Rev. Jamal Bryant said to be leaving Baltimore's Empowerment Temple for Atlanta's New Birth Missionary Church

The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, the charismatic, politically connected and at times controversial founding pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, will become the new senior pastor at a well-known megachurch near Atlanta, an official of the Georgia church confirmed Monday.

Bryant will take over as spiritual leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., a church that boasts more than 10,000 members and played host to the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in 2006.

Four former presidents and members of King’s family attended the service.

Thomas W. Dortch Jr., chairman of the board at the church, said in a text message to The Baltimore Sun Monday afternoon that Bryant had been selected by a vote among board members.

Earlier in the day, Dortch had confirmed that Bryant was one of two finalists for the position and said he would be “thrilled” if Bryant were elected.

“I’ve known Jamal for years, dating all the way back to his NAACP days, and I’ve watched him grow his church from about 45 congregants to thousands of people, and I believe he’ll make a wonderful fit,” Dortch said.

Neither Bryant nor his publicist, Nicole Kirby, could be reached late Monday for comment.

Bryant, 47, told congregants during his three sermons Sunday at the Empowerment Temple that he would leave the position he has held since he founded the Northwest Baltimore church in 2000.

He will preach his final sermon at the church Dec. 2, he said.

A riveting speaker and the son and grandson of ministers, Bryant led the growth of Empowerment Temple from a few dozen to a reported 10,000 members, many of them young people, and helped turn it into a place with a reputation for hipness and one of the more influential of Baltimore’s predominantly African-American congregations.

A former NAACP youth director, he also emerged as a high-profile social-justice activist in the city and beyond. In 2012, he led peaceful protests on behalf of the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida youth who was shot to death by a neighborhood watchman in a case that made national headlines. He later served as spiritual adviser to Martin’s parents and brought them to Baltimore, where they made appearances at Empowerment Temple services.

Bryant also became a familiar voice on radio and TV and helped lead local protests against police brutality in the wake of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in 2015

Bryant called for murder charges against the six officers accused of involvement in Gray’s death, an idea to which many fellow faith leaders objected.

After three officers were acquitted of all criminal charges, prosecutors dropped charges against the others.

Bryant's personal life was exposed during a divorce from his wife in 2008. In the initial divorce filing, Bryant's wife, Gizelle Bryant, accused the pastor of adultery, cruel treatment and "excessively vicious conduct" that caused "reasonable apprehension of bodily suffering so as to render cohabitation unsafe," according to an article in The Sun at the time.

He also came under fire at the time for his lifestyle, which included a Bentley and a multi-million-dollar Canton waterfront property. The divorce complaint stated that Bryant earned more than $350,000 a year.

He later admitted that his infidelity caused the split and asked for prayers from parishioners.

Bryant would be taking over New Birth Missionary, which was founded in 1939, from another charismatic preacher, Eddie Long. When Long became pastor of the church in the mid-1980s, it had about 300 members.

Long turned it into one of the fastest-growing congregations in the South, building a following so large that in 2001 the church built and moved into a $50 million hall with a seating capacity of 10,000. By 2010, it claimed 25,000 members, and the New York Times described it as Long’s “empire.”

Long, who died of cancer in 2017, also had a controversial tenure. He faced — and settled out of court — lawsuits from four men in his congregation who accused him of using his influence to coerce sexual favors from them when they were in their teens.

In 2005, Long was the subject of a Senate investigation into whether he had personally profited from his ministry. The investigation ended with no finding of wrongdoing, but New Birth suffered a sharp drop in donations — and membership — in the aftermath.

Stephen A. Davis, the pastor of a satellite New Birth church in Birmingham, Ala., has been serving as Long’s interim successor.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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