Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant
For the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, the call to ministry was not heralded by a booming voice from heaven or even a still, small voice. Instead, it came from the satiric wit of a popular comedian-slash-activist. “When I tell people I got my call to ministry from Dick Gregory they laugh,” Bryant said.
Then-director of the NAACP Youth and College Division, Bryant said he was at an NAACP convention, where Gregory, the guest speaker, said something very critical. “He said that during the 1960s when Black people were in trouble they called on Jesus and the NAACP and that we’re now part of a generation that doesn’t know Jesus and they’re not members of the NAACP,” Bryant recalled. “I grew up in the church, but I had never heard it in that context. And it really jarred me . . . and I really sensed that that was where my assignment was – to merge the spiritual and the social . . ., starting a church that would be socially relevant but spiritually grounded.”
The church was always in Bryant’s blood – literally – having come from a ministerial legacy that was both a gift and a burden. “I see myself more as a prodigal son,” the 42-year-old said. “I knew I had a call my whole life, but because I knew the family legacy – my father was in ministry, my grandfather was in ministry, my mother was in ministry, my aunt was in ministry . . . – I was sort of running in the opposite direction.
“My whole life I swore two things: One, I would never pastor. And two, God knows I would never live in Baltimore. You could see how that ended for me, I’m right here in the place I never thought I would be.”
While Bryant sought to avoid his calling, it was something absorbed into his being through the examples of faith and ministry set by his parents, the Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bryant, senior bishop and presiding prelate of the Fourth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Dr. Cecilia Williams-Bryant. “Seeing my father operate as the priest of his home was the greatest example of ministry for me. my parents taught me the integrity of ministry by showing it was not about business but service,” he said.
When the senior Bryant was assigned to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore in 1975, he grew the congregation to several thousand members. More importantly, under the Bryants’ leadership, the church hosted Labor Day shoe giveaways for children who did not have shoes for school; ran a food co-op, credit union, women’s resource center and many other ministries.
Rev. Bryant adopted those principles in his ministry at Empowerment Temple A.M.E., as he did the examples of other heroes, including: minister and former Congressman Floyd Flake, who revived the neighborhoods of Jamaica, Queens in New York; Bishop T.D. Jakes, from whom he learned ministry “outside of the box;” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who put liberation theology into practice; the Rev. Dr. Frank Reid, the current pastor of Bethel, who influenced Bryant during his early years of ministry, supervising his trial sermon and licensing him to preach; and others.
Bryant said he also strongly identifies with King David in the Bible who “fell and made mistakes was still a child after God’s own heart.” Bryant and his ministry fell under a cloud with the news of his infidelity, his having a child out of wedlock and his subsequent divorce from his wife, Giselle back in 2008, a time the pastor called “one of the darkest seasons of my life” and also for Empowerment Temple.
“It wasn’t just a divorce for me but it was a divorce for 12,000 people. For me, it was my wife, but for them, it was their first lady,” Bryant said. “It showed me that being in ministry doesn’t afford you diplomatic immunity. You have to go through your own storms and own crises.”
Going through that crucible has helped the entire Empowerment family to mature, the Bryant said. “Going through that experience helped strip the cape of ‘Superman’ A lot of people idolize their pastor without seeing behind the veil. For the church to witness me going through a painful bout with humanity kicked over the pedestal, showed that grace is attainable, that mercy is available to everybody.
“Had I not gone through all of that, I don’t know that I would be able to reach the base that I do now.”
The targets of Empowerment Temple’s ministry has always been the “everyman,” the unsaved and unchurched, and Bryant’s public fall from grace has enabled many of his congregants to feel open about their own failings and accept the reality of second chances.
With such a large and varied congregation, which ranges from “Motown to Def Jam” in age and background, Bryant has had to tailor the ministry to create the optimal experience for all. So while Empowerment is one of the most technologically in-touch ministries – Bryant prays for all interested members of the congregation during the week via phone; he communicates with individual members via e-mail and Facebook, and livestreams services, among other advancements – Bryant said he also employs “old-school” pastoring.
“We have three services every Sunday with thousands of people, but I go to an old pastoral model of standing at the back door shaking hands to let them know that I’m not just a preacher but still their pastor,” he said.
Another facet of “old-time religion” that needs to be revived is the teaching of the foundations of the Christian faith, Bryant said. “I think a lot of preaching has gone to life-coaching and has missed the real principle of Bible teaching,” he said.
“We grew up in a time when as a child you learned ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ ‘The Apostle’s Creed,’ the ‘23rd Psalm,’ John 3:16 . . .. And now you’re dealing with a generation that just knows, ‘Turn to your neighbor,’ or ‘Shout it out loud’ . . .. They know praise but they don’t know principle. So, it is very important that the 21st century church go back to teaching doctrine, theology, and the articles of religion, our faith,” Bryant said. “Christians, embarrassingly, are the most illiterate believers in the world. You stop a Muslim . . . they know what they believe; you stop a Buddhist . . . they know what they believe, but a lot of Christians don’t know the tenets of their faith.”
In terms of its community service, Empowerment Temple has left an indelible impression in the Park Heights area, but Bryant said there are untapped areas of need he’d like to see the ministry address.
“One of the chief things that has to happen is job-preparedness and economic development,” he said.
The activist-preacher cited the surfeit of abandoned houses and the preponderance of Black Baltimoreans who are renters as an imbalance that needs to be addressed. He also said that when the church recently held a job fair, employers were reluctant to participate because too many residents were only prepared for entry-level positions. Still, he said, the number of people who lined up for the fair was more than a block long. “And that tells me that people want work, they want to do better, but the church has to help provide avenues and opportunities for that to happen,” Bryant said.