Questions, concerns over pastor's divorce

AME event may address marital woes of Empowerment Temple leader

February 16, 2008|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

Controversy surrounding the divorce case of the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant - the flashy, influential pastor of the Empowerment Temple - will likely be addressed at the annual conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church next month.

Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr., who presides over the Second Episcopal District, which includes Maryland, said that although he was not aware of any formal complaints about Bryant's pending divorce and his wife's allegation of adultery, Richardson planned to broach the topic at the conference in Baltimore.

"There will be some questions that I ask," Richardson said in a recent interview. "Simply the same questions that we have with every pastor that deal with the character of pastors and whether or not anything official has come to the secretary of the conference about the moral or religious character of a pastor."

Bryant is a high-profile, politically connected pastor with a congregation that counts more than 10,000 members and a business acumen that has resulted in book deals, inspirational text messages and plans for a clothing line.

He and his wife of 5 1/2 years, Gizelle, both filed for divorce last month.

Gizelle Bryant declined to comment about the divorce through her attorney. Jamal-Harrison Bryant declined an interview request through his church's representative.

Richardson said this week that he and other leaders in the AME church have prayed for Bryant, "with the hope that things can be resolved."

"In the meantime," he added, "it's still a matter before the annual conference of which he is a member."

The divorce has been the talk of churchgoers and blogs, both local and national, with some expressing disappointment and shock that the pastor did not immediately address it at church.

The pastor told congregants at services in January that he was having family problems, the spokesman said.

"He did take it upon himself to say it's a personal matter, it's a heavy matter. There are issues he and his wife are trying to work out right now," said Nicole Kirby, a spokeswoman for Bryant.

Others say it's not their concern.

"I'm saddened maybe, but not disappointed," said Lolita Samuels, 37, of the divorce.

Samuels said she has attended the church for nearly five years and views the pastor as a role model. "Whatever happens, he'll rise above it," she said. "From my standpoint, it's none of my business. He's still an excellent pastor and a wonderful leader."

Bryant and his wife, a former model, are known for their flashy lifestyle, which includes a Bentley and a multimillion-dollar Canton waterfront property. Their lifestyle has attracted criticism from those who say the church is more about his business enterprises and building wealth than religion. Her original divorce complaint stated that he earned more than $350,000 a year.

He is seeking a "limited divorce," while his wife has requested an "absolute divorce," according to papers filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.

A limited divorce is a voluntary legal separation required in Maryland for a year before most absolute divorces.

Absolute divorces, however, are allowed immediately under certain circumstances, such as adultery and cruelty.

In Gizelle Bryant's filing last month, she accuses her husband of adultery, cruel treatment and "excessively vicious conduct" that caused "reasonable apprehension of bodily suffering so as to render cohabitation unsafe."

In court papers, she says her husband's "persistent pattern of conduct was so cruel as to render" her "incapable of properly discharging her marital duties."

Bryant's conduct, her complaint says, "was his final and deliberate act and was calculated to, and did, seriously impair" her "health and permanently destroy her happiness."

In his filing, Bryant says he and his wife were "mutually and voluntarily separated" and that "there is no hope for reconciliation."

They have a 3-year-old and 1-year-old twins.

Bryant also has two children from before his marriage. He acknowledged one, a 7-year-old daughter, for the first time last year from the pulpit after a court battle over child support payments surfaced and became a topic of speculation.

Richardson said that if it's determined that Bryant's conduct needs to be reviewed, he will be referred to one of the conference's committees.

With regard to divorce, Richardson said the church encourages couples to work out their differences through counseling or other remedies. "On the other hand, we would not encourage couples to stay in relationships that are abusive or when a person is having struggles over matters pertaining to adultery," he said.

Samuels and others said Bryant's ability to connect with his congregation - a majority of whom are young people and single mothers - has made him a personable and compelling pastor.

Samuels said the pastor seemed to be continuing his good work, recently announcing a new program that will enable single women to take a financial literacy course and receive help on buying a new car.

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