December 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

New Bethel church falls on hard times

Saving the neighborhood
Saving the neighborhood: Rev. Robert Smith, pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, discusses the violence in the neighborhood and his hopes of curtailing it

Detroit --Two large-caliber bullet holes mar the outer wall of the New Bethel Baptist Church, symbols of how the once-mighty Detroit institution, like the community around it, has fallen victim to hard times and rampant violence.

New Bethel's history reads like a chronicle of the city's up and downs over the past nine decades. Now, the former powerhouse church, like Detroit itself, is struggling to survive a dwindling population, shaky finances, and an onslaught of bloodshed, blight and despair.

"This community is dying out," said the Rev. Robert Smith Jr., the church's pastor for 28 years. "We're doing what we can to keep up hope, but it's not easy."

New Bethel's membership has plunged to about 300, from a high of 10,000 in the 1960s, when the Rev. C.L. Franklin, civil rights leader and father of legendary singer Aretha Franklin, headed the nationally renowned church. The westside neighborhood surrounding the former theater on Linwood has crumbled like so many other Detroit communities. Violence is commonplace.

"We've probably had 30 people who've lost family members to violence over the past few years, and at least 10 church members have been killed," Smith said. "In our congregation, violence is just a normal part of life."

From Nov. 1 to Dec. 8 this year, 474 crimes were reported to police in the two-mile radius around the church, according to Detroit Police statistics. Those included 96 home invasions, 35 armed robberies and 58 assaults. Of the assaults during that period, 21 were with the intent to commit murder.

Lee Gordon, 56, drives the church bus and lives across the street from the sanctuary. Gordon, whose family has attended New Bethel since Franklin was pastor, said the church is at a low point in its history.

"I've seen some pretty bad things over the years," he said. "But it's never been as bad as it is now."

Pride and adversity

In 1932, a group of women founded a prayer band called "The Helping Hand Society," hoping to lift Detroiters' spirits with music during the Great Depression. New Bethel grew out of that effort, and the fortunes of both city and church have run parallel ever since.

During the second Great Migration of African-Americans to the north in the 1950s and 1960s, the Rev. Franklin helped find housing and auto factory jobs for transplanted southerners. He also fought discrimination inside the auto factories.

New Bethel stood for many years on Hastings Street in the heart of Black Bottom, the near-eastside neighborhood that served as the cultural and spiritual center for Detroit's African-Americans. When the city demolished the neighborhood in the early 1960s, the church also fell to the wrecking ball; it came down in 1961 to make way for Interstate 75.

In 1963, New Bethel moved to its current location, in the old Oriole Theater on Linwood Street between West Grand Boulevard and Chicago Boulevard. That same year, the church helped organize the "Great March to Freedom" in downtown Detroit, which drew an estimated 150,000 people. The keynote speaker was Franklin's friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

New Bethel also was the site of one of the most racially charged incidents in the city's history in March 1969, when Detroit Police Officer Michael Czapski was killed and another officer wounded during a shootout with members of the Republic of New Africa, a black separatist group that had rented the church for a rally.

Police raided the church and arrested 142 people. But late Recorder's Court Judge George Crockett went to police headquarters and released most of the arrestees without a formal hearing. About 500 people later picketed the courthouse. The two men accused of killing Czapski, who were represented by noted Detroit civil rights attorney Kenneth Cockrel, father of City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr., were acquitted.

In June 1979, when Detroit was known as the Murder Capital of the World, a burglar broke into C.L. Franklin's Detroit home and shot him. He died July 27, 1984, after spending five years in a coma.

Best-laid plans

Smith became pastor in 1982. Within a few years, crack cocaine hit the streets, and the neighborhood around the church started a rapid downhill spiral, Smith said. He tried to combat the blight by raising money to purchase derelict property nearby.

"If you own it, you can control it," he said.

The church used city and state grants in the late 1990s to restore the 31-unit Rehoboth Plaza Apartments complex across the street. Smith said he had hoped the renovation would be the first step toward revitalizing the neighborhood around New Bethel. But because of the moribund economy, Smith said, the building isn't generating any income, and the church hasn't paid a bank note on the property for nearly two years.

"Out of 31 units, we can't get more than 10-12 tenants filled at any one time," he said. "The rent is $485 to $525 a month. In this economy, it's hard to get someone to pay that much."

Smith said he expects to lose the property. "It'll end up as yet another abandoned building."

A few years ago, the church, like many other urban congregations, was forced to hire security guards to protect people entering and leaving the church on Sundays.

Instead of the rejuvenated neighborhood Smith envisioned when he began refurbishing Rehoboth Plaza, he now laments that in some sections, "it looks like someone dropped a bomb."

"Some people feel defeated," Smith said. "Expectations were raised so high, and people really believed there was a massive positive change coming. But it simply has not come."

Taking it to the streets

In the face of the bloodshed and blight, Smith and his small congregation continue trying to make a difference.

Church volunteers pass out food from its pantry once a week, and give away clothes year-round. The church sponsors neighborhood picnics twice a year; health screenings; and trips to the zoo, movies, water parks and Detroit Pistons games. New Bethel also sponsors a dance troupe and basketball team.

On Wednesdays at 5 a.m., Smith leads a prayer service outside his church, holding hands with homeless people, prostitutes and dope addicts.

"You've got to go to them," said Smith, who also travels to Haiti several times a year to deliver food and supplies. "If you catch someone at the right time of their pain, you can minister them."

Smith said he would like to start a soup kitchen to serve hot meals to the homeless in the area. "There's a dire need for it," he said. "But we just don't have the money anymore."

Irma Jelks, 59, grew up down the street from New Bethel. She credits Smith and his "Taking it to the Streets" program for helping her escape a life of drugs, alcohol and degradation.

"All I cared about was getting high," she said. "I slept where I could — on the street, on park benches, in any man's apartment who'd let me in."

Jelks, who sings in the church choir, said she's been clean for nearly 18 years. "New Bethel was a big part of that," she said. "I owe them my life, basically."

Smith said success stories like hers help him forge ahead.

"I get people telling me I should just move," Smith said. "Some people want to go to church in a better neighborhood, where they aren't being asked for a quarter or a cigarette when they walk into the church. I'm afraid pretty soon I'll have a congregation of four people. But if we obey the Scripture, it's our job to stay here and try to make things better."

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The Rev. Robert Smith Jr. ministers to a flock at New Bethel that numbers in the hundreds, far off a 1960s high of 10,000. Im afraid pretty soon Ill have a congregation of four people, Smith says. / Brandy Baker / The Detroit News
Buddie Denise Drake sings from the pews during a recent service at New ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)