New Bethel Baptist, Detroit Church Once Led by Father of Aretha Franklin, Sees Signs of Renewed Life

New Bethel Baptist Church
New Bethel Baptist Church

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.”

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SOURCE: George Hunter
The Detroit News