Inside Rev. Jamal Bryant's final Sunday at Baltimore's Empowerment Temple: Joy, tears, humor

When the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant took to the pulpit for his final day of services in Baltimore on Sunday, he says, he had no idea how things were going to turn out.

Half his congregation at the Empowerment Temple, the AME church he founded in West Baltimore in 2000, seemed upset at his recent decision to leave for a position in the Atlanta area, he said. Half seemed happy he’d have new opportunities.

It didn’t take long for the charismatic preacher to establish the kind of tone that has allowed him to turn the Empowerment Temple from a small Bible study in his living room into a spiritual and social-justice powerhouse with a worldwide reach.

Clad in a shimmering gold robe trimmed with African kinte cloth, dozens of bright red poinsettias arrayed on the stage before him, Bryant, 48, told more than 2,000 worshipers at Sunday’s second service that God sometimes prunes a tree to ensure that it grows more productively.

“I’m making you go through these cuts to get you to the next level,” he thundered into a microphone, almost as if speaking for the Almighty. “The picture that I have for Empowerment Temple does not have Jamal Bryant at the center.”

Many in the well-dressed congregation cheered, raised their arms or shouted “Amen,” and some in the crowded hall were crying.

“It was a good service,” the third-generation preacher said in his office afterward. “It was better than what I expected. There was that ‘x’ factor; you didn’t know whether there would be a real spirit of heaviness or celebration. I think that we found a good balance between the two.”

In some ways, the service came across as a rousing episode of the 1950s television show “This Is Your Life.”

Bryant thanked many of the people who made possible his remarkable rise — and that of Empowerment Temple — from dozens of attendees in the seats who were there at the church’s first Easter service 18 years ago, to his father, the AME Bishop John Richard Bryant, and mother, the Rev. Dr. Cecelia Williams-Bryant.

Bryant’s ex-wife, Gizelle Bryant, sat in the front row with their daughters Grace, 14, and Angel and Adore, both 12.

The couple divorced after seven years of marriage in 2008 after it emerged that the pastor had had an affair — an incident for which he publicly asked, and ultimately received, forgiveness from his flock.

If Jamal Bryant is known for lacing his fire-and-brimstone oratory with irreverent humor, his former spouse — a star of the Bravo network’s reality TV series “Real Housewives of the Potomac” — nearly proved his equal when she took the microphone at the end of the service.

“You’re scared; you don’t know what I’m going to say, do you?” she asked her ex-husband, before telling the congregation it had been blessed for 18 years by “a mighty, mighty man of God” in Jamal Bryant.

Then she said she would always consider the church, which she helped Bryant establish, a spiritual home.

“I don’t want Michelle Obama to be the only forever first lady,” she told her husband as his flock looked on. “Can I be the forever first lady?”

Others showed a similar reluctance to let go as the influential pastor prepares to move to Atlanta, where he’s to deliver his first sermon at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church next Sunday.

Bryant said last week there were several reasons behind the move, which became official when the board president of the Georgia church introduced him as its new leader Nov. 19.

He has a personal connection to New Birth, he said — its late former pastor, the Rev. Eddie Long, helped pay Bryant’s tuition to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Bryant sometimes attended church at New Birth — and the church’s location within a half-hour’s drive of 20 colleges gives him an opportunity to evangelize among young adults, “the most neglected demographic in any church, black or white.”

Bryant also takes over a congregation that once numbered 25,000 members and has a sanctuary that holds 8,500 people, but whose numbers have dwindled to a membership of about 10,000.

He says targeting college students will be one way of bringing the numbers back up.

“I’m coming after ’em,” he said, laughing.

Donna Cook, 53, of Baltimore compared his pending departure to a “bad breakup” — the sudden end of a close association she’ll miss.

Rodney Brooks said the only way to capture what the change feels like is to recount what Bryant’s ministry has meant to him.

The 51-year-old hospital worker says he was skeptical about the young preacher before he first came to the church in 2006, but the first time he heard Bryant speak, he was left in tears — and when he came back the next week, he found himself sobbing again.

“He’s a dynamic and gifted speaker, and he has that way of connecting with people,” Brooks said. “Twelve years later, I’m still coming here. I’m not the kind of person who joins things, but since I’ve been here I’ve taken the [ministers-in-training] course, I’ve taken part in the singles and marriage ministries, I’ve worked on the media team. It’s like my family here. It’s such a loving, welcoming place, and that comes from the leadership. Whoever’s next here has very big shoes to fill.”

Bryant told the congregation that Bishop James Levert Davis of Washington, the presiding prelate of the AME jurisdiction that includes Baltimore, is leading a nationwide search to find his successor and announce his choice by the end of the year.

“I’m being prayerful about that,” says Bryant, who will remain a member of Empowerment Temple even after his move.

The church grew so much under Bryant’s leadership that it boasts 10,000 members, and Bryant has long led three services every Sunday.

After the collection baskets were passed and abundantly filled, three congregants answered Bryant’s altar call, and the crowd filed out to resounding music, it wasn’t long before worshipers began arriving for the third and final service of the day — and of an era.

The church’s parking lot was filled, and even after the service had begun, eight-year member Manny Williams sat in his car, an expression of torment on his face.

He wasn’t sure whether he could muster the resolve to go inside.

“It hurts,” he said. “It’s devastating to lose Pastor Bryant. There will never be another like him. I honestly don’t know if I can do it,” the 62-year-old said.

Then he conceded that it might just be God’s plan to move Bryant along, as much as it hurts for the time being.

“He has blessed us in his time here,” Williams said. “I hope he can do the same with even more people in Georgia.”

And he climbed out of his car and slowly headed for the entrance.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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