A son builds on legacy of legendary Detroit pastor's work
Some churchgoers believe there are two types of spiritual leaders: preachers, who offer rousing sermons but few personal connections, and pastors, who go beyond Scripture recitations to nurture their flock and community.
In his 50 years heading Detroit’s historic Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, the Rev. Charles Gilchrist Adams embodied both — drawing thousands to its pews with his impassioned messages intoned in a thundering voice, collaborating to help revive the neighborhood as the city rose and fell, even traveling the globe to spread the gospel and witness history.
The Michigan native's pursuits — decrying discrimination at home and abroad, buying land to spark redevelopment and job creation in Detroit, launching services to aid seniors, children and families in need — have made him an internationally renowned religious leader. Hailed in Ebony magazine as among the nation’s greatest black preachers and most influential African Americans, Adams has spoken before the United Nations, met with U.S. presidents and earned many honors.
And to countless parishioners, the man "who was born to be a minister" remains an unforgettable figure whose efforts inspire them to help pull up others.
Now, Hartford is transitioning into a new chapter without its longest-serving leader at the pulpit. Adams, only the third pastor in the church’s history, officially retired this month.
The 82-year-old’s son and former co-pastor, the Rev. Charles Christian Adams, succeeds him and vows to continue his father's works and more.
“My father did groundbreaking work … I’m humbled to be a part of that line, and I know that there are great expectations to move the church upward and onward yet still maintain its character and its activity in the life of the city and beyond,” the 53-year-old said.
The younger Adams, who has preached across the country as well as abroad as well, intends to figuratively fill his father’s robes by expanding church outreach and its affiliated services, furthering economic development and connecting with Detroiters as well as suburban residents.
Though many members say they'll miss their longtime leader, they hope his heir’s tenure is just as fruitful. “We’re looking forward to new growth and new possibilities under his leadership,” said John Bradley, a deacon who joined Hartford in the 1980s. “There are brighter days ahead.”
A church trustee who started attending in the late '70s called Adams "a very community-led person who took care of his people.
“He gave from his heart, he loved people and he showed his love and his caring with everybody he came in touch with," Audrey LaSalle-Brown said. "It was just amazing how the man could do so many things.”
His journey started promisingly.
Charles G. Adams, whose recent health issues have limited his availability, grew up in Hartford Memorial, considered the first church for blacks on the city’s northwest side, and gravitated toward proselytizing even as a youth.
“He used to try to preach in the garage and have an audience of other children,” said Eleanor Foster, 98, a longtime family friend and the church’s oldest member. “I think he was born to be a minister.”
Adams went on to graduate from the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School and was a doctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary in New York before spending about seven years presiding over Concord Baptist Church in Massachusetts.
His appointment as Hartford’s pastor in 1969 marked a seismic transformation for the house of worship.
Besides expanding programs, the gifted orator attracted many more congregants with his sermons, delivered in a sonorous voice that distilled biblical concepts into easily digestible stories.
“Rev. Adams was such a powerful preacher. People were coming from all over to hear him,” recalled church historian Anita Moncrease, a retired physician who has attended Harford for more than 50 years. "He was able to bring in people young and old."
Membership ballooned so much, the church moved to a larger building near the Lodge Freeway in the late 1970s.
In the next decade, Adams, who became the Detroit Branch NAACP president, famously led a successful boycott against Dearborn businesses to protest the city’s policies barring non-residents from its parks — a practice he and others viewed as discriminatory. Under Adams, the NAACP went to court and the measure was overturned, Hartford Memorial officials said.
“He showed his leadership and he just stepped forward,” LaSalle-Brown said. “Whatever Charles G. Adams did, people followed him.”
Hartford also launched initiatives such as a Head Start program, tutoring and other help for residents. In a bid to lure more jobs, the church’s economic development group acquired nearby land that paved the way for retailers such as The Home Depot to open.
“Those things required vision,” said Bill Pickard, a longtime member and businessman. “He was always a visionary leader.”
In recent years, Adams led a partnership with the Presbyterian Villages of Michigan to launch a senior community, Hartford Village.
His son plans to find ways to expand that property as well as launch a credit union branch off Seven Mile, he said.
Meanwhile, Hartford is working to refurbish a nearby park it acquired from the city while the congregation expects to continue offering scholarships, helping parents and job seekers, as well as further a social justice ministry, son Charles C. Adams said.
“Community resources is a big part of who we are,” said Adams, who has served as first vice president of the Michigan Progressive Baptist Convention. “What we want to do is be an anchor in the neighborhoods.”
Another holdover from the older Adams’ pastoral career: interfaith and interdenominational connections.
Hartford members are training ministers statewide in leadership and have been coordinating a cooperative program with Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, his son said.
"My father was really big on city-suburb relations. He felt at times we were too segregated in our worship and working together for common pursuits," he said. "My father’s vision was that these walls that divide us be torn down.”
The elderAdams, a former Progressive National Baptist Convention president who has taught at Harvard, has won numerous accolades for his efforts.
The Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan has named him a Distinguished Warrior. Last spring, he received the Detroit Branch NAACP James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Every now and then we have an opportunity to experience a grand master in motion," said the group's president, the Rev. Wendell Anthony. "Charles Adams indeed provides us with such an experience. The Bible tells us “how shall we know unless we hear it from a preacher”... Dr. Adams made certain that we heard through his powerful words, prescriptive writing and perceptive theology. He was in an era of preachers that magnified the power and prominence of a mighty God."
Church members acknowledge imitating a man of such a stature is a challenging feat.
They fondly remember a man who pushed for more women in ministry, publicly criticized South African apartheid, arranged to pay civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ rent and punctuated a speech at her 2005 funeral by reciting “thank you” in multiple languages.
He was so popular, congregations throughout the nation routinely invited Adams to speak, and his sermons — full of distinct cadences and rhyming phrases that gained him the nickname the “Harvard Hooper” — have been published or circulated in videos online.
Though esteemed enough to accompany President Bill Clinton for the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty or meet President Barack Obama at the White House, the pastor still counseled parishioners facing crippling illness or visited those unable to attend worship services.
“He just exuded excellence at all times,” said Craig Vanderburg, a longtime member. “He could really appeal to all sorts of people.”
So far, Charles C. Adams has embraced his father’s dedication to doctrine as well as social justice, which guide his strategies to boast membership — which now numbers about 7,000 — at a time when churches across southeast Michigan face declining membership.
A cornerstone, he said, is demonstrating biblical principles in a modern context.
“The church is still relevant,” Adams said. “There are those who say that the church has seen its glory days and the best days are behind us. But as we advance as a society and with technology and information, the church is needed today as much as it has ever been in the past.”
The need for spiritual fulfillment on display Sunday morning, when hundreds filled Hartford's main hall to worship, swaying beneath chandeliers as the choir sang hymns of gratitude in red-and-white robes.
In opening remarks, the guest speaker, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus for Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, called the retired Adams a mentor and noted his absence at the pulpit. "It feels very strange" without him there, he told the crowd.
Congregants noted the new pastor has been transitioning into his role for some time and absorbed his father's style.
"It’s just the same flow," said Teri Anderson, a lifelong attendee who travels from Westland to worship each week. "No change."
Leah Harlan's family has attended Hartford so long she is a fifth-generation member and her young children, Matthew and Mary, are the sixth.
Charles G. Adams "was our backbone, our foundation," she said, but his son is skilled at appealing to a different generation.
"He’s going to be bringing in more young people," she said as her son and daughter frolicked on the church's front steps. "We’re going to make Hartford new again."