Minister rich in spirit

Pastor builds influence with a message as corporate as it is holy

December 03, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant strolls onto stage, his dapper image projected on four giant screens, hundreds of faces before him.

Swirls of light dance in the background as the 35-year-old takes to the podium, his baritone voice booming through JumboTron speakers and echoing throughout the former roller skating rink.

The audience roars.

It's an entrance worthy of a rock star. Only this is Tuesday night Bible Study at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore. And the man in the paisley shirt and shiny gray suit with the smooth voice of an R&B singer - the pastor.

In six years, Empowerment Temple has grown from about 40 members to more than 10,000, donating $5 million last year, making Bryant a celebrity in the world of megachurches. Edgy, entrepreneurial and increasingly influential, the African Methodist Episcopal pastor connects with a contemporary generation that sees glory in his message and his unabashed financial success.

While Bryant has alienated some traditionalists who say he is a businessman first, preacher second, his supporters are unfazed by his prosperity and multiple ventures. He has helped push his church - and, by extension, himself - to the front ranks of Baltimore's politically powerful.

Bryant is a highly sought-after speaker who shuttles across the country - even the world - in any given week. Elected officials flock to his church. Congregants pour in from as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia. And a charter school and ministries reach out to everyone from single parents to drug addicts.

Between the church services and speaking engagements beamed across the world, Bryant hosts his own talk show, writes books (his first, Foreplay: Sexual Healing for Spiritual Wholeness) and doles out inspirational tidbits by cell phone text messages and the radio.

The church is scouting Baltimore City sites for a bigger location, and there are tentative proposals to build additional Empowerment Temples in Washington and other cities. One is even under way in Liberia.

Then there are plans for Bryant's own clothing line - an endeavor outside of the church. (Not much of a stretch for the always-stylish pastor, who sports three-piece suits, alligator-skin shoes and short, bold ties.)

"I'm a busy man," he says in his office on a recent morning. "I travel a lot. I'm somewhere different every week. Tomorrow I'm in Wilmington, N.C. Friday, I'm in Atlanta. In December, I'm in Nigeria for three days. Two weeks later, I'm in Uganda.

"Every week is different. Every month is different."

Political power

Bryant is also a political powerhouse, a man whose church is a requisite stop on the campaign trail. Last month, Baltimore Mayor-in-waiting Sheila Dixon was a guest on the sleek set of his talk show, God and Glory, on WMAR-TV. A few days later, he was named a member of her transition team to assist her shift from City Council president to replace Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley.

"It's one of the churches in the state that you can't ignore if you're trying to reach out to people and to have an opportunity to dialogue," says Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the NAACP, who is a mentor to Bryant.

"It's not something that he said, `This is on my list of things to do, to be a powerhouse politically,'" Mfume adds. "But his charisma, his ability to motivate people and his appeal [have] caused a lot of people to stop and to give real credence to what Rev. Jamal Bryant thinks about things."

Dixon says she has watched Bryant evolve from a little kid running around the Bethel AME Church, when his father was pastor, to the successful pastor he has become. He was a typical kid, she recalls, mischievous and always getting into things.

"I've watched him grow and mature and develop into a young minister who has attracted a lot of young people ... because of his style, because of his commitment to the Lord and because of his upbringing," says Dixon. "Jamal really makes things real. He represents a very progressive style and personality. He shows young people how they can connect themselves to God and be prosperous, blessed and self-motivated."

Experts say Bryant's approach is typical of a contemporary worship style that employs a corporate professional model - using technology and marketing to spread the word to a wider audience. Bryant's Web site, which features the interior of a sports car, includes a guest book with entries from across the country. The site sells sermons on CDs, DVDs and MP3s and includes a link to a travel Web site.

"There is a new emphasis on marketing approaches to congregational life and taking advantage of all the current technologies," says the Rev. R. Drew Smith, a scholar-in-residence at the Leadership Center in Morehouse College. "I think many of these megachurches have done a good job at attempting to update the way churches respond to their parishioners."

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