When New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., announced last month that the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant would become its new senior pastor, the news hit hard at Empowerment Temple, the AME church Bryant founded in 2000 and has built into a local force among African-American congregations.
A charismatic preacher, high-profile social activist and sometime figure of controversy, Bryant leaves behind a thriving congregation of 10,000 and joins one with deep historic roots, but whose numbers have dropped by more than half — to about 10,000 since 2010, thanks largely to controversies surrounding its late former pastor Eddie Long.
Bryant is scheduled to hold his final services in Baltimore on Sunday, and his first in Georgia next week.
Why did you decide to leave Empowerment Temple and Baltimore?
“I started the church when I was 28; I’m leaving at 47. I’ve asked many other Gen-X’ers, ‘How many jobs have you had in 18 years?’ Most of them say they’ve had three to four in that season of time.
“I felt like it was a season for me to stretch out and do something different.”
What appealed to you about New Birth?
“After my father [Rev. John Richard Bryant] was elected an AME bishop in 1988, and went to his first assignment in Africa, my parents were operating with limited resources, and I’m grateful to say that the former pastor of New Birth, Rev. Long, helped pay my tuition at Morehouse College [in Atlanta].
“I also attended New Birth sometimes when I was at Morehouse. I was a member of an AME church, but New Birth was always the happening, jumping church.”
How about the position itself?
“It’s an amazing challenge. New Birth is the largest landowner of any black church in America. They have 270 acres, most of it undeveloped. They have an edifice that holds I think 8,500 people. There are also 20 colleges within a 30-mile radius, and New Birth has 10 motor-coach buses. That gives me an opportunity to really evangelize those communities.
“Meanwhile, Atlanta is the fastest-growing community for African-Americans in the country. When I started Empowerment Temple, Baltimore’s population was around 1.2 million; now it’s about 750,000. So while our population is declining, Atlanta’s is on the incline.
“It all gives me an amazing blank canvas for reaching out.”
What kind of reaction have you gotten to your announcement? Word is that some at your church are not happy.
“Yes, and it’s not a small group — it’s a lot. But one pastor gave me a bit of advice: ‘Think about how you would feel if they were happy to see you leave! For them to be mad at you is the greatest compliment.’ Seriously, though, I understand. This was abrupt; it was sudden.
“Things are on the upswing for Empowerment Temple, so nobody saw it coming. But the church has got to be bigger and greater than any one individual, so I have confidence that Empowerment will [continue] to thrive.”
What achievements are you proudest of here?
“I started Empowerment Temple with 43 people doing a Bible study in my living room. I’m ashamed to tell people today that my goal at the time was to get to 500 members. I didn’t ever dream in my wildest imagination that the church would go as far as it did – that it would have a school, and that it would be able to have this kind of impact in the community. I’m amazed.
“God has truly empowered me.”
What will you miss the most?
“Without a doubt, the people. Baltimore is just one large tribe. In any other metropolitan area, you ask people ‘what college did you go to?’ It’s only in Baltimore that you can find a 70-year-old who is still wearing a City College [high school] ring.
“There’s nowhere else in the world that you can find Old Bay seasoning on the table and egg custard snowballs on the street corner and house music coming through the radio. Baltimore is a distinct and unique place in and unto itself. So undeniably one, two, and three will be the people.”
New Birth is a Baptist church; you’re an AME minister. Is that a problem?
“The only difference between AME and Baptist, really, at its core, is in their governmental structures, not their belief systems. We all believe in Easter, Christmas, fasting, prayer and worship [laughs]. In the AME church we do baptism through sprinkling of water; they do it by immersion in a pool.
“I’m actually going to remain a member of the AME church and of the Empowerment Temple. Now, can I be both a Baptist and an AME member? I’ll have to figure that out when I get there. That’s a million-dollar question the whole ecumenical community wants to know!”
Do you mind sharing what some of your members at Empowerment have said to you?
“Oh my, they go from ‘I’m happy for you’ to ‘how dare you?’ — all in the same sentence [laughs]. All of my members are in one of the five stages of grief, if not two of them at the same time. So it’s been a process.
“I laugh, but I know it’s serious. We’ve just all got to stick together as a family to come through it.”
What has it been like preparing for your last service?
This has been the longest week of my life — the hardest sermon, probably, I’ve had to write since the eulogy I wrote for Freddie Gray. I’m looking at a blank MacBook as we speak, trying to pull together how to write it as a sermon bidding farewell but also having optimism, and casting a vision, and talking about new chapters, all while knowing I’m talking to a mixed crowd.
By mixed crowd, do you mean people with differing opinions on your decision?
“Yes – those who are hoping I trip over my shoestrings as I leave the pulpit, and those who are going to be waving to me when I get to the airport [laughs]. They’ll all be there in the same sanctuary! I’m just going to have to deal with all of it.
“If God is willing, he’ll have to speak through me on Sunday.”