Members, visitors gather at New Bethel to remember Aretha Franklin

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Avis Doughton, 52, of Detroit and a life long member of New Bethel Baptist church sings and worship during the sermon by the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Sunday at New Bethel Baptist Church.

Detroit — Members of New Bethel Baptist and visitors gathered to remember the church's most famous daughter, Aretha Franklin, during Sunday service just days after her death.

Guests who filled the pews got two sermons, one by former Detroit police Chief Ralph Godbee, who is a minister, and the other by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Franklin's visiting from Chicago.

The memorial in honor of Aretha Franklin  outside New Bethel Baptist Church.

The Rev. Robert Smith Jr., the church's pastor, sang a number of selections but let his guests do the talking as hundreds gathered to pay their respects to the Queen of Soul.

“It’s a happy day and a sad day,” said Smith. “We’re sad that Aretha is gone from our sight. But we’re happy she’s freed from the shackles of time.”

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Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Godbee had earlier been invited to deliver the Sunday sermon despite the events of the week.  The media joined a stream of first-time visitors and longtime members to fill most of the pews in the large sanctuary.

Godbee, who was just hired as the new police chief of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, recalled a phone call he got during his tenure as Detroit's police chief.

It was the Queen of Soul herself. And it was not a social call.

Minister Sandrea Bell of Detroit prays during the sermon by the Rev. Jesse Jackson

A relative of Franklin’s has been treated roughly in an encounter with one of Godbee’s officers — until they mentioned their connection to the singer. 

“Then, they straightened up and flew right,” Godbee recalls.

Franklin, “freedom fighter she was,” Godbee said, was not just angry that a family member had been treated poorly — but that anyone had been, regardless of their affiliations. 

“I’ve never been so excited to be cursed out,” Godbee said.

'She was raised in the struggle'

Jackson, who arrived at the church after 11 a.m. and went straight to the pulpit, spoke so quietly during his opening prayer that many in the audience shouted they couldn't hear him.

Jackson's message centered around a question: "How do you sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

It was a walk through more than 75 years of American history, a tale of how Franklin's life and times inspired not only the singing voice known by the world, but the political and social voice who spoke up for the mistreated.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson gives a sermon  in honor of his longtime friend Aretha Franklin at New Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday.

Jackson noted that Franklin's final concert was an AIDS benefit with Elton John in New York City. 

"She couldn't gain a pound," Jackson said. "But here was this sick woman singing for sick people."

Franklin, Jackson said, grew up in a time when lynchings were common. She was 13 when Emmett Till was killed, allegedly for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Franklin was 22 before she was able to vote. 

"She was raised in the struggle," Jackson said. 

Jackson lamented the current state of music, and questioned whether music like Franklin's, were it made today, would get the attention it did then.

"She never degraded women with the B-word," Jackson said, noting that music that doesn't is increasingly "isolated" from radio play now. "She never used the N-word in a record. You never adjust to degradation."

Jackson noted the streets honoring Franklin's name in Detroit and guessed that before long, schools like the University of Michigan or Michigan State University might want to name their music schools for Franklin. That speculation led him to wonder why she wasn't offered a singing scholarship, back in her youth. 

"How do you make it against all odds?" Jackson asked. "You use excellence as a weapon."

'Homecoming Picnic'

 In many ways, the Sunday service at the church where Franklin's father, C.L., was the pastor from 1946-79 was like any other.

Six Sunday school classes went on simultaneously in the sanctuary, as they normally would. 

Many people were getting things right for the church’s Homecoming Picnic, which took place after the 10 a.m. service, across the street in the church parking lot. The picnic has been a New Bethel tradition for 18 years.

After the service, Tanya Wingfield and Sharon Willis, friends from Atlanta who were in town on business, traded phones and traded places as both posed individually for photos in front of the memorial on Philadelphia.

They wanted to find some way to honor Franklin and decided on the church. 

“It was so important today to show our respects,” said Willis, 57. “Everybody loves her, and everybody loved her music. I had to get down here.”

“Her music is so inspiring and uplifting,” said Wingfield, 46. “It uplifts and transforms you and makes you feel as though you know her.”

Public viewing and funeral service

Franklin will lie in repose 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 28 and Aug. 29 at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, located at 315 E. Warren in Detroit.

Her funeral will be 10 a.m. Aug. 31 at Greater Grace Temple, 23500 W. Seven Mile in Detroit, and will be limited to family and friends.