A bittersweet farewell to Frank M. Reid at Bethel AME

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When the Rev. Frank M. Reid III first climbed behind the pulpit of Bethel AME Church in October 1988, he had a message for members of the historic church: "God is still in charge."

Stepping to the pulpit Sunday to bid farewell to his congregation, that message remains as relevant as ever, Reid said. And God has plenty of blessings in store, he said.


"God's got greater things coming for Bethel and Baltimore!" the 65-year-old preacher thundered as worshippers clapped and cheered him along.

During a service that stretched for more than two hours, Reid implored worshippers to seek God's blessings and share those blessings with others. That's the only way, he said, to heal a hurting city.


He encouraged them to stretch and do not just good work, but great work in God's name.

"Giving food to the hungry is good work," Reid said. "Rebuilding a city is a greater work."

Sunday was the final service at Bethel for Reid, one of Baltimore's most influential pastors. He has been elevated to the rank of bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — a promotion that means he'll be leaving his pulpit of nearly 28 years.

For the first time as a minister, he won't have a congregation to shepherd. In his new role, Reid will oversee AME chaplains who work in the military, prisons and hospitals. And he'll do social action work, as well — he's forming plans for a voter registration and education campaign targeting African-Americans.

"It's very important, while black lives matter, that people realize that black votes matter," Reid said in an interview.

Though he could have been sent anywhere in the country or even overseas, the new job as bishop will allow Reid and his family to continue to live in Baltimore. Reid plans to set up an office closer to Washington.

But first, Reid had to bid farewell to his church home in West Baltimore — and his followers had to say their goodbyes, too.

Bethel members and church visitors prayed for their pastor and praised their Lord. For some younger worshippers, Reid is the only pastor they've known at Bethel. For other members, he's the best pastor they've known.


For some, Sunday was bittersweet.

Charles and Lillie Hyman, a Ridgely's Delight couple who have been members of the church for nearly 40 years, worshipped with mixed emotions.

"I'm happy for them and for their ministry to go on," said Lillie Hyman, 67. "I'm just sad because we'll miss the family."

Hyman said she appreciated not only Reid's spiritual teachings as a pastor, but also his work with other faith leaders in the city.

"We all serve the same God," she said.

Leiola Matthews, a 65-year-old nurse, said Reid's preaching and teaching has changed her life in the nearly two decades she's belonged to Bethel.


"He teaches the word that elevates your issues," she said. "He's a phenomenal teacher."

Matthews said she's become calmer and is stronger in her faith. Reid has inspired her to be a better mother and grandmother.

"I've come through the snow, the rain, a lot of buses," she said. "But it was always worth it."

Doreen Oliver, a 54-year-old federal employee, declared Reid "the best pastor ever."

Oliver credits Reid with making her want to read the Bible.

Oliver grew up around the corner from Bethel and later moved to Randallstown. But she kept coming back.


"I drive past many a church," she said, "but this is where I need to be."

For Reid's final service, Bethel was packed to standing-room only with regular worshippers and a bevy of influential guests, including politicians from the city, Baltimore County, the state and the federal government. Speaking from the pulpit, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin proclaimed: "I'm glad Bethel doesn't believe in term limits!"

Other religious leaders stopped by. Rabbi Steven M. Fink was greeted with warm applause. In 2009, when Bethel was struck by lightning, Fink arranged for the church to worship at Temple Oheb Shalom in Park Heights.

Reid tried to keep the mood upbeat throughout the service.

"Let me remind you this is not a funeral today," he said.

He exhorted members to turn to one another and repeat affirmations, including "God's got greater expectations for you. You ain't seen nothing yet!" and "Our best days are in front of us."


"It does not stop today," Reid said. "It starts today."

The church took up a special offering for Reid, and he and his wife, Marlaa, accepted hugs and congratulations as members brought their envelopes to a basket in the front of the church.

Then Reid asked members to raise their hands.

"Make this not a moment of empty emotion, but of enabling empowerment," he said. Then, he asked God: "Make the Bethel nation greater."

"I love you all," he said finally, before turning the microphone over to Bishop James L. Davis, who presides over the AME Church's Second Episcopal District, which includes Maryland.

Davis praised Reid for his "transformational leadership." He said Bethel already had an unparalleled history as a church, and Reid "took it to another level."


As Davis spoke, Reid sat quietly behind him, eyes down and his chin resting on his left hand. But he quickly perked up when Davis joked that Reid was joining the club of ministers without a flock, without being invited to dinners, without getting endless phone calls from congregants.

"Welcome to the club!" Davis said, high-fiving Reid. "Be careful what you pray for."

Reid was elected a bishop last month. He said that the time is right to move on from Bethel, comparing the transition to a change of seasons or to children moving out of their parents' home when they become young adults.

He calls it "a necessary ending."

Bethel was founded in 1785; Reid was its longest-serving pastor. Under his leadership, the already-large congregation expanded to a second location in Owings Mills.

"This city has been a great blessing to me," said Reid, a third-generation minister. "My love affair with Baltimore will never end."


Reid's successor as pastor has not been announced. The new pastor is to be introduced next Sunday.

Reid said he intends to give the new pastor space. He doesn't plan to continue to worship at Bethel — in fact, he's not sure where he'll attend services next weekend. He hopes to visit many churches before settling on a new church home.

Eventually, Reid said, he'd like to return to Bethel to visit.

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Reid promised to greet well-wishers for 15 minutes after the service. But as the receiving line snaked all the way down the long center aisle, it quickly became clear the final good-byes to a beloved pastor would take much longer.

Sitting in the front pew, with his pinstripe suit jacket long since discarded, Reid shook hands, was enveloped in hugs and posed for cell phone pictures. A group of female ushers in white suits with matching fuchsia flower pins lined up for a photo and then planted kisses on Reid's cheek.

Each time the line of well-wishers dwindled, it swelled again. Reid briefly stepped away to do a television interview, then returned to his admirers.


The 15 minutes stretched into 90 minutes. After he posed for his last picture and blessed the last baby, Reid gathered his family and prepared to leave Bethel for the final time.

"All right," he said. "I showed the love to everyone."