It has been a year and four months since the Empowerment Temple AME Church has welcomed in-person visitors to a Sunday service, and the staff at the 10,000-member West Baltimore church has gone to unusual lengths to keep its community spirit alive.
Its third-year pastor, the Rev. GJ Barnes III, has livestreamed sermons from a mountaintop, a cave, an airport runway and a hot-air balloon. Lay leaders have expanded several ministries.
And a team of volunteers made Empowerment’s first original movie, “The Comeback,” about a man who recovers from the collapse of his business during the coronavirus pandemic. Barnes wove the short film into a prerecorded Easter sermon.
Now, the megachurch on Primrose Avenue is poised to make a comeback of its own.
Empowerment is set to open its doors for in-person worship on Sunday for the first time since March 16, 2020, and the morning will be festive. A 100-person marching band is to welcome up to 1,500 worshippers. Guests including Ray Lewis, bestselling author Wes Moore, and Nick and Marilyn Mosby will attend to lend their support, and Barnes plans to deliver a message on old ends and new beginnings.
The pastoral staff will roll out a range of potentially multimillion-dollar programs aimed at clarifying the church’s vision — and deepening its impact — over the next five years and beyond. The initiatives include a summer camp, plans for a Montessori school and a state-of-the-art recording studio, and an ambitious membership drive.
“People are excited to come back, and so are we after all this time. But we aren’t just hoping to pick up where we left off,” says Barnes, a Baltimore native who took over Empowerment after its founding pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant, left in 2018 to lead an even bigger Atlanta-area congregation. “We hope to take things to a new level.”
In a city where African American churches have had an outsized influence on cultural, social and political life, it didn’t take long for the Empowerment Temple to make its presence felt.
Founded by Bryant in 2000, the congregation started as a group of about 40 worshipping in homes. Within 19 months, it had claimed 4,000 members.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, a firebrand of a preacher, was the engine behind the growth, which the church touts as the most rapid for any Black congregation in history. Empowerment’s range of counseling and social programs, a tech-savvy approach to ministry, and Bryant’s activism against police brutality raised its profile.
Some members left after Bryant departed, but by that time the church he founded had close to its current five-figure membership.
Barnes, a father of three with an entrepreneurial background, had big shoes to fill when he took over in February 2019. Though his approach is slightly less frenetic than Bryant’s, he has proved a highly regarded successor.
“Pastor Bryant was like a revolutionary,” says Kevin Branch, a member for more than two decades. “He was a motivator, an inspirational speaker. I like the ‘whooping’ as much as anybody else, but with Pastor Barnes, I can hear everything explained to me and really absorb it well. It’s a different spin, but it’s definitely a spin I like.”
Members say Barnes has built on the founder’s vision of Empowerment as a place that fosters growth in all areas of members’ lives. Among its ministries are programs for youth, women, couples and musicians. Its education ministry offers classes on everything from financial planning to trauma recovery.
That work, of course, was interrupted when the pandemic hit Maryland. Like most of the city’s predominantly African American churches, Empowerment took a proactive, cautious approach. It limited attendance at Sunday services to 25 people, then barred in-person attendance.
As the months passed, Barnes recalls, it became clear that the church’s 21215 ZIP code — a slice of West Baltimore that includes Park Heights and Lochearn, as well as parts of Pikesville — was among Baltimore’s hardest hit. Empowerment’s demographics — about half the congregation is 60 or older — appeared to leave its people uniquely vulnerable.
That’s why the church has maintained a no-visit policy in recent months, even as the pandemic eased, public health officials loosened restrictions, and most other churches opened their doors to in-person worship.
“Disproportionate risk calls for a disproportionate reaction,” Barnes says. “We decided months ago that when we reopened, we would only do so in the safest way we could.”
To adapt, the staff staged pared-down worship services and livestreamed the proceedings on the church website. Ministry leaders ran their operations via Zoom, and Barnes and others launched letter-writing and cold-calling campaigns to stay in touch with isolated members.
Months into the pandemic, though, some say it became clear that even those efforts could no longer keep congregants’ loneliness at bay. That was when Barnes — a man who has run two successful startup businesses ― got really creative.
He visited a hot-air balloon field in Frederick, using the dramatic scene as backdrop for a livestreamed sermon on trusting God with outcomes. From a cave in western Pennsylvania, he addressed those times when “God can’t seem to find you.” He took to a boat in the Inner Harbor to speak on the storms of life and stood by an airport runway to expound on using friction to achieve spiritual “lift.”
The messages resonated.
“We watched them online as he was doing them, and it was so creative,” says the Rev. Eva Branch, Kevin’s wife and a longtime member. “Those sermons gave another dimension to the services. They were a good turning point to help the church keep gravitating toward the Word and toward hope.”
The productions were so successful that Barnes and his team developed an even more ambitious idea: to write, film and stream a short movie for Easter that would mine the fears and uncertainties around the pandemic for a message on faith in difficult times.
The 20-minute story told of a man, Justin Johnson, who had built a successful life as a businessman and single father, only to see his world collapse under the weight of the pandemic. Through prayer, and against a backdrop of uplifting music, the lead character — portrayed by church member Antonio Herring, who had small roles on “The Wire” and “House of Cards” — is blessed with unexpected opportunities at his worst moment, and his recovery begins.
Barnes narrated the story, and one interlude of his “cinematic sermon” could have served as motto for Empowerment’s reopening.
“What we went through in 2020, and what many of us are still trying to get through now,” Barnes says into the camera, “has not been a setback for the church, but it really was a setup ― a setup for the church to go to newer heights as it relates to media and engagement as we spread the word of God.”
When Empowerment kick-starts just such a process Sunday, it will do so with a blend of caution and celebration.
The church will host just one 9:30 a.m. service, not its traditional two. Worshippers don’t need to register in advance, but the church will require masks, temperature checks and social distancing. Officials expect about 900 people, less than half Empowerment’s capacity, and Chief of Staff Jonathan Ball says they’ll monitor developments and adjust protocols accordingly in the coming weeks.
The Baltimore All-Stars marching band will welcome worshippers as they arrive Sunday, then lead a procession inside. Moore, a Democratic candidate for governor, is expected to speak. Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby, Democratic City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, whose district includes the church, and other political figures will be on hand to emphasize the day’s importance to the wider community.
Barnes will unveil plans for expanding the church and its reach. He’ll describe Empowerment’s first summer camp, an eight-week schedule of sports, studies and the arts that begins Monday with more than 100 children. The church has hired former Philadelphia Eagles star Ray Sydnor, a minister and youth counselor, as director.
The pastor will kick off fundraising campaigns for the Empowerment Montessori School, a day-care and elementary education center based on the Montessori method of promoting learning through hands-on activity and collaborative play. The Empowerment Network Production Studio, in which officials say the team that made “The Comeback” will help set up a program for making Christ-centered films, doing live shows and teaching young people video skills.
“The purpose of one project is to give back to the community via education,” Ball says. “The purpose of the second is to create spiritual inspiration to influence the world.”
The programs, based in buildings the church already owns, are expected to open within one to three years, Ball said.
Finally, Barnes says, he’ll introduce the “Five by Five” campaign to expand membership by 5,000 people within five years. A task force is in place to develop advertising and other marketing, and the pastor says he’ll work with members to help clarify their sense of Empowerment’s mission so they can more effectively attract others.
More than anything, community members say, it will be cathartic to see the faces of fellow worshippers for the first time in months. As creative as the team has been, they say, nothing can replace being in their company on Sunday mornings.
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“I like people, and it has been very hard for me not to be able to engage face to face,” Eva Branch says. “As I told my husband when the pandemic was at its worst, ‘You never know how much you miss community until you don’t have it.’”