Rev. Jamal H. Bryant
For the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, the call to social activism and service is like a fire shut up in his bones – something intrinsic and undeniable. “It is something that really has become part of my DNA,” said Bryant.
For the 42-year-old Baltimore pastor, serving the community – whether directly through his Empowerment Temple church, or by crusading nationally to effect some needed change – is as much a part of his calling to ministry as is preaching the gospel. It is the same kind of “liberation theology” espoused by icons of the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Especially for a Black clergy, I don’t think you have an option,” he said of pursuing a ministry that empowers people who are oppressed. “The role of the clergy is really to inform the community what is taking place, what is our value, what is our stake in the game, as well as to inspire, to say this is achievable . . ., that Black people have never gone to battle and lost,” Bryant added. “Everything we’ve fought for in America we’ve gotten, it’s just what we do after the victory that has really put us at a disadvantage.”
It is for this dedication to service that The AFRO American Newspaper will be honoring Rev. Bryant Oct. 7 with its John H. Murphy Sr. Award, named in honor of the company’s founder, a former slave who exemplified strong character, unwavering courage, and a commitment to the community.
“It means absolutely the world to me. I’m humbled by it,” said Bryant of the recognition.
This is not the first time – and likely not the last – the minister has been recognized for his work, particularly in his role as a conciliator in communities plagued by violence.
Bryant’s work in conflict-resolution and other community problem-solving began even before he became a pastor. “I was the national youth and college director of the NAACP at the height of the rap West Coast-East Coast rivalry when Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace Biggie Smalls were killed. And I pulled together a hip-hop summit between East and West Coast rap artists trying to see what we could do to bridge the divide and broker some peace,” Bryant recalled.
Frustratingly, however, Black-on-Black crime continues to be a scourge on urban communities like Baltimore. “The normalization of Black-on-Black crime is to such degree that we’re no longer impacted or affected. We just move on as if we just heard on the news the weather report,” Bryant said.
Extrajudicial violence against African Americans also continues to be a problem, as evidenced in the February 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by community watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., and the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by White police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.
Bryant serves as a spiritual mentor to both families and added his voice to the thousands of others seeking justice in both cases. He is working with Martin’s family and Florida U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D) to develop a “Trayvon Martin bill” addressing racial profiling, the prison pipeline system, and other issues.
“I am hopeful and optimistic that this will be ground zero of a new civil rights movement,” Bryant said of the protests in Ferguson. “For two weeks over 2,000 young people were up at night, protesting and marching even in the face of riot gear and tanks and tear gas.
“Ordinarily,that would be the end of it. To have that kind of consistency, I have not seen it in my lifetime and I’m excited about it.”
The Ferguson, Mo., protests, Bryant said, has seen the emergence of new leadership voices, and it’s the first cause of such magnitude which hasn’t had a national voice—usually a Black pastor—attached to it.
It is one sign of a kind of “new-school” activism, Bryant said, that also involves vehicles such as theColorofChange.org, which can collect upwards of a million signatures in support of myriad issues and other cyberactivism, such as what Anonymous did in shutting downthe network of the Ferguson Police Department.
“Then there’s an area that we have underutilized for this generation which is economic mobilization,” the soldier-minister said. “What we do to get these corporations’ attention is not marching, but marching away from the cash register. That is an area that has been gravely ignored but highly needs to be exploited.”
Still, Bryant said, the old-school ways of social protest and activism – such as marching, which some have denigrated as being ineffective – remain viable. “If you would remember, initially, George Zimmerman was not even arrested,” Bryant said. “They talked to him then sent him home with a Coke and a smile. It was not until we began to march and to really blow the horn that America paid attention and said this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Such approaches has been replicated time and again by the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, the immigration movement, labor unions and so on. “I think every organization or cause has taken a page from our book; we’re the only ones trying to throw that book away,” Bryant added.
Next week, the AFRO delves more into Rev. Bryant’s spiritual journey and ministry.