is an expert on black male psychology, urged men at Bethel to learn from "the courage of Dr. King, the defiance of the honorable Elijah Muhammed, the economic strategy of Booker T. Washington, and the uncompromising integrity of Paul Robeson."

Reid encourages the men to spiritually mold young males of the community. Through Project RAISE, they mentor teenagers from local schools. The men do not pressure them to join the church, but some do, attending Sunday services and Bible study with their mentors.

After a small riot erupted at Booker T. Washington Junior High School just before Christmas last year, Bethel began a direct partnership with the school. To prevent a reoccurrence, Reid summoned 150 men to the school. They lined the street in front of the school and remained watchful for arsonists, gangs, and visiting troublemakers. At the request of the principal, the men recently returned to supervise the children in the morning and afternoon. The pupils' tranquillity prompted one teacher to comment that they were "acting like children again."

Bethel assists men in running their households. In the class for new members, men are shown how to allocate their earnings. The 10-10-80 plan is a voluntary financial- management procedure wherein 10 percent of the new member's yearly earnings is contributed to the church. Another 10 percent goes into a savings account, while the remainder is used for living expenses.

Men who need additional help in managing their finances can attend classes on preparing tax returns, taught by a CPA who donates her time. Bethel has helped its members form food co-ops and investment clubs for pooling risk capital, purchasing bonds and mutual funds, and setting up funds for children's college tuition.

Reid and members of the congregation also find jobs for men. Some have convictions for crack use, weapons possession, or other felonies, while others possess little or no high school or college education. But Reid and other officers at Bethel often vouch for the character of church members who might not look good on paper.

Reid himself hires men as security guards for the church. The security team not only protects the church and its membership; it gives young men the opportunity to "soldier"--to wear a uniform, carry walkie-talkies, use one's physical strength, and become close friends with other men. Reid argues that these are the principal lures of being in a gang. So why not channel these male yearnings into structures that help build spiritual soldiers?

The security guards are called the Mighty Men of God after the warriors who followed King David. There is no better symbol than these men of Reid's teaching that Christianity is a manly as well as a womanly religion. The Mighty Men of God hold respected positions in the church, including the leader of Bible study, sexton, and security guard. They are responsible for the safety of the congregation and community, and combat random crime with periodic community patrolling.

The M.M.O.G. play an important role in the safety of the children who attend Bethel's day school. They greet parents and students each morning as they arrive. During the day, they guard against intruders and drug sales. At the end of the day, a Mighty Man of God sees each child safely across the street.

The regimen of the M.M.O.G. requires discipline. They meet for two hours every Tuesday and Saturday. Officers open the meetings with a personal inspection. They check for fresh haircuts, cleanshaven faces, and shined shoes. Members are not allowed to smoke or drink, so officers check for burns and yellow stains from nicotine or marijuana. M.M.O.G. maintain two uniforms: a suit and a security outfit for guarding the church.

After prayer, they discuss local and international events. Drilling, marching, and commands soon fill the room. An inspirational message from Reid follows, and the group closes with hand-holding prayer.

One member of the Mighty Men of God is Max Taylor. After joining Bethel at the age of 18, Taylor joined forces with local drug dealers and descended into the world of drugs, guns, and violence. He was responsible for preparing street corners for potential drug sales. "I cleaned street corners for drug dealers by any means necessary," says Taylor, 29. He reached a point, he says, when he realized that if he continued he would soon "be dead or behind bars for a long time if I was arrested."

In 1992, Taylor rejoined the church with rejuvenated purpose. He walked through local housing complexes challenging drug dealers, his old friends, for territory. "I was extremely cold and ruthless," says Taylor, "but due to the power of Frank Reid and God, I have changed."

Herbert H. Toler, Jr., a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is writing a book on the African-American church.

Copyright © 1995 The Heritage Foundation. Used by permission.