"AME Faithful Ponder Reid's Words" (Baltimore Sun, July 12, 2004)

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AME faithful ponder Reid's words Conflict: The clergy reacts to a city pastor's attack on the church's 'satanic' bureaucracy.

By Frank Langfitt Baltimore Sun Staff

July 12, 2004

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.

"No one will come out and say 'yes,' but it's clear that money floats around the General Conference," Murphy asserted.

He said the church's newer and more sophisticated members are put off by the atmosphere when they attend their first General Conference.

"When you arrive to find a political convention with all the maneuvering ... it's a bit unsettling and disillusioning to the laity, and some of the clergy as well," he said.

Bryant said Reid makes valid points, but questions the release of the booklet just days before an election. Bryant says he thinks it was part of an insurgent campaign to win one of the eight bishop slots up for grabs.

Reid announced his candidacy for bishop last year, but according to allies, later expressed ambivalence. Last month, at a meeting of the regional AME delegation, Reid said he was no longer in the race.

"The delegation was hurt, because Frank Reid is a charismatic, tremendous person. We were all excited about his candidacy," said the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, Reid's campaign manager and senior pastor at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington.

At the convention, Reid's name was removed from the ballot. But as delegates prepared to vote, Reid addressed the gathering to ask who had removed it, witnesses said. Another church member urged officials to restore Reid's name, and delegates voted to do so.

Although he has said that he only wanted his name on the ballot for sentimental reasons - to honor the memory of his late father - the crowd assumed that he was back in the race.

Reid, considered a front-runner before dropping out in June, got 299 votes - not a bad showing for someone who did not run a full-fledged campaign, but far short of the number needed for election.

An irrational fear?

Looking back, Bryant said the booklet was likely designed to create a populist groundswell that would carry Reid into the office of bishop, which his father and grandfather had held.

"I think it's a plan that backfired," said Bryant - although he believes Reid's criticism of the church is sincere.

Bryant and Reid share church histories that have long been intertwined. Bryant's father, John, now an AME bishop, was Reid's predecessor at Bethel, the church of Baltimore's black establishment and the city's oldest African-American parish.

Bryant, 32, then spent years working part time under Reid. The elder minister eventually helped Bryant start Empowerment Temple. That congregation, which caters to the city's young and dispossessed, is now one of the fastest-growing congregations in the country.

"I affectionately call him the stepfather I never had," Bryant says.

Bryant speculates that Reid halted his campaign because of an irrational fear of losing. Bryant traces it to Reid's defeat by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in the 1996 Democratic primary for Maryland's 7th District congressional seat.

"I think he was still psychologically wounded by his congressional run," said Bryant - fears that were unwarranted in the bishop's race. "Frank would have got elected, period. I just don't know that Frank realizes that."

With the convention over, Bryant said Reid needs to follow through and produce a more detailed plan for church reform.

"The revolution can start on the corner of Druid Hill and Lanvale," Bryant said, referring to Bethel's location. "And if Frank called for it, ... they will come. And I'd be there to find out how the action plan is going to unfold, and I don't even mean that sarcastically."

Copyright 2004, The Baltimore Sun

-- Anonymous, July 13, 2004

Answers

There is an even higher level of interaction between the two families:
  • Harrison James Bryant pastored Bethel from 1948-1964. He was elected bishop that year from Bethel.
  • Frank Reid II pastored Bethel between 1964 and the early 70s. He was elected bishop from Metropolitan, Washington, DC.

    -- Anonymous, July 14, 2004

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