As the Rev. John Richard Bryant danced down the aisle of a Towson church last night, he wore a smile that said, "Wow, look at all this."
Bryant had ample reason to beam: He was entering a hall packed with singing and swaying people eager to honor his ministerial sons and daughters.
Yesterday Bryant, now a bishop in Los Angeles, returned to Baltimore to honor the 20th anniversary of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's Class of 1981, eight men and women who became prominent ministers.
But while he appeared at the church to celebrate them, they gathered to honor and thank him.
"Words can never express our gratitude to you," said Charlotte Clemons, one of the eight and now pastor at Baltimore's Shiloh AME Church. "We love you."
Bryant came to Bethel AME as a young pastor in 1975 and quickly shook things up.
He introduced an upbeat style of worship, emphasized Afrocentric themes in preaching, and championed a political and social activism that soon drew a following.
Under his guidance, more than 100 men and women answered the call to become ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Class of 1981 remains among the most accomplished.
The Rev. Joan L. Wharton, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church in Long Green. Wharton was the first woman to serve as secretary of the AME Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity.
The Rev. Eleanor Graham Bryant, who is Bishop Bryant's sister. She is the founder of the Agape Fellowship Miracle Church in Park Heights. She was one of the first three women to earn a doctor of ministry degree, in 1991, from the Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions.
The Rev. Sandra Moore-Phillips, pastor of Oak Street AME Church in Baltimore. She is the director of Project Spark, an intensive reading and math course for GED candidates. She also developed Project Turnaround, a support group for former drug dealers, and the Dream Team, an evangelism street ministry.
Clemons, pastor of Shiloh AME Church in Baltimore. She has served as director of the Bethel AME Church Outreach Center and was a fellow at the Children's Defense Fund's National Black Pastor's Fellowship Program.
The Rev. Frank Sartor, pastor of Union Bethel AME Church in Denton. As a result of his push for ministerial education, seven students received bachelor's degrees, 30 elders obtained master's degrees and 10 elders obtained doctoral degrees from a prominent theological institution.
The Rev. Gloria Skinner, associate minister at St. Michael's AME Church in South Boston, Va. Skinner was hired full time by the Commonwealth of Virginia in Wythe County for counseling and investigation. She is pursuing theological studies at Duke University.
The Rev. Ann F. Lightner-Fuller, pastor of Mt. Calvary AME Church in Towson. She was featured in 1997 in Ebony magazine -- along with Bishop Vashti McKenzie, former pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore -- as one of the nation's 15 greatest female preachers.
The Rev. Raymond Banks Sr., an itinerant elder in the AME Church. He serves as ombudsman for Baltimore City public schools, dealing with concerns and complaints lodged with the chief executive officer of the system.
Last night's ceremony, held at Lightner-Fuller's Calvary AME Church, at 300 Eudowood Lane, was the second in recent weeks for the Class of 1981.
Last week, they gathered at Bethel AME and delivered excerpts of their first public sermons.
The class drew standing ovation after standing ovation from a congregation of churchgoers from across the Baltimore area.
But the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for Bryant, a lean man with a gentle face.
"He was a teacher who saw something in them before they saw it in themselves," said Linda Stewart-Byrd, a congregation member at Mt. Calvary AME.