It was 1975 when the Rev. John R. Bryant arrived at Bethel AME Church and transformed it into an exemplar of faith-based community activism and development in Baltimore City. He was already an established preacher and went about transforming its worship, infusing it with a neo-pentecostal sensibility that would contribute to Bethel's exponential growth over the course of the next 13 years.
"The AME church was typically a quiet type of a service, very solemn," said Wanda Watts, director of the Wattsline who joined Bethel AME in 1977, "and he changed that with choirs that sang contemporary music, and a different way of praising than AME had been accustomed to."
In addition to introducing a new style of worship, Bryant also instituted a number of important community development programs at Bethel, including a credit union, a food co-op, an investment program, an elementary school, an outreach center, a women's center, and a bookstore.
These programs were, in part, a response to the lack of services available to African-Americans in this period. At a time when most Black people did not have access to traditional lending institutions, Bethel's programs provided an alternative means to home ownership and other forms of wealth building.
Under Bryant's leadership, Bethel was also one of the first churches to become involved in the 'Free South Africa' movement, shedding light on the oppressive apartheid policies, then in place, so reminiscent of the segregationist policies Bryant had fought against in the '60s.
"Bethel was the place to be politically active and involved," said long-time friend, former treasurer of Bethel AME, and chair of the Baltimore/Washington Bryant Legacy Commission, Ronald Flamer. Bethel's new style of worship, along with its political and community activism, exploded its membership. "We went from 300 members to – on the roll – 11,000," Flamer said in an interview with the AFRO.
On June 7, at his alma mater Morgan State University, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum will unveil a wax figure of Bishop Bryant. It will serve as a monument to a lifetime spent pursuing justice in Baltimore City and abroad.
Bryant spent the early '60s studying history at Morgan State University and fighting for integration in Maryland. Bryant participated in freedom rides and civil rights marches, helped integrate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, the movie theater and Woolworth's in Northwood, and was arrested along with 400 others while sitting in at Read's Drug Store in Baltimore, Flamer said.
After graduating from Morgan in 1965, Bryant spent two years in Liberia serving in the Peace Corps, an experience that, along with his activism during the civil rights era, honed Bryant's political and social consciousness, informing the ministry he would eventually bring to Baltimore City.
After serving in Liberia, Bryant moved to Boston to pursue a master's degree at the Boston University School of Theology. While there, he met Cecilia Williams, now Cecilia Williams Bryant and also a minister. They married in 1969.
According to Flamer, "Cecilia was one of the smartest people he had ever met."
Williams Bryant would help her husband with his sermons while he presided over St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, Mass., taking him from "a mediocre preacher," according to Flamer, to a dynamic one.
In 1988, Bryant was consecrated as a bishop in the AME church, the nation's oldest African-American denomination. Bryant is currently the longest serving bishop in the AME church, and five years ago introduced the denomination to India, where there are now over 85 established AME churches.
Bryant also has 99 sons and daughters in the ministry, including Jamal and Thema Bryant, his two children. Topaz Bryant, Bryant's granddaughter through son Jamal, is currently on the ordination track in the AME church as well.
"They call Bishop Bryant the pope of the AME church," said Flamer.
"He's everybody's bishop," said Watts of the man who will soon be immortalized in wax. "If you're Baptist, he's still your bishop."