While many people will be finding some sense of rest going into this holiday weekend, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant’s weekend is just getting started.
Shortly after getting off of a flight from Europe on Wednesday, the faith leader is preparing to host his first Resurrection Weekend as the officially installed shepherd of the largest black megachurch in the world—New Birth Missionary Baptist Church—less than a 15-minute commute from downtown Atlanta.
And the weekend is jammed pack with plenty of high-profile activities. Tonight, New Birth will host seven of Bryant’s contemporaries in a program titled, “Seven Last Words.”
The 7 p.m. service, which will be aired on the Word Network and BET, will also feature the Bishop George Bloomer, the Rev. Antoinette Alvarado, Elder Mark Moore Jr., the Rev. Tolan Morgan, the Rev. Charles Goodman Jr., the Rev. William D. Watley, and the Bishop Brian Keith Hodges.
This special program will be hosted in the main sanctuary on the New Birth campus, which sits on a sprawling campus of more than 240 acres in unincorporated Dekalb County, Georgia between the municipalities of Lithonia and Stonecrest. The campus’s footprint includes a grade school, a day care center, a community center, as well as a football field.
On Saturday, New Birth will celebrate the culmination of many hours that Bryant and his parishioners have worked alongside county officials in Gwinnett, Dekalb, and Fulton counties to post bail for more than 150 families. Through the initiative—called “The Word Is Our Bond”— New Birth has raised more than $118,000 in donations from the community since Bryant started the program in early March.
The entirety of those funds will not only free many who would have spent their holidays behind bars, but also go toward a “welcome home” celebration New Birth is hosting to provide these newly released individuals—and their families—with complimentary legal services, food and access to a number of social service agencies and nonprofits that will help many of them transition smoothly back into society.
Then, on Sunday, in a stripped down casual service wearing “New Birth” t-shirts and jeans, Bryant will deliver his first Resurrection Sunday message in one dynamic service scheduled at 9:30 a.m.
“Since becoming the leader of New Birth, the love has been absolutely and overwhelmingly supporting,” Bryant said. “I have not lived here since I was a student 18 years ago at Morehouse and graduated in 1994. To come back with so much affirmation is overwhelming and humbling. It’s absolutely humbling and horrifying!”
A few weeks ago, Bryant was officially installed as the fourth senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in a star-studded, well-attended installation ceremony on Sunday, March 10. The 47-year-old took the helm of the megachurch following the passing of its last official senior pastor Bishop Eddie L. Long in January 2017.
Long served from 1987 until his death at age 63 from an aggressive form of cancer.
“To be installed as pastor was a rite of passage—it was crossing the burning sands, in that it was no longer pledging, or online, or on trial, or on audition—to sit in that seat, to have the overwhelming sense that I now have this responsibility: to uphold a legacy, to lend vision, and to move a people to a greater chapter and new beginning.”
Many say that a new beginning is exactly what New Birth’s board and Bryant’s supporters were hoping for when he was selected among a pool of more than 180 applicants last November.
“About a year ago, I was feeling was really feeling a crisis of purpose,” Bryant recalled. “About a year to a year and a half ago, I really felt like I had apexed and hit a wall. I knew that there was a calling for me to do something else, I just didn’t know what it looked like or where it was.
“Through the hand of God, I found out about the opening here at New Birth, and, in an almost domino-like effect, everything just seemed to line up and point me in this direction,” he continued. “But (the decision to apply) didn’t come without a lot of internal reflection and meditation.
“Baltimore is home for me and I am also a third-generation (African Methodist Episcopal) minister,” Bryant said. “So to leave everything I knew was a complete act of faith for me. But I am glad that I trusted God in the process.”
Originally born in Boston, Bryant grew up with his parents the Bishop John Richard Bryant—a retired presiding bishop in the AME Church—and the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant with his sister. He also is the father of five daughters.
A mix of 1500 faithful and curious braved frigid temperatures and rainy weather last December to hear and listen to Bryant deliver his inaugural sermon. “Bite Me” was the theme of Bryant’s first sermon, as he compared the actions of detractors to the blood-sucking antics of mythical vampires, draining Christian sojourners of their energy and their faith in God.
Though controversial, the message struck a chord with New Birth parishioners. Bryant’s steady hand and commitment to community building and social justice have born fruit—for the first time since the church endured a round of scandals with Bryant’s predecessor the Bishop Eddie Long III, the church’s membership has begun to grow.
Despite Long’s troubled final years, Bryant said he wholly understands the depth and expansiveness of the legacy that his predecessor left behind.
“(Long) created the largest land-owning mass of any black church in America,” Bryant said. “He also created an infrastructure and sanctuary that is cutting edge and second to none. To be able to restore that vision and bring it forward into the 21st century is what lies ahead (for me).
“To be able to reach millennials and Gen X-ers who have walked away from traditional church and don’t believe in institutional faith is really a Herculean task,” he admitted. “But I believe I am the man for the job and I’m going to be able to pull it together.
Bryant said he plans to use the assets of the megachurch to teach his members about land accumulation, development and wealth building.
“My DNA is liberation theology,” Bryant explained. “It is the intersection of both the Cross and the community. To be able to come to the bedrock and the birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement—knowing that I am in the shadow of so many great luminaries who made sacrifices for our people—really makes it easier. I am excited to be able to carry the torch for a new generation.”
Already, during the month of April, the church has welcomed some of the nation’s biggest names in black wealth accumulation—George Fraser, James Hunt, Amy Dawkins and others—to lead a series called “The Millionaire Academy.”
Bryant also said he is interested in developing an aggressive solar paneling system to become the “largest source of alternative energy in the state of Georgia” that would be owned, operated and directed by an African-American institution.
“I want us to be able to do affordable housing for our members right here on our property,” he continued. “I am a recipient of a GED as well as going on to earn a doctoral degree. I want us to be able to—on this property—to afford space for those who need a second chance at higher education.”
Further, Bryant was transparent about his own transgressions following a failed divorce and parenting a child out of wedlock.
“I’m a pastor who has had many bumps in the road,” he said, “but God keeps putting in place a trampoline every time I fail. I’ve encountered many of the trappings that many say disqualify one from being a pastor. And yet God has put me on the largest stage of any Black church in America. Not because of me, but to show Him off.”
He added, “I hope that my life will be remembered that God recycles—that He doesn’t use perfect people but instead uses perfecting people, that He is, in fact, the God of another chance.”