Jamal Bryant, the new senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, had a few words for doubters about the future of the DeKalb megachurch.
“New Birth has resilient people,” he said to a packed church in which nearly every seat on the lower level was filled.
“I feel almost like I need to take my shoes off, I’m standing on holy ground,” he said. “There are 100,00 angels circling this church.”
Bryant drew inspiration from Acts 28:1-6 for his message about recovering from difficulty.
After the death of Bishop Eddie L. Long and, later, the resignation of his successor, many people expected New Birth would die, but he said promised a “rebirth. … We are New Birth.”
He praised Long, the longtime influential senior pastor of New Birth, who died in 2017 and recognized Long’s family.
In his sermon titled “Bite Me,” he warned the congregation of serpents in their midst who want to see them fail, but said they must hold on to their faith and praise God, even in the midst of adversity.
“I need New Birth to get the word out to everyone that our church is back on fire,” he said to wild applause.
At various times during Bryant’s sermon, churchgoers stood up and gave each other high-fives or shouted “Amen” and “preach.” Some even wiped away tears.
It showed that Bryant has the charisma to electrify an audience, which is what New Birth officials wanted — someone who had the potential to grow the church and rebuild its outreach in the community. Bryant was selected out of a pool of 138 applicants, including a son of Long, a flamboyant, influential and controversial pastor.
Guests included DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and Bryant’s mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, and his sister, Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a tenured professor at Pepperdine University, who is also seen on the OWN reality TV show, “Chad Loves Michelle,” and “Dr. Phil.”
The church lost members and saw a decline in offerings after a sexual coersion scandal involving Long. The parties reached a settlement and Long always denied the allegations.
One of Bryant’s biggest challenges will be to reduce the megachurch’s $31 million debt.
As part of the application process, Bryant and others had to submit a plan for reducing the debt.
For now, he wants to focus on building trust in the church and helping ease the pain of losing two pastors — one in death and the other, his successor, Bishop Stephen Davis, through a resignation last summer.
“This is like our first date,” Bryant said of his first sermon in front of the congregation.
Bryant told members that he learned New Birth staffers had not had a raise or cost-of-living increase in more than five years.
Therefore, instead of a traditional Christmas offering to the pastor, Bryant asked members to give their love offerings to the staff who have been there in the trenches.
Many of those in the sanctuary were visitors who wanted to hear the fiery preacher for the first time in person or who had visited his church in Baltimore.
Raymond Shorter, who moved from Bowie, Md., to metro Atlanta about a year ago, had visited Empowerment Temple many times and was just lamenting to a friend that he wished “there was a conscious church” here like Empowerment Temple. Shorter said he had to be there and would probably join the church. “He’s very spiritually conscious and he loves to uplift black people and give them food for their soul.”
“It was great,” said Desiree Watkins, who has been a New Birth member for 18 years. She said it felt as if Bishop Long’s spirit were present and “blessed his sermon.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.