Two influential Black churches – one young and the other seasoned – will unveil additional worship branches on Easter Sunday, continuing a trend for Black churches to expand.

The 225-year-old Bethel A.M.E Church will premiere a companion location in Owings Mills Sunday at 11:30 a.m., and the fresh-faced, 11-year-old Empowerment Temple will debut a second site on Braddish Avenue at 1:30 p.m.

Bethel A.M.E. has owned 250 acres of land in Baltimore County since 1999, but its grand opening has been throttled after 10 years of litigation with nearby residents, who contested the congregation moving to their neighborhood, said the Rev. Dr. Frank Reid, senior pastor at Bethel A.M.E.

Legal battles aside, Rev. Reid says the church is ready to extend its outreach to the county corridor. They’ll hold services in suite 219 of an office complex at 10989 Red Run Blvd.

Fifty-five percent of Bethel’s 12,000 members already live in Baltimore County, he noted.

“Baltimore is as much a region as it is a city. A lot of African Americans have left Baltimore City but they have not left Maryland; they went to the county. And we see ourselves as a regional church,” he said.

After over a century of worshipping first in meeting house, then at an old German Lutheran Church on what is now Saratoga Street, Bethel A.M.E. purchased the site at 1300 Druid Hill Avenue in 1910 for $19,000. News outlets called the property purchase one of the “largest real estate transactions by coloreds.”

Rev. Reid said he is contemplating a move to East Baltimore or an Eastern County next year to ensure Bethel is “accessible from all areas.”

“If we are going to be a strong influence in Maryland, churches must expand,” he said.

He affirms that the same leadership will preside in both branches. “We are now one church in two locations. That is the key. … We’ll never leave the city.”

Beginning Sunday, service will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Druid Hill location and at 11:30 a.m. at the new place of worship on Red Run Boulevard. Within a few months, Rev. Reid expects to stream services live from the Owings Mills site. Druid Hill services are already available online through “Bethel TV.”

While it is important for Rev. Reid to propel his congregation to Baltimore County residents, the Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Empowerment Temple said he has “made a commitment … to remain and grow around the city.”

It is as crucial as ever for churches to be visual and vocal in crime-ridden, unemployed or underemployed cities, he contended. “The trend with mega churches is for most to move their ministries to the county,” he said. “But we want to revitalize the city.”

Empowerment Temple’s new location at 851 Braddish Avenue is also the site of the pre-k through 8th grade charter school the church has managed for seven years.

Rev. Bryant said the surrounding community will continue to thrive with influence from a faith institution because a “great number of young adults there have traditionally been unchurched.”

“Easter marks new beginnings and a new life … and we are branching a new life in Baltimore,” he said.

A former youth operations director for the NAACP, Rev. Bryant began hosting Bible studies in his living room in 1999 with just 17 supporters. By the time he opened the doors of Empowerment Temple on Easter Sunday in 2000, he had 300 parishioners.

After stints at Walbrook Senior High School, Coppin State University and other sites, the church settled at its current location at 1417 Primrose Avenue. The ballooning congregation even has a sister church in Liberia.

On Sundays, three services will be held at the main site on Primrose Avenue – 7:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. – and a 1:30 service will commence at the new branch on Braddish Avenue.

A national movement is brewing for Black churches to expand, but some have shuttered their city locations to open county sites. Several Black congregations have closed their Washington D.C. buildings to move to Prince George’s county, contributing to a demographic shift in the district, Rev. Reid said. “Chocolate City is quickly becoming vanilla,” he said. “As wise people, we have to learn from our mistakes.”

Harold McDougall, Howard University law professor and author of “Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community,” which included a section about Baltimore’s Black churches, said faith organizations can serve “cross-class, inter-class integration” roles if they have multiple branches with roots in cities.

“The Black church is one of the few remaining grass-roots organizations in the Black community, so the more locations they have, the better, provided that they have an organic connection with each community in which they locate,” he said in a statement to the cAFRO.

Said Rev. Reid, “At the end of the day, what people are learning is that the church is no longer a building. That’s what these expansions and new locations are saying. It’s not about a building; this is about having sites where the people are and where their needs are met.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO