The Rev. Wendell Anthony marks 35th anniversary leading Detroit's Fellowship Chapel

Mark Hicks Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

In February 1987, the Rev. Wendell Anthony officially was installed as the second senior pastor in the history of Detroit’s Fellowship Chapel.

Since then, he and his church have become some of the most prominent, well-connected and influential icons in the city.

Both institutions have become so renowned for their efforts to boost the community, promote social justice and extend outreach, some residents joke others can hardly launch a political campaign or charitable effort in Detroit without heading to Anthony or his congregation.

“He’s a giant,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, a longtime member and president of the Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education. “He has the pulse of the community.”

To toast that legacy, supporters launched what is expected to be a year-long celebration of Anthony’s 35th pastoral anniversary.

On Sunday morning, guests gathered for a special worship service at his west-side church, presenting him with proclamations and commending his decades of service as a faith leader and activist.

"Even as a local church you have been blessed with a global leader," said pastor  Jamal H. Bryant of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, the guest speaker for the standing-room-only service.

Anthony, 72, a Missouri native, moved to Detroit as a child and joined in activism as far back as high school. He was ordained as Fellowship’s first associate pastor in 1983. The certified social worker considered its leader, the Rev. James Wadsworth Jr., who founded the church in 1966, a mentor. 

Anthony succeeded Wadsworth after his death and soon steered the church to unseen levels. 

Under his guidance and famed preaching style, Fellowship experienced the greatest growth in its history, leading to a relocation to the current, larger site on Outer Drive, where attendance has swelled with prominent professionals in the pews.

Anthony, also the leader of the Detroit Branch NAACP for nearly 30 years, is credited with expanding Fellowship's ministries and outreach, including establishing the James E. Wadsworth Jr. Community Center, which has had programs such as adult education, homeless assistance, tutoring and music lessons.

He has also founded the nonprofit Amandla Community Development Corp. and the Freedom Institute for Economic, Social Justice and People Empowerment.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony’s wife, Monica Anthony, speaks in praise and appreciation of her husband during his 35th pastoral anniversary service at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit on Sunday, February 27, 2022.

Fellowship Chapel first lady Monica Anthony presided over the presentation of proclamations praising Anthony from the city of Detroit, the Detroit branch NAACP, the Detroit Public School Community District, Black Family Development and other organizations and institutions reflecting the broad range of Anthony's influence across Metro Detroit. 

“It is rare in this current climate to have a leader who remains committed, devoted and consistent to serving the people," she said. "My husband is a man of integrity, vision and service.

Guest Pastor Jamal H. Bryant of New Birth Missonary Baptist Church of Lithonia, Georgia, delivers the sermon during the 35th pastoral anniversary worship service for the Rev. Wendell Anthony.

"We want Reverend Anthony to know how much we appreciate his steadfastness to being the visionary leader of our church and guiding us on our spiritual journey.”

The Sunday service featured the 35th Anniversary Choir, which provided spirit-filled renditions of "We've Come This Far By Faith,"  "I'm available to You" and the special hymn "Blessed Assurance." 

Members of the Fellowship's youth group, Soul-Lit, praised Anthony for his guidance, for teaching them to "follow their dreams and never give up," and "being able to stand in the face of adversity." 

The youth also performed a dance to a backdrop of songs, such as "A Change is Gonna Come," and recorded speeches by former President Barak Obama and the Rev. Martin Luther King, that reflected the Black community's historic and continued journey through slavery to freedom. 

The Rev. Wendell Anthony’s youngest daughter, Weneelaya Anthony, 10, puts the microphone back on its stand after giving a short speech in tribute to her father during his 35th pastoral anniversary service at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit on Sunday, February 27, 2022.

Those who have sought inspiration or mentoring from Anthony see marking the milestone as fitting and necessary.

“He’s been an advocate for those who are often overlooked,” said Yvette McElroy Anderson, field director for the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee that emerged through Anthony’s work and his church. “He’s been a champion for the voiceless, and his leadership and his advocacy has been based on principle and not what’s popular.”

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel and Detroit Branch NAACP president, listens to guest Pastor Jamal H. Bryant deliver the sermon during his 35th pastoral anniversary worship service at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit on Sunday, February 27, 2022.

As Anthony transformed the Detroit Branch NAACP, which also drawn more members under his leadership, and his stature grew through many affiliations, he commanded the church to uplift those in need.

He estimates hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships were granted, and fondly recalls helping bring Nelson Mandela to Detroit as well as rallying congregants and working with former Gov. John Engler and U.S. Rep. John Conyers to deliver relief to Rwanda in the 1990s.

Another achievement was founding a health clinic in Ghana in 1996. In recent years, the church has hosted high-profile politicians, a public meeting for Michigan's redistricting commission and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“We’ve done so much and I had a congregation that is second to none,” Anthony said. “I’ve always believed that the church is more than Sunday worship, the church is what you do in the community and what you do with your worship. That’s why we’ve had the programs and emphasis we’ve had.”

Detroit City Council president Mary Sheffield called Anthony "an example of excellence."

“Reverend Anthony’s dedication to people is undeniable. He has set the blueprint for leaders not only in our city but across the U.S.; he is pillar of hope, progression, truth, equity, and equality," Sheffield said. 

Peterson-Mayberry first was inspired to join the church more than 25 years ago when spotting the strength of its youth ministry and applauds Anthony’s initiatives both at the pulpit and in the streets. She recalls him joining the push to launch the Connected Futures project, which provided local students with computer tablets, and consistently mobilizing voters in elections.

“He’s very influential because of his connections and his knowledge and his experiences doing this work for so long,” she said.

Anthony also has strived to mentor youths and has inspired those such as Jeremiah Wright, 24, who grew up in the church.

Anthony’s wife, Monica, who chairs the committee organizing the anniversary events, agreed. She cites the Fellowship motto as “the church of the people where the people are the church.”

Anthony said he remains energized to tackle more challenges to keep the church “relevant and progressive and true to its mission” in the face of voting rights and environmental issues and calls to reform law enforcement.

“I often say it’s not my political activity that determines my spiritual activity but spirituality that determines my political activity,” he said.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN