The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant strolls onto stage, his dapper image projected on four giant screens, hundreds of faces before him.
Swirls of light dance in the background as the 35-year-old takes to the podium, his baritone voice booming through JumboTron speakers and echoing throughout the former roller skating rink.
The audience roars.
It's an entrance worthy of a rock star. Only this is Tuesday night Bible Study at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore. And the man in the paisley shirt and shiny gray suit with the smooth voice of an R&B; singer - the pastor.
In six years, Empowerment Temple has grown from about 40 members to more than 10,000, donating $5 million last year, making Bryant a celebrity in the world of megachurches. Edgy, entrepreneurial and increasingly influential, the African Methodist Episcopal pastor connects with a contemporary generation that sees glory in his message and his unabashed financial success.
While Bryant has alienated some traditionalists who say he is a businessman first, preacher second, his supporters are unfazed by his prosperity and multiple ventures. He has helped push his church - and, by extension, himself - to the front ranks of Baltimore's politically powerful.
Bryant is a highly sought-after speaker who shuttles across the country - even the world - in any given week. Elected officials flock to his church. Congregants pour in from as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia. And a charter school and ministries reach out to everyone from single parents to drug addicts.
Between the church services and speaking engagements beamed across the world, Bryant hosts his own talk show, writes books (his first, Foreplay: Sexual Healing for Spiritual Wholeness) and doles out inspirational tidbits by cell phone text messages and the radio.
The church is scouting Baltimore City sites for a bigger location, and there are tentative proposals to build additional Empowerment Temples in Washington and other cities. One is even under way in Liberia.
Then there are plans for Bryant's own clothing line - an endeavor outside of the church. (Not much of a stretch for the always-stylish pastor, who sports three-piece suits, alligator-skin shoes and short, bold ties.)
"I'm a busy man," he says in his office on a recent morning. "I travel a lot. I'm somewhere different every week. Tomorrow I'm in Wilmington, N.C. Friday, I'm in Atlanta. In December, I'm in Nigeria for three days. Two weeks later, I'm in Uganda.
"Every week is different. Every month is different."
Bryant is also a political powerhouse, a man whose church is a requisite stop on the campaign trail. Last month, Baltimore Mayor-in-waiting Sheila Dixon was a guest on the sleek set of his talk show, God and Glory, on WMAR-TV. A few days later, he was named a member of her transition team to assist her shift from City Council president to replace Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley.
"It's one of the churches in the state that you can't ignore if you're trying to reach out to people and to have an opportunity to dialogue," says Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the NAACP, who is a mentor to Bryant.
"It's not something that he said, 'This is on my list of things to do, to be a powerhouse politically,'" Mfume adds. "But his charisma, his ability to motivate people and his appeal [have] caused a lot of people to stop and to give real credence to what Rev. Jamal Bryant thinks about things."
Dixon says she has watched Bryant evolve from a little kid running around the Bethel AME Church, when his father was pastor, to the successful pastor he has become. He was a typical kid, she recalls, mischievous and always getting into things.
"I've watched him grow and mature and develop into a young minister who has attracted a lot of young people ... because of his style, because of his commitment to the Lord and because of his upbringing," says Dixon. "Jamal really makes things real. He represents a very progressive style and personality. He shows young people how they can connect themselves to God and be prosperous, blessed and self-motivated."
Experts say Bryant's approach is typical of a contemporary worship style that employs a corporate professional model - using technology and marketing to spread the word to a wider audience. Bryant's Web site, which features the interior of a sports car, includes a guest book with entries from across the country. The site sells sermons on CDs, DVDs and MP3s and includes a link to a travel Web site.
"There is a new emphasis on marketing approaches to congregational life and taking advantage of all the current technologies," says the Rev. R. Drew Smith, a scholar-in-residence at the Leadership Center in Morehouse College. "I think many of these megachurches have done a good job at attempting to update the way churches respond to their parishioners."
Others say the popularity of superstar pastors like Bryant - who lives in a $1.2 million property in Canton with his wife, Gizelle, and three children and drives a 2006 Bentley - feed into a hip-hop generation fixated on individual gain and consumption.
"I think we live in a capitalistic world, and people in general want to believe in the promise of capitalism, people want to believe that there is a way out of poverty," says Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University. "In many ways, these leaders are telling people to dream.
"You would think that poor people wouldn't go to an institution where the preacher is rich," he adds. "But the theology itself suggests that poverty is more of a reflection of an individual's failure to do the right things in life. It actually makes it easier to believe."
The role of the pastor in such megachurches, says Hill, has become obscured. Instead of serving as an anchor in a community, they become elevated to a celebrity-cum-pop-psychologist. "They become a figurehead," says Hill. "Getting to a megachurch pastor, it's kind of trying to get to the mayor. Part of the attraction is the fact that they are stars."
While Bryant's efforts are distinct from a fast-growing, mostly white evangelical movement that stresses the value of prosperity, his message strikes some as similar.
Wealth on display
Dana Harrison became interested in Bryant's sermons a few years ago. The Prince George's County resident was intrigued by Bryant's oratory, which she followed on television every week. She traveled to the church several times. "To me, when he first came out, he was more preaching on the word of God and the principles of God, and then it kind of flip-flopped into this arrogant money scheme," says Harrison, 33.
Harrison says she became turned off by Bryant's flaunting of his wealth and using it as an example. "'Look at me, I look so good. And don't you want what I got? Pray for this blessing from the Lord.' It's just really sad," she says.
At a recent Tuesday night Bible study session, Bryant makes no effort to hide his wealth.
The topic on this day is tithing. For 30 minutes, he preaches about the spiritual importance of the biblical command to give 10 percent of personal income to the church. (The church accepts credit cards, money orders, cash and checks.) "If you tithe, your pastor don't have to work at the post office," Bryant says to the hollering and applause of his congregation.
"If you're telling me God is good, you oughta at least halfway look like it," he continues, as people stand up, the applause growing.
"I'm not hiding from you anything that God has done," he says. "Being faithful to God has been a blessing. So it ain't a rumor I drive an '06 Bentley. I want you to know that. And everything in it is tripped out." He pauses.
"And it ain't my only car. Sit down."
Chuckling, his congregants obey.
"I kind of expect the man of God to do better than me," says Phyllis Linnes, 32, of Gwynn Oak, who did not attend that particular session but heard about it.
Linnes said Bryant is an excellent example and role model for the young and old alike. "He, too, was a single parent," she said. "He went to Morehouse with a GED. To go through all of that and still get your doctorate is a prime example of how black men can overcome."
Janelle "Peaches" Rollins, 34, started going to the Empowerment Temple in 2004. A single mother and telemarketer who lives in O'Donnell Heights, a public housing project in Southeast Baltimore, Rollins gives 10 percent of whatever she earns - which varies from week to week - to the church.
She describes Bryant as a magnetic, business-savvy man chosen by God to lead them. "Let him be successful, let him be prosperous," says Rollins. "He is anointed. He has been chosen by God to do this. God chooses to elevate who he wants to elevate. God has allowed him to do this.
"He has a very big heart. I thank God for Jamal-Bryant."
Rollins' sentiments echo many congregants' feelings - they thank Bryant for all that he gives them. The church's extensive community outreach efforts assist many people in need - including those in the economically diverse congregation. This past Thanksgiving, for example, they fed more than 500 families.
When talking about his life in Bible study, Bryant explains that he's where he is "because I'm faithful."
"Your pastor ought to not be intimidating to you, it ought to be inspiring to you," he says.
For Bryant, being a pastor is not something he ever thought he would pursue, though his father is a bishop, as was his late grandfather.
He grew up in Ashburton, watching his father at Bethel AME Church. Though academics came easy, Bryant flunked out of the gifted-and-talented program in 11th grade at Baltimore City College, an experience he frequently refers to when speaking to groups of teenagers.
That sent him to Liberia for a year, where he learned to value the opportunity of a free education. Bryant went on to get a GED and graduate from Morehouse College and Duke Divinity School. Last year he received a doctorate in ministry from Oxford University. While at Duke, Mfume tapped him to become the national youth director of the NAACP, a job he juggled with his academics. "It was never my intention to be a pastor," says Bryant. "I wanted to work in civil rights."
Bryant was a congressional intern for Mfume. At the NAACP, Bryant had "an uncanny ability to cut through all the noise," Mfume says.
"Jamal always had a sense of humor about him which allowed him to get his message across," says Mfume.
Mfume describes Bryant's oratory skills as "tremendous," recalling an instance when the two were both to address a crowd of young people in Seattle and Mfume had to speak after Bryant. "I had to kick it up an extra notch just to be on par with Jamal," Mfume says.
After four years of traveling across the country and meeting with college students and other young people, Bryant decided it was time to open his own church. "I really felt a call to do it," he says. "I saw, just as the NAACP was dying, that the AME Church was becoming aged and outdated. And I thought that the Empowerment Temple could bring the best of both worlds - it could bring social activism and spiritual renewal."
'Let Me Upgrade You'
The church started with a roughly 40-person Bible study group at his townhouse in the spring of 2000. It grew steadily, moving as the congregation outgrew place after place.
In early 2004, the Empowerment Temple opened its doors at its current location off Reisterstown Road, with room for about 2,300 worshippers at each of its three Sunday services.
"He has made so much progress, way beyond anything I achieved," says his father, Bishop John R. Bryant. "His success has surpassed that of his father and his grandfather. He's on the same frequency as his generation. He's been able to communicate with them in a marvelous way."
His congregants, many of a younger generation, say they are drawn to Bryant's energetic preaching style, which incorporates slang and hip-hop lyrics. The motto for November, for example, is "Let Me Upgrade You," a reference to a Beyonce song.
They also point to his different experiences in life - flunking out of school, fathering a child out of wedlock.
"He really speaks something to me," says JaBrea Chandler 13, of Owings Mills. "It's powerful. It's real. He tells you something you can relate to."
Wayne Billups, 15, of Liberty Heights, sees a difference between Bryant's church and more traditional AME institutions. "There's a lot more juice, a lot more energy," he says. "He's real energetic. He can say something to everybody."
Wayne's favorite: a Father's Day sermon about growing up without a father or one who is incarcerated. "That's something I can relate to," he says.
But older congregants appreciate his message, too. Sharon Campbell, 60, lives in Pimlico and says she joined the church because of Bryant's young vision for the city. "He has a positive voice, this message that you can do it," she says on a recent Sunday after services.
On this Sunday, Bryant preaches about a question that his wife recently asked him, quoting from the Bible.
"A feast is made for laughter," he reads. "Wine makes life merry. But money answers everything."
His wife, he tells the congregation, asked him if money can take the place of love.
"A lot of people are dressed up but got nowhere to go," he tells his congregation. "And have a nice car but have no direction for their life. I'd rather be connected to somebody who's broke but focused, who understands that there's more to life than a paycheck, there's more to life than the bling-bling, there's more to life than ... going on trips.
"You can get to a point where you are so driven by getting money that you'll drive yourself over the cliff in the process and forget there is more to life than getting paid," he continues.
"God will give you a complete total makeover even if your money runs out."
Bryant is pacing, dabbing his forehead after working up a sweat.
"We love you pastor," yells one woman.
"Somebody say, 'Preach, black man, preach,'" he screams.
They holler after him.
A woman walks up to the podium, throwing down a green bill. A few others follow. Live music surges in the background as Bryant calls up a group of Morehouse College students who traveled to the service from Atlanta.
"I just feel compelled to lay hands on them because I want their future to be better than mine," he says, touching their hands and heads. "Give him a double portion of everything you've given me."
As the service comes to a close, Bryant greets parishioners, who line up for brief snippets of his wisdom.
"I wish you supernatural success," he repeats to several people.
Soon, a volunteer security guard cuts off the line. "I'm sorry, this is where the line is cut off," he tells one family. "He has somewhere he has to go."
And like a celebrity, he's gone.