Hundreds of men filled the aisles and surrounded the wooden pews of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church yesterday as a thunderous round of applause filled the somewhat sweltering building. It was Father's Day, and the men of the Upton neighborhood church were being showered with admiration.
"Give men a big hand!" the Rev. Frank M. Reid III urged his congregation. He then encouraged his parishioners to hug their fathers.
The scene was a powerful image for Dawn Sears of Parkville.
"Just to see all those men in church was wonderful," said Sears, a member of the church for the past five years. "Men get a bad rep. There are a lot of fathers doing what mothers do: raising children, taking care of families. It's good to see them recognized."
The outpouring of love - a sharp contrast to the often-grim realities of Baltimore streets - was focused on all black men, not just fathers.
"We're looking at an epidemic rise in violence, criminal behavior and death in African-American men," said Reid's wife, Marlaa'. "It's important spiritually, mentally, and physically to empower men."
The church recruited CSI: NY actor and best-selling author Hill Harper to drive home the points of empowerment, mentoring, and responsibility.
Harper's half-hour speech stressed the importance of mentoring, education, the need for financial responsibility and the necessity of establishing goals for the future.
"We're in crisis right now," Harper said before his speech. "Unless we deal with this crisis, we're in trouble."
Harper's 2006 book Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny reached No. 5 on The New York Times best-sellers list. Harper has visited many African-American churches since the book's release. In the past week, he has delivered similar speeches in Detroit and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Harper's visit is part of the church's monthlong Man Up II series, which focuses on the state of the black community and empowering black males. On Tuesday night, Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis will speak at the church as part of the series.
"On Father's Day we thought it was important to put a call out for mentors," Reid said. "Hill Harper has focused us on bringing mentors into the 21st century. The mission he is on - one-on-one mentoring - is one of the most important missions in our country right now. ... Every man can be a mentor for a young man. Positive follow-through on mentoring increases the ability for success."
Men of all ages - including 13-year-old Dijon Curtis - enjoyed Harper's message.
"It was good and informative," Dijon said, referring to Harper's references to hip-hop stars such as Kanye West and Bow Wow, who the author said could mislead youth. "I learned something about the music we listen to," the youth said.
The fact that Harper's speech included references to popular culture impressed Dijon.
"He's been our age," said Dijon. "He knows the things we do."
The Rev. Frank Kelly, a 47-year-old father from Baltimore, also saw benefits to Harper's ability to connect with the audience.
"It's a great experience to have a speaker who can relate to young men," Kelly said. "There are a lot of wounded men out there. Men need to be fathered by men. Young men need role models."