Indelible in Every Sector: Reflections on T. Allen Bethel’s Impact on Church and Society
By Carl Stagner
Most ministers of the gospel have had notable influence on their church. Many have also had positive effect on their local community. But few have made a mark across all sectors of society. Rev. Dr. T. Allen Bethel was one of those remarkably rare leaders whose unmistakably Christlike character and widespread life’s work transcended traditional lines separating church, state, business, and academia. Though the chapters of his active leadership in the Church of God, higher education, and civil rights ceased being written in December 2020, T. Allen Bethel’s legacy continues to add volumes to the ever-unfolding story of bringing God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The flag at City Hall isn’t flown at half-staff for everyone who passes away in a prominent city, but it was for T. Allen Bethel. Though born in South Carolina, and having served as senior pastor for congregations in Boston, Massachusetts, and Kansas City, Kansas, Bethel served the last twenty-six years of his life and ministry in the Pacific Northwest. From 1994 until his retirement in 2020, he pastored Maranatha Church in Portland, Oregon, but he was known for much more than his gifts of preaching and shepherding. T. Allen Bethel had a heart for people, whether they were in the pew or the pool hall on Sunday morning. As an outflow of his love for God and neighbor, his involvement in public policy, education, and the advancement of civil rights was a personal priority.
The highly educated pastor, whose numerous degrees would have been sufficient for a ministry limited to the pulpit, could not be content with mere accumulation and transmission of information. In the midst of his studies, and while pastoring and working part-time jobs to support his family, T. Allen Bethel found a way to put his faith into action outside the four walls of the church. While pastor of Shawmut Community Church of God in Boston, he joined, and ultimately chaired, a task force under then Governor Michael Dukakis to redevelop parcels of land taken through eminent domain for highway construction. Multiple urban renewal projects were started and completed under Bethel’s leadership, while it only expanded to include prison chaplaincy. To this day, those local communities are far better off because of the major reforms T. Allen Bethel brought to Boston.
On the West Coast, Bethel’s impact would prove to be no less indelible. Recognizing the need for Black pastors to speak into the future of his new community, T. Allen Bethel joined, and soon became president of, the Albina Ministerial Alliance. Under his leadership, the AMA not only fostered reforms in policies concerning health care, education, and childcare, but also racial justice. His advocacy for civil rights advancement touched every level of Portland society, and he represented Jesus exceptionally well as he served on numerous boards, including, but not limited to, the American Red Cross, the Oregon League of Minority Voters, and Warner Pacific College (now University). It’s no wonder Bishop Timothy J. Clarke, chair of the General Assembly of the Church of God, described his close friend Tony as a “renaissance man.”
Clarke, who delivered the eulogy at T. Allen Bethel’s Celebration of Life and Legacy, remembers his friend as a family man. Bethel loved his family dearly, and proved it over and over in the ways he cared for them in times of grief and loss. His other family—the congregation he led—were also beneficiaries of such devotion. “Both in Boston at Shawmut Avenue and in Portland at Maranatha,” Clarke recounts, “I preached multiple revivals for Tony, and I watched firsthand his pastoral leadership, his care and his concern for the congregations he served, for his people.”
Clarke would be remiss not to mention Bethel’s vast influence in the National Association of the Church of God. Even as T. Allen Bethel’s health was failing, Clarke notes the resilient endurance of his friend in helping to revise NACOG’s constitution. Clarke goes on to cite Bethel’s impact on international missions, ecumenical engagement, and civic affairs.
The vitality of the church in the eyes of civic leaders is evidence of the church being salt and light in its community. In whichever community T. Allen Bethel lived and worked, the public knew of his local impact. In Portland, for instance, the comments of two public officials demonstrate Bethel’s reputation for making their community a better place to live. In response to Bethel’s passing, Mayor Ted Wheeler said, “Dr. Bethel’s legacy and vision will carry on for generations because he was an influential leader who built bridges across differences, envisioned solutions to our city’s challenges, and invited and challenged all of us in enhancing and enforcing civil rights protections for all.”
The US Attorney for the District of Oregon, Billy Williams, described Bethel as a “true civil rights icon.” He further explained that “People listened when he spoke because of his impeccable character, poise, and passion for change.”
T. Allen Bethel clearly had a passion for change, even influencing change in the trajectory and identity of Warner Pacific University, which would ultimately be one of the institutions that awarded him with an honorary doctorate. Those who have followed Warner Pacific University’s recent history are aware of its commitment not only to diversity, but also to the city in which God has providentially placed it. These emphases trace their roots to the work of Rev. Dr. T. Allen Bethel. Dr. Andrea Cook, then president of the school, explains.
“Rev. Bethel’s service on the Warner Pacific Board of Trustees came at a critical moment in the institution’s history as we examined the direction of its mission and calling to serve the city. Dr. Bethel admonished the board and the leadership of the institution to intentionally lean into its responsibility to provide educational opportunities in an inclusive and equitable manner to diverse students who have been historically underserved by higher education. Rev. Bethel’s clear challenge for Warner Pacific to be “in the city and for the city” prompted the institution to take on this charge to adapt and change, leading the way for it to become the most diverse higher education institution in the state of Oregon….”
In every sector of society, Rev. Dr. T. Allen Bethel’s influence was clear—and lives on beyond his life with us. His actions, motivated by who he was, changed hearts and minds, and launched projects and altered trajectories that continue to affect the Church of God and the culture to this day. These will no doubt live on, as Ben Sand observes. Ben, the CEO of The Contingent, has become widely known across the Church of God movement in recent years for coming alongside both Warner Pacific University and Church of God Ministries with Jesus-centered, strategic counsel and encouragement. Ben also considered Bethel a mentor.
“Anyone who has spent time observing the role the faith community plays in creating, constructing, and critiquing civic life in Portland knows that the leader of all leaders was Dr. T. Allen Bethel,” Ben reflects. “Dr. Bethel was a lion of a man who shined light in dark spaces—refusing to back down from what he knew was right for children and families. Dr. Bethel’s loss for the city of Portland is a loss that cannot be overcome by one person. The good news is that Dr. Bethel inspired a network of leaders who will carry his legacy as a group of people committed to created beloved community in the city we love.”
Read the Rev. Dr. T. Allen Bethel’s obituary at https://www.terryfamilyfuneralhome.com/obituary/DrTAllen-Bethel.
Feature (top) photo courtesy Leah Nash.