By Rev. Dorothy S. Boulware, Special to the AFRO

When Karen Stanley was only 17, she was called to preach. But she first felt the pull of God when she saw the face of sadness at Lexington Market at 11 years old.

“I didn’t know what it was, couldn’t have put words to it, but I felt that man’s sadness and I knew what I was feeling was from God.”

That was just the beginning of feelings from God.

The Rev. Dr. Karen S. Bethea and first gentleman, Linwood Bethea in the church office. (Courtesy Photo)

She envisioned herself as a traveling evangelist and was shocked when the images of her as a pastor began to break through. “I was teaching at Woodlawn Middle School when God gave me that vision. It really wasn’t something I yearned for.”

And now she’s feeling overwhelmed by the grace and provision of God, as she rounds out 20 years of pastoral ministry at Set the Captives Free, in Millford Mill.

The Rev. Dr. Karen Bethea and her husband, Pastor Linwood Bethea, director of facilities management, have established a holistic place, a church where people’s “spiritual needs and emotional needs are met.”

“We deal with everyday things people deal with in their lives and we tell it like it is,” Rev. Bethea told the AFRO. She feels this is why people come and her congregation continues to grow.

“We have seen too many leaving worship with their real needs unmet.” More than anything they’ve always wanted STCF to be a place where people feel safe to bare themselves, if necessary, to become really free.

“We’ve had Sisters Together and Reaching (STAR) come to do HIV/AIDS testing, and Linwood and I were tested first in front of the congregation. That made people feel safe, but also generated the need for accountability, so many of them were tested also,” Rev. Bethea said.

They’ve also had a panel of therapists to address mental illness to dispel myths that seem to prevent African Americans from seeking the help they need.

“We show people what needs to be done; we don’t just talk about it.”

And their reality persists with altar calls for those entrapped in fornication, those who are feeling depressed or feeling the need to commit suicide.

“You can go to church, you can love Jesus, and still have a therapist,” she said.

This works for the 1500 families that belong to Set the Captives Free, the sanctuary of which currently seats 1200 worshippers. This also catapults STCF forward with an exciting model of ministry.

“Our staff had been praying with us for space to accommodate more worship space and a sizable community center. Seems we were praying for different manifestations,” Rev. Bethea said. “While I was praying for just that, literally, they were praying for a business model I couldn’t comprehend; worship space on one floor and businesses on another, the rent from whom would pay our mortgage.”

The answer to their prayer came in the form of the Outreach, Worship and Education (O.W.E.) Center STCF currently owns and is renovating in the former Seoul Plaza of Security Square Mall in Woodlawn. And she doesn’t mind admitting it was the staff’s prayer that was answered.

“No indeed. I didn’t get it until later. I just couldn’t see it as they saw, and I’m glad they were persistent in their prayers.

The administrative offices of the church, a hair salon and spa and an adoption agency are already in place, in anticipation of a grand opening and ribbon cutting in September. The Baltimore County Health Department that is currently on the first floor of the Woodlawn Library is also a confirmed future tenant.

“We are building a community center the people can be proud of,” she said. “We’ve done this whole thing by faith that if you trust God and listen to him, things will work out well.”

Things have apparently done just that on their behalf.

When they gather this weekend, they’ll celebrate Rev. Bethea’s 60th birthday along with her 40th year of ministry, and 20 years as a pastor.

Not on this list, but excelling them all, is that she and her husband have been married for 38 “beautiful” years and have two children and two grandchildren.

“Young single people shouldn’t be too picky, but they also shouldn’t settle for whoever comes along. Just wait and stay open to what God has for them.”