We recently learned of the death of Carl E. Bielby, in April 2021. Rev. Bielby, the founder of the Michigan Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, was a larger-than-life character who had numerous careers, all of them ultimately in service of justice and compassion.
Bielby was born in a suburb of Detroit and grew up Methodist. He played clarinet and later said, “Music was my first calling.” During high school, he moved with his family into a diverse neighborhood of Detroit. As a teen he had a born-again experience; he felt called to ministry, and he organized a revival meeting on a truck bed and played cornet with a group called Voices of Christian Youth. He attended conservative schools–Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky–but not without rebelling against their more fundamentalist teachings. He studied counseling psychology, and counseling was what he really wanted to do.
After graduation, he served as associate minister at First Methodist in Owosso, Michigan, and DJ’d a religious radio show. He became solo minister at Asbury Methodist Church on Grand Avenue in Detroit, where his mission was to liberalize and integrate the church. His mentor was the Black minister of a nearby Methodist church. His marriage to his high school sweetheart broke up, and although the bishop disapproved of a divorced clergyman, he was called as co-pastor to a church in Warren, Michigan. He continued to study Methodist theology and pastoral counseling, and took classes at the Merrill-Palmer Institute on marriage, family, and human sexuality.
Eventually Bielby wanted to leave church-based ministry and became head of the marriage and family life department at the Metropolitan Detroit Council of Churches. It was in 1967, during his time there, that he became a founding member of the Michigan Council for the Study of Abortion, based at the University of Michigan. A public health professor from that group urged Bielby to start a Michigan Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, and Bielby went to New York to learn how from Rev. Howard Moody. Then, Bielby said, he and other clergy met with Michigan State Police representatives to ask them, “How can we do this so that you can’t arrest us?” Bielby observed a Chicago doctor as he performed abortions, and when he returned to Detroit, he actually taught the technique to a prominent gynecologist and helped him to set up an illegal abortion practice in an apartment building.
What Bielby saw as necessary, he accomplished. He left Detroit and worked at other nonprofits, did career counseling–including for clergy who wanted to change careers– went into advertising and promotion, and later started the Redeem the Dream Foundation, which served young musicians. We don’t even know all that he did–he was a man of many interests and talents and enthusiasms. We are grateful for the abortion work that he did, and for his sharing his memories with us.
His July 17 memorial service may be viewed on Carl Bielby’s Facebook page. We extend our sincere condolences to all of his family and friends.