Jamal Bryant represents next generation of activist preachers
27th August 2012 · 0 Comments
By Mason Harrison
Ministers and the church have longed played a role in the social and political life of Black Americans. From resisting Jim Crow-era prohibitions to advocating for the all-out end to organized racial prejudice, Black religious leaders have been at the forefront of leading their flocks toward a more just society.
Today’s ministers, like Baltimore-based Rev. Jamal Bryant, have taken up the work of those who have gone before them and are leading national efforts to address crime, poverty and disease for a new generation of Black Americans living, not in the age of segregation, but in the age of information.
Bryant is head of the 10,000-member Empowerment Temple and is the scion of a prominent religious dynasty that gave birth to powerhouse preachers like his father, who led Baltimore’s first Black megachurch, and grandfather. Preaching, it would seem for the Bryant family, is in the blood.
But Bryant, 40, is a minister whose message is very much in line with his generation and has been called “the preacher for the hip-hop generation” by his admirers; and the minister’s work has taken him before elected officials, dignitaries, recording artists and everyday Baltimoreans caught up in some of the city’s most crime-laden and drug-infested neighborhoods.
But none of this would have been possible, Bryant says, had it not been for a chance encounter with folks half a world away with whom he believed he had very little in common.
Bryant, as a youth, was kicked out of a college preparatory school in Maryland for gifted students. At the time, the young Bryant was more interested in “skipping class and hanging out,” he says.
But he was taken on a trip to Liberia shortly after his unceremonious exit from high school where he met students who had to pay for their schooling because the country lacked a public education system.
“They were amazed that I could go to school for free,” he said. “And I was amazed that they had to pay. They were so serious; so dedicated. They wanted to be educated and saw that as the way to improve their lives and the state of their communities. It had an incredible impact on me.”
Bryant returned to the United States and obtained a GED and later enrolled at Morehouse College and then Duke University. He culminated his education with a doctorate in theology from one of the world’s oldest institutions of higher learning – Great Britain’s Oxford University.
Bryant has put his international education, both formal and informal, to great use when speaking to inner-city youth across the country who he says ought to “modify their role models” when looking for leaders to emulate and admire. “[Role models] don’t always have to be basketball players and rappers,” Bryant says. “Young people should look to other wealthy people to see where there are shared values in areas where they may have thought none existed.”
“When you look at the wealthiest people in this nation,” Bryant points out, “25 percent of them don’t have a college degree; and a quarter of them have a disconnected relationship with their fathers or have had other family issues such as divorce or absentee parents; and a number of them are walking into wealth for the first time in the history of their families.”
Therefore, he asks, why can’t inner-city boys and girls see themselves in the lives of some of America’s wealthiest families when many hail from some of the same circumstances as Black youths?
But Bryant’s message isn’t just for Black and brown Millennials; the plane-hopping preacher has been billed as an outspoken religious leader unafraid to tackle politics and the various social issues of the day.
With just months to go before the November elections, Bryant says more talk is needed from elected and would-be elected officials about the plight of the country’s poor. “There has been a lot of discussion about the middle-class,” he says, “but with the average American making less than $39,000 a year there needs to be more talk of what’s going to happen to the poor.”
In Bryant’s home state of Maryland, November will also provide an opportunity to vote on an equally hot-button issue in and outside of Black religious circles – same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, state lawmakers and the governor enacted a bill that would allow gay and lesbian Marylanders to wed under state law and achieve the same legal benefits as their straight counterparts.
But opponents of the measure, like Bryant, are hoping Maryland voters will overturn the law and maintain civil marriage in the state as an exclusive union between men and women. “I’m against it,” Bryant says, referring to gay marriage. “And I hope the law is overturned.”
But Black ministers, he says, shouldn’t opt to speak on matters of public interest only when they are newly minted controversies. “The Black Church has been silent on the issues of the today; and Black ministers have only spoken out when the same-sex marriage issue came about,” he believes.
The issues of poverty, crime and health are just as important as social matters, he says, and should not be ignored by today’s ministers. “If the church doesn’t mention, then it will get lost.”
Bryant and other Black pastors have formed the Empowerment Movement, a coalition of Black preachers from a wide cross-section of denominations, to coordinate efforts to address and abate the issues facing Black Americans. The movement, he says, is part of a concerted effort to not remain silent on important issues and to be able to rapidly respond to challenges.
Bryant, though, has faced his own challenges and experienced a highly publicized divorce from his wife, a former model, of more than five years that aired revelations of infidelity on his part.
Bryant describes the event as a “private matter” that he had to “live through publicly.” His father, Bishop John Bryant, was instrumental in keeping the younger Bryant afloat during the turmoil surrounding his divorce. “There were times when I wanted to leave the ministry and go do something else,” he says, “but my father was always there telling me to continue.”
Bryant says, through it all, he has learned the value and necessity of personal responsibility. As a young man, he points out, he had to take responsibility for his failure to value education and altered his course all the way to Oxford; as a minister he took responsibility for sharing the “good news” at the heart of Christianity’s message and swelled the ranks of a burgeoning congregation to a flock that is now thousands strong; and as a man he has taken responsibility for his errors in judgment by sharing his story with anyone who’ll listen.
“So often,” Bryant believes, “we in the church decide to blame our problems on the devil or simply a moment of weakness. The truth is that we are responsible for our own actions and so often we want to achieve public success, but have trouble dealing with public failure.”
By sharing aspects of his story, Bryant hopes rank-and-file congregants across the country will view their pastors as fallible human beings who are capable of mistakes just like anyone else. “It’s important for people to know where you come from,” he says. “Ministers didn’t just drop out of the sky and start preaching one day; we have a history and had a life before that.”
Bryant’s pre-preaching life has been influential in setting the tone for his ministry and, he says, has helped to equip him with the necessary tools to deal with the peaks and valleys of his very public career.
“It’s easy for us to deal with the applauds and accolades that come from this kind of work,” he states, “but we should also be prepared to deal with the hisses and boos that may accompany it as well, especially if we are the reason for causing the hisses and boos.”
This article originally published in the August 27, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.