*(Via Detroit News) Two large-caliber bullet holes mar the outer wall of the New Bethel Baptist Church, symbols of how the once-mighty Detroit institution, like the community around it, has fallen victim to hard times and rampant violence.
New Bethel’s history reads like a chronicle of the city’s up and downs over the past nine decades. Now, the former powerhouse church, like Detroit itself, is struggling to survive a dwindling population, shaky finances, and an onslaught of bloodshed, blight and despair.
“This community is dying out,” said the Rev. Robert Smith Jr. (pictured above), the church’s pastor for 28 years. “We’re doing what we can to keep up hope, but it’s not easy.”
New Bethel’s membership has plunged to about 300, from a high of 10,000 in the 1960s, when the Rev. C.L. Franklin, civil rights leader and father of legendary singer Aretha Franklin, headed the nationally renowned church. The westside neighborhood surrounding the former theater on Linwood has crumbled like so many other Detroit communities. Violence is commonplace.
“We’ve probably had 30 people who’ve lost family members to violence over the past few years, and at least 10 church members have been killed,” Smith said. “In our congregation, violence is just a normal part of life.”
From Nov. 1 to Dec. 8 this year, 474 crimes were reported to police in the two-mile radius around the church, according to Detroit Police statistics. Those included 96 home invasions, 35 armed robberies and 58 assaults. Of the assaults during that period, 21 were with the intent to commit murder.
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