Storied Detroit church, neighbors see signs of rebirth
Detroit's legendary New Bethel Baptist Church been up, down - and is on the way up again.
Detroit – Throughout an 85-year history, New Bethel Baptist Church and the surrounding neighborhood have by turns prospered and struggled much like the city itself.
But after decades of decline, attendance is inching up at the church that was led for years by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a leader in Detroit’s civil rights movement and father of R&B legend Aretha Franklin.
The church on Linwood is a few blocks from 12th and Clairmount — the flashpoint of 1967’s uprising. For years afterward, the neighborhood was among the city’s most dangerous.
Crime is still a problem, but it’s trending down, according to Detroit police statistics. Houses and storefronts are being razed or renovated.
The Rev. Robert Smith, who became New Bethel’s pastor in 1982 after C.L. Franklin was shot by a burglar, says the church, with its ups and downs, serves as an apt metaphor for Detroit.
“When the city was going good, the church was going good,” Smith said. “Then things started going down. People were moving out of the city, and we were losing membership.
“But if you look around the city, you see it coming back, which is exactly what’s happening with the church and this community,” Smith said. “It’s not where we want it to be yet, but we’re seeing improvement for the first time in many years.”
New Bethel and its problems were highlighted in a December 2010, when Smith expressed concern in The Detroit News whether his congregation would survive. Church membership had plummeted from about 10,000 in the 1960s to about 300, prompting Smith to say at the time: “I'm afraid pretty soon I’ll have a congregation of four people.”
Now, Smith says the exodus has reversed, with the church roster at more than 700 members.
“It’s not where it was in our heyday, but at least we’re starting to get people back,” he said. “And we’re seeing more diversity than ever; more white people are moving in and coming to the services. It’s wonderful.”
Smith and his neighbors say the community is also improving. Two area parks — C.L. Franklin Park and Yates Park — have been refurbished. Residents and businesses are moving back to the area, Smith said.
“We’ve had 75 houses torn down,” Smith said. “We’re getting a new cancer center, and Elite Plaza (on Linwood) is being redone. People are fixing up houses and moving in.”
Ann-Marie Jewah, a recent New Bethel congregant, is among the area’s new residents. She moved from the Old Redford area after buying a house near the church through the city’s Land Bank in March.
“We’re remodeling the house,” she said. “We’ve put about $60,000 into it to get it up and running, but I think it’s worth it. I think the neighborhood is coming back.”
Jewah, who was born in Trinidad and raised in Canada, added: “I’m not originally from the Detroit area, so I haven’t dealt with a lot of the negativity you hear about the city. I’m giving Detroit a clean slate.”
Signs of improvement
When The News chronicled the problems plaguing New Bethel and its community seven years ago, Smith drew attention to what he said was a symbol of the neighborhood’s violence: a pair of high-caliber bullet holes in the church’s south wall.
The holes are still there. Smith said he wants to cover them with a mural of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, highlighting a sermon he gave in 1953, “The Eagle Stirs Her Nest.” Smith said he’s trying to secure funding for the project.
“I’d like to put an image of Pastor Franklin up, with a nest with little eaglets in it, and a big eagle over it, and (a caption): ‘New Bethel, where the eagle stirs her nest,’ as a symbol of the renaissance of this community,” Smith said.
The church is in the Detroit Police 10th Precinct’s Scout 7, a 3.75-square-mile area bordered by Clairmont to the north; Grand Boulevard to the south; and the Lodge and Jeffries freeways to the east and west.
Although there have been two more homicides in the area in 2017 than during the same period in 2010, sharp decreases have been recorded in both violent and quality-of-life crimes over the past seven years, according to DPD statistics.
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 18, aggravated assaults in the scout car area fell from 131 in 2010 to 80 during the same period this year; burglaries from 159 to 84; larcenies from 154 to 101; stolen vehicles from 121 to 83; and robberies from 94 to 41. There were three homicides in the area year-to-date in 2010, with five so far this year.
Nick Kyriacou, commanding officer of the 10th Precinct, attributed the reductions to “a blend of different things.”
“We’ve had a couple years of positive effects from the Neighborhood Policing program, which deals with quality-of-life issues, and those issues impact other crimes,” he said.
“A lot of the aggravated assaults you see happen as the result of domestic violence. Whenever we get a domestic violence run, we now have a domestic violence advocate from Americorps (a federal civil service agency), who follows up with services to the victims, and puts them on a path to getting out of those abusive situations. That has helped lower aggravated assaults.”
The police department has contracted Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies to gather and interpret crime data, which is passed on to residents, Kyriacou said.
“We use that data in a community CompStat (computer statistics) meeting, which is in addition to our department-wide CompStat meetings,” he said. “Residents, block clubs and other stakeholders come to the meetings, and we make them aware of crime trends in the area. That gets the community involved with us as a partner.”
Although crime remains a problem, Tony Hanna, owner of the One Stop Market on Linwood, is among those who say they’ve seen improvement in recent years.
“It’s better in every way than it was before: Less crime, not as much drugs, and more police,” said Hanna, whose family has owned the store for 30 years. “The customers who come in aren’t as rowdy as they used to be.”
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. The effort grew into New Bethel Baptist Church.
“This church has helped shaped Detroit through the years,” Smith said.
During the second Great Migration of African Americans to the north in the 1950s and 1960s, Franklin helped transplanted southerners find housing and auto factory jobs.
At the time, New Bethel stood on Hastings Street in the heart of Black Bottom, the near-east side neighborhood that served as the cultural and spiritual center for Detroit’s African Americans before the church, along with most other area structures, was demolished by the city in the early 1960s to make way for Interstates 75 and 375.
In 1963, New Bethel moved to its current location in the old Oriole Theater on Linwood. 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, although the late Recorder’s Court Judge George Crockett showed up at police headquarters and released most of the suspects without a formal hearing. About 500 people later picketed the courthouse. The two men accused of killing Czapski were later acquitted.
In June 1979, a burglar broke into Franklin’s Detroit home and shot him. He died July 27, 1984, after spending five years in a coma.
Terrie Weathers-Henderson, 64, is a lifelong New Bethel member who marched down Woodward with Franklin and King in 1963. She said Smith’s dedication has helped the church survive.
“Through the bad times, Pastor Smith has made sure we stand strong in our faith and commitment to quality of life in this community,” she said. “This is a ministry that’s made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”