Parishioners honor a passionate man of the cloth
Ceremony marks John Richard Bryant's 50 years of service, which began at Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. church
Senior Pastor Dr. Frank M. Reid III, standing at left at pulpit, embraces Bishop John R. Bryant, right, at the Bethel AME morning service. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun / March 18, 2012)
The daylong ceremony recognized the Rev. John Richard Bryant's 50 years of service, which began in the steepled church at the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street and took him to Africa and Massachusetts, then back to his hometown and, most recently, to the Midwest, where today he presides over the 4th Episcopal District as a senior bishop.
"Bethel, under Rev. Bryant, became the first megachurch in the city of Baltimore," said Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III.
When Bryant arrived at the West Baltimore church for his first service one Sunday in May 1975, he was its youngest pastor ever at 31. The church his father, the Rev. Harrison J. Bryant, had led just 11 years earlier had been hemorrhaging congregants for a decade. It counted only 600 members, most of whom never showed up for services.
During Bryant's initial rousing, spirited service, 10 people came forward to join the parish, according to a church historian. In mere minutes, he'd attracted as many new people as the church typically recruited in an entire year.
And it wasn't a fluke. By 1978, Bethel had grown to 2,500 congregants. In the 13 years under Bryant, that number nearly tripled.
Excitement — or outright zeal — was at the very heart of Bryant's mission, making him a star of the rising neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic movement.
"I say religion without feeling is not religion," Bryant said. "It's all in your heart, mind and soul."
At 68, more than 30 years after he first moved to Baltimore, Bryant did it once again Sunday, taking to the pulpit in a violet robe with glimmering threads.
He began soft, low and slow, standing still and gripping the microphone.
"We praise Him. We glorify Him. We humor Him."
He dialed it up, speaking faster, louder and adding an almost hypnotic repetition: "We love Him. We love Him. And we love Him, love Him, love Him, love Him. And we loooooove Him."
Long before that last bit of love, parishioners had jumped to their feet, hands in the air, applauding, whooping, laughing. "Ain't nobody," Bryant said, winding up his liturgical hello, "like the Lord."
With his bald head, silver beard and toothy grin, Bryant held the parishioners rapt for at least another 30 minutes, whispering and screaming, grunting and sighing, stomping and screaming. He mixed biblical stories with riffs on politics and the economy. He dropped "ain'ts" next to Latin phrases.
He captivated his audience.
"I don't know what church Santorum and Gingrich belong to," he said at one point to hoots of appreciation. "Where there is a lot of venom, a lot of negativity, a lot of judgment, a lot of nonacceptance — you can call it something, but it's not the church.
"The church," he concluded, "is a place of love, liberty and empowerment. That's how you know you're there."
Sen. Ben Cardin sat near the front. So did former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who nodded and looked moved.
But getting people to feel was always only half of Bryant's strategy. He also wanted them to do — for one another.