Submitted to the AFRO by Rev. Dr. Kevin A. Slayton, Sr.
Although the times have changed many of the conditions that impact black folk have not, thus the role of the black preacher has not either. Not many can withstand the pressure and the applause of filling such shoes.
The recent calling of Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant to serve as the pastor of New Birth Ministries is an ideal marriage between pastor and people. I’m excited to see how this chapter in his personal journey will be used to further the cause of justice on behalf of so many more. In this scenario one cities gain is another’s loss. But the coming together of this church and this pastor, I believe is most fitting.
There are, to start with, the obvious public controversies that neither is unfamiliar: like most significant figures in the public square, Dr. Bryant is not immune to public scrutiny. In honesty, one does not enter ministry and expect to avoid the watchful eyes of skeptics looking to see some glitch or blemish in character. But I believe we do a great disservice and discount the legacy that this young leader has developed over the span of 20 years in ministry, if we don’t acknowledge his impact on our nation and this city’s public discourse. Dr. Bryant has been blessed with a gift. In fact, he has been a gift. He didn’t ask for it and he certainly didn’t copy it. God gave it to him. God gave him a gift to preach the gospel. God knew what he could accomplish with his gifting and so it’s no mistake that he was planted in one of the most troubled communities in America. Therefore, to be fair when considering the work and ministry that Dr. Bryant has accomplished one must not ignore the canvass on which his ministry was to take shape.
Dr. Bryant emerged under the tutelage of two of our communities’ greatest pulpiteers, one his father the illustrious Bishop John Bryant and secondly, the always affable Bishop Frank Madison Reid, III, both former pastors of the Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore. Still, his vision of reaching an often-overlooked generation was strong enough for him to establish one of the leading congregations in the city of Baltimore. This was by no means was an easy undertaking. While it took resources and partnerships to get up and running it ultimately took the unique gifting that very few on this earth are blessed to possess. Whatever it is, Dr. Bryant has it. And it was it that has spoken to the conditions of a marginalized citizenry in Baltimore’s urban communities.
A pastor myself, I’ve met and known a lot of preachers, but very few that were gifted with a natural ability to just “preach.” I’ve met fewer that have been able to blend their gift for preaching and their commitment and passion for black folk in such a sophisticated form of advocacy and theology. I’ve met even fewer that have been blessed with such a great opportunity to share their gifts at such a great level. Say what you will, there aren’t many that would turn down the opportunity to pastor a church with the reputation and resources of New Birth. Truth be told, not many could handle the responsibility either. Atlanta is known for having excellent preachers. It’s the home of one of the world’s most recognized preachers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time, it also faces similar issues that are disproportionately impacting people of color in Baltimore.
But Baltimore is no slack. Baltimore has always been a “church town.” As a result, Baltimore has produced some of this nation’s greatest preachers from Vernon Dobson to Walter Scott Thomas, but history will record that Dr. Bryant is equally worthy of similar recognition. His ability to speak to the concerns of “disinherited people” living on the margins of society has endeared him to the most venerable in our nation. It is because of this gifting to capture the sentiments of the Gospel and layer them beneath the realities of suffering people is what has set him apart. It is also what will be missed the most.
For the past 20 years Dr. Bryant has been at the forefront of most issues negatively impacting the African American community. Consistently, he’s stood flat footed for the social justice due all of God’s creation. Whether it was the revelation of water bills that sought to displace aging home owners or standing with the students of Morgan State before the state capitol in Annapolis he has been a consistent voice on the side of the justice. His absence will be felt in the halls of the General Assembly and the City Council, if for no other reason, he could not be bought. He could not be moved to take comfortable positions to appease the majority interest. His interest has remained with black people. Yes, his advocacy mirrored his personality, in that it was verbose, charismatic, and prone to controversy. But it will be those qualities that will afford him an even greater entre’ into the Georgian and national public scene.
The questions have begun inquiring about his successor and who will determine that individual. The reality is that certain people can never be replaced. You don’t replace people like him, you find persons inspired to meet the standards he has set. His congregation will miss his unique approach to homiletics. They will miss him more than any other interest in the city. But we must never forget that he was a Pastor, first and foremost. Over the course of those 20 years he’s married, blessed and buried thousands of individuals and a part of him will always be with them.
The media will miss his fiery brand of in your face local social justice. But the city of Baltimore will miss one of its most committed, dedicated, sincere and compassionate fighters for the poor and downtrodden. I will miss his voice of uncompromising critique in the back rooms. But more than any of that I will miss his unapologetic preacher swag and his friendship. My prayer is that the people of Atlanta will encourage him to continue to….. Preach! Black Man, Preach! For in Dr. Bryant, New Birth and the city of Atlanta are not just getting a preacher, but they are getting a gift.
Dr. K. A. Slayton, Sr., is the Senior Pastor of New Waverly UMC in Baltimore, MD
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