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Parishioners honor a passionate man of the cloth

People packed the pews and filled the balconies of Baltimore's historic Bethel A.M.E. church Sunday morning to honor a man they credit with reviving the house of worship — one of the city's most influential — and bringing unabashed passion back to the black church.

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.

Under his watch, Bethel started a college scholarship program and then opened an outreach center, a book store and a credit union. The church created a food co-op where members could buy healthy food more cheaply than they could at the grocery store. After the co-op's success, Bryant arranged a similar deal at a filling station near the church so his people could save money on gasoline.

"We'd make our dollars count," he said.

Bryant planted a "Free Southern Africa" sign in front of the church and then had an artist paint a colorful, Afrocentric mural inside. A stint with the Peace Corps in Africa forever changed Bryant's worldview and encouraged his feelings of empowerment.

"When I came back home," he said, "I had drank from the fountain of self-worth."

On Labor Day in 1979, Bryant made headlines. Disgusted at the high rate of unemployment in the black community, he challenged Baltimore to hire his congregants, guaranteeing they'd be good workers. He asked those in the church to hire other members, even just to clean their homes or fix their cars.

And to make sure all the church's children could start school with new shoes, he asked members who could afford it to buy an extra pair when they purchased shoes for their own kids.

The day the school shoes were handed out, people lined up around the block, remembers the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, Bryant's son, who now leads his own Baltimore megachurch, the Empowerment Temple. "And that," he said with a wink, "was without text messaging."

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the younger Bryant borrowed his father's idea, spurring his church members to send 10,000 pairs of shoes to the devastated country.

"He taught me the sense that worship is nothing without service," Jamal Harrison Bryant said of his father.

A 1978 article in The Baltimore Sun described John Bryant as "flamboyant, dapper and handsome" — and his services as a party everyone wanted to attend.

"Even the balconies, which had not been used since the 1920s, now groan under the weight of enthusiastic congregants who sing, clap their hands and sway to the music in what some have called, not disparagingly, 'a wild African party,'" Gene Oishi wrote, saying Bryant whipped parishioners into a frenzy, "occasionally wiping perspiration from his face with a big, white handkerchief he keeps in his hand, in a manner reminiscent of the late jazz great Louis Armstrong."

Dixon remembers seeing that sort of religious energy for the first time.

Growing up Episcopal, she said, she was used to a staid sort of service that "didn't light any fire under my feet." Bryant reached her, she said, like nothing she'd ever experienced.

"John Bryant was a surprise for many of us," she said. "He really brought me back to my Christianity. He really brought that out of me, an understanding that God was in me."

Dixon played racquetball with the pastor. He gave her the confidence to enter politics and then supported her again after she was found guilty of taking gift cards intended for the poor and resigned her post.

The bishop's wife, the Rev. Cecilia Williams-Bryant, invited Dixon to a women's retreat in Illinois. Michigan congresswoman Carolyn Jean Cheeks Kilpatrick was there, too, having just lost her bid for re-election under the shadow of her son Kwame Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit who went to prison on corruption charges.

Talking was forbidden at the retreat for hours at a time. So Dixon sat silently and thought about where things had gone wrong. "I reflected on weaknesses," she said. "It was a good cleansing that I needed."

Beyond the strength of Bethel, Bryant counts as his legacy the dozens of people he inspired to go into the ministry. By his count there were 70 just during his time in Baltimore — so many that he calls Bethel "a birthing station."

Bryant and his wife plan to return to Baltimore when he retires in 2016. They have a condominium at Scarlett Place on the Inner Harbor.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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