An Atlanta-area black megachurch led by the late Bishop Eddie Long has announced it has chosen a new leader, plucked from another black megachurch, as its pastor.
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, will move to Lithonia, Ga., to assume the position of senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. He will also be shifting from an African Methodist Episcopal congregation to one affiliated with a Baptist network.
“Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant embodies the rare balance of spiritual gifts and practical educational experiences that connects pastoral leadership and discipleship teaching with prophetic preaching and courageous social action,” New Birth said in a news release on Monday (Nov. 19).
The transition comes months after Long’s first successor resigned after serving for about a year and a half. Bishop Stephen A. Davis said in June that he would return to serving the branch of New Birth in Birmingham, Ala.
Long died in January 2017 at age 63 after fighting health issues for several months. When he became pastor of the church in 1987, it had about 300 members. Its membership reached more than 25,000. When the church announced Davis’ departure in June, the membership had dropped to slightly more than 10,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“One of the big difficulty with churches that have had nationally significant pastors is precisely the problem of continuity,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College.
And the issue of succession, no matter the prominence or the size of the church, becomes an “incredibly painful problem” when a pastor dies.
“Even though pastors are professional, it is like losing a family member,” she said, and a successor often winds up preaching with “some kind of enshrined shadow or ghost sitting or standing over the person.”
Bryant started his Baltimore church in 2000 with 43 members and, according to its website, now has more than 10,000. It is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic black denomination that celebrated its bicentennial in 2016.
Bishop Frank M. Reid, who is in charge of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s ecumenical affairs, said a shift of a megachurch pastor from an AME-affiliated congregation to New Birth would be a new dynamic that would have to be worked out between the pastor and the leader of the former AME district where the pastor was previously located.
“We would have to ask Jamal, ‘Are you leaving the denomination or are you maintaining your ties with the AME Church or are you turning in your ordination papers?’” Reid said. “But that would be between him and the bishop of the district.”
Gilkes said the AME Church, which includes bishops, is organized differently from Baptist churches, which traditionally recognize only the offices of pastor and deacon. But Long became a bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, a 24-year-old network of churches, in the 1990s.
Both Long and Bryant encountered controversy even as they watched their congregations grow under their leadership.
Long faced suits, settled in 2012, from young men who accused him of using money and gifts to coerce them into sexual relationships. In 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa concluded a three-year probe of six ministries including New Birth and found that Long’s staffers declined to respond to most of their questions, including the amount of the senior pastor’s salary.
Bryant and his ex-wife, Gizelle Bryant, who later became a star in “Real Housewives of the Potomac,” divorced in 2009 after he had an extramarital affair. In 2015, he announced a run for Congress only to end his campaign eight days later.
New Birth said Bryant’s first Sunday as “senior pastor elect” will be Dec. 9.
Stacey Abrams broke the rules of politics until the very end.
The Georgia Democrat who came about 60,000 votes shy of becoming America’s first black woman governor refused to follow the traditional script for defeated politicians who offer gracious congratulations to their victorious competitor and gently exit the stage. Instead, Abrams ended her campaign in an unapologetically indignant tone that established herself as a leading voting rights advocate.
“I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election,” Abrams said in a fiery 12-minute address. “But to watch an elected official … baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”
“So let’s be clear,” Abrams concluded, “this is not a speech of concession.”
Ending a race while pointedly refusing to concede would typically risk drawing a “sore loser” label that would be impossible to shake in any future political campaign. But Democrats and even some Republicans say she is likely to emerge from the closely fought governor’s race with her political future on solid ground.
“There was a time when this may have been a bad look, but I’m not sure that’s where we are in politics anymore,” said Jen Palmieri, who served as communications director for President Barack Obama’s White House and to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“For many years, people have been too concerned about the optics of their actions as opposed to the impact of their actions,” Palmieri added, saying that addressing some voters’ lack of faith in the system is “more important than worrying what might offend people who may or may not vote for you four years from now.”
Republican Rick Tyler, a top adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said “botched concessions have hurt people before,” but he said it’s too simple to say Abrams “botched” anything because some of her criticism has merit.
“I wish we could all have faith in the system and the process,” Tyler said. “Then we could count votes, listen to gracious concession speeches and all just move on. That’s not where we are.”
Abrams cited a litany of problems that she said add up to systemic voter suppression. She specifically pointed to absentee ballots thrown out by what she called “the handwriting police,” a shortage of paper ballots to back up broken-down voting machines and Georgia’s so-called “exact match” voter registration rules that require information on voter applications to precisely match state and federal files.
While state law allows “no viable remedy,” she said she plans to file federal legal action challenging various aspects of the electoral system Kemp oversaw until he resigned as secretary of state two days after the Nov. 6 election. She also launched the new non-profit group “Fair Fight Georgia” to advocate for changes.
Some Republicans rebuked her approach.
“She seems to think there are only two branches of government: executive and judicial,” said Debbie Dooley, a Georgia-based activist who was among the early national tea party leaders. “I’m just disappointed that her immediate adversarial response is to file lawsuits when there are a lot of people on the Republican side who see a need for some of the reforms she wants.”
For starters, Dooley cited an absentee ballot process that varies from county to county and Georgia’s reliance on electronic voting machines with no paper trail — a system a federal court already has ordered changed after the 2018 elections.
“If they try to do it all through the federal courts, it’s going to end up with people resenting her,” Dooley predicted.
Abrams said “pundits and hyper-partisans” would object to her flouting “normal order” for losing candidates. “I should be stoic in my outrage and silent in my rebuke,” she said of conventional expectations. “But stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people.”
Georgia Democrats said Abrams has little choice but to continue highlighting problems.
“The middle ground here is simple: ‘Count every vote,'” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, Abrams’ campaign chairman.
Buddy Darden, a former congressman who chaired the campaign of Abrams’ Democratic primary rival, agreed. Darden, who is white, said Abrams proved wrong the “old dinosaurs like me” who thought a black woman couldn’t compete in a general election in the Deep South. “She did it by getting folks out that no one else could,” Darden said. “Now she has their back, and that’s a good thing for the party, a good thing for the state.”
Palmieri, the former Obama and Clinton adviser, said Abrams can fill an important national void. Republicans, she said, have spent a generation focused on passing GOP-friendly voting rules, redrawing district boundaries and electing like-minded secretaries of state like Kemp. The left has answered with a less-effective patchwork of lawyers and think tanks. “She would be a formidable force on that front,” Palmieri said.
Lawrence-Hardy and other Abrams confidants say she’s not considered future runs for office. The next chance would be to challenge for Republican Sen. David Perdue’s seat in 2020, though those close to Abrams say her policy interests are better suited to the governor’s office.
History offers some parallels.
Democrat Al Gore fell just short of the presidency in 2000 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Republican George W. Bush’s victory in Florida. Gore never returned to politics, but established himself as a leading advocate for addressing climate change.
Republican Richard Nixon lost a bitter presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, followed by a loss in the 1962 California governor’s election, prompting a bitter concession speech in which he declared himself done with politics. Six years later, he was elected president, capitalizing on Democrats’ Vietnam-era disarray.
Cruz found himself in Republican crosshairs in 2016 when he spoke at the Republican convention but notably refused to endorse then-nominee Donald Trump for president. Weeks ago, Trump and Cruz embraced on a Texas campaign stage, helping Cruz to a hard-fought re-election victory to the Senate.
The lesson, Palmieri said, is that “voters let these things play out.”
Some parishioners will now carry weapons into a historically black Kentucky church visited by a white gunman before police said he killed two black people at a grocery store.
The First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown has asked church members with law enforcement or security backgrounds to carry guns to services and Bible studies. So far, seven parishioners have been identified to take on this responsibility.
WKYT-TV reports the Rev. Kevin Nelson tells WDRB-TV the church also has increased security in other ways.
Gregory Bush is charged with first-degree murder in the slayings at a Louisville-area Kroger last month. Police say he was seen on surveillance video trying to enter the church minutes before the attack. Police Chief Sam Rogers told the congregation that he believes the shooting was racially motivated.
Democrats and Republicans nationwide had their eyes trained on Georgia to see whether the emerging battleground state, would elect the first black woman governor in American history or double down on the Deep South’s GOP tendencies with an acolyte of President Donald Trump.
But they’ll have to wait a little longer.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in the contest, why Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams agree it’s not over and what it means in Georgia and beyond.
KEMP LEADS AND ABSENTEES LOOM
With more than 3.8 million votes counted, Kemp stood at 50.8 percent, enough for an outright victory under a quirky Georgia law requiring a majority to win a general election without a runoff. But Abrams and Kemp agree there are absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots left to be counted.
Not surprisingly, the two rivals differ on how much that will matter.
Says Kemp: “There are votes left to count, but … make no mistake, the math is on our side to win this election.”
Abrams says the number of pending ballots is enough to push Kemp’s total below the 50 percent threshold, since a Libertarian candidate is taking about 1 percent of the vote.
“I promise you tonight we’re going to make sure that every vote is counted,” Abrams added.
The Abrams campaign estimated early Wednesday at least 97,000 early votes and mail-in ballots from key counties had not been tallied, based on its tracking. Separately, it’s not yet clear how many provisional and paper ballots were cast at polling places on Tuesday. Neither the Kemp campaign nor Secretary of State Kemp’s office — he happens to be the state’s chief elections officer — has offered its detailed data.
Abrams’ campaign estimates she’d need a net gain of almost 25,000 votes to trigger a runoff, which would be held Dec. 4.
WHY THIS RACE IS SO IMPORTANT
Abrams’ historic candidacy made this a race to watch from the start. She’s already the first black woman in U.S. history to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee. In Georgia, one of the original 13 states, she’d be the first woman, and the first non-white governor. (Yes, that means nothing but white men for 242 years.)
Beyond breaking barriers, the matchup exhibits the nation’s bitter partisan, ideological divides and underscores the cultural and racial fissures still lingering in the Deep South.
Abrams is a 44-year-old lawyer, former state legislative leader and moonlighting romance novelist who campaigns as an unabashed liberal. She promises to expand Medicaid insurance coverage and prioritize spending on public education, while endorsing tighter gun regulations and criticizing President Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration.
Kemp is a 55-year-old, two-term secretary of state who’s echoed Trump’s immigration rhetoric. He’s flaunted his guns, chain saw and pickup truck in his campaign ads. He promises to “put Georgians first,” blasts “fake news” and lambastes Abrams as a tool of “socialists” and “liberal billionaires” who “want to turn Georgia into California.”
Both nominees framed the race as a “battle for the soul” of the state — a characterization supported by Georgians voting in numbers nearing their turnout for the 2016 presidential election.
The stakes are high enough that Trump and former President Barack Obama made opposing visits within 48 hours on the final weekend. Oprah Winfrey, the media icon who typically sits out politics, came to campaign for Abrams.
All this plays out in a Georgia on the cusp of becoming a true battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. As governor, Kemp would be Trump’s biggest cheerleader in a state the president won by 5 percentage points in 2016. Abrams, as Georgia’s chief executive, would be among the most coveted endorsers in what’s likely to be a crowded Democratic field of aspiring presidents.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The counting was to continue Wednesday and perhaps beyond. In a race already fraught with racial innuendos surrounding the ballot access and voting system that Kemp runs, that process will likely be neither calm, nor quiet.
Abrams has called Kemp “an architect of voter suppression” for the way he’s managed voter registration rules and elections. In outlining the possibilities of a runoff, the campaign attributed an apparent rise in provisional and paper ballots to a shortage of reliable voting machines, and blamed Kemp for the lack of preparation.
Kemp has insisted he’s done his job, and argued that Abrams wants to help noncitizens vote illegally. He cited a speech in which she listed “undocumented” people as being part of her coalition.
But Kemp also had to admit within days of Tuesday’s voting that the online voter registration system he oversees was vulnerable to hackers. When a whistleblower alerted a voting rights lawyer who alerted the FBI and Kemp’s office of an apparent weakness, Kemp accused the Georgia Democratic Party, without offering evidence, of trying to tamper with the system.
Given that environment, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Kemp supporters would accept the legitimacy of a runoff or whether Abrams’ supporters would accept an outright Kemp victory.
Lisa McNair’s older sister Denise McNair, 11, died in the bombing of a black church 55 years earlier in Birmingham, Ala. Denise was one of four black girls who died when a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klansmen exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
Before he was accused of shooting and killing two black people in a Kentucky grocery store last week, Gregory Bush knocked on the door of a predominantly African-American church.
It was 2:44 on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a day when many churches have midweek services. About 70 people had been inside First Baptist Church Jeffersontown for a Bible study, but it had ended by the time Bush arrived and the doors were locked.
If Bush had been there just 45 minutes earlier, “it probably would have been very different,” said Pastor Kevin L. Nelson.
“We caught him on camera at the front door, after he knocked and pulled on it and banged on it, he stood there and put his hand on his gun,” Nelson said, adding that he believes the gunman would have shot whoever came to the door.
“We felt that that was his attempt to make it another Charleston,” he said.
A police chief in Kentucky has acknowledged the shooting deaths of two black people at a Kroger grocery store in suburban Louisville were racially motivated. Bush, who is in custody, is white, and the FBI has said it is investigating the shooting as a potential federal hate crime.
On Saturday, a man killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, adding to a growing list of violence at houses of worship. Nelson mentioned the 2015 racially motivated shooting deaths of nine black people at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Others followed, including the shooting deaths of two people at a New York City mosque in 2016 and the murder of 26 people at a Baptist church in Texas in 2017.
Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against Robert Gregory Bowers, the man charged in the Pittsburgh shootings. Authorities say Bowers expressed hatred for Jews during the rampage and later told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die.”
Speaking to a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society in Kentucky, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the Kentucky and Pennsylvania shootings: “if these aren’t the definitions of hate crimes, I don’t know what a hate crime is.”
Asked by a reporter if overheated political rhetoric bears any blame for violent actions, McConnell replied: “It’s hard to know. The political rhetoric is always pretty hot before an election. It’s not the first time.”
“I think the whole tone in the country right now needs to be ratcheted down,” McConnell said. “And these horrible, criminal acts only underscore the need for all of us to kind of dial it back, and to get into a better, more respectful place.”
The violence has prompted church leaders to grapple with finding a balance between securing their congregations and maintaining robust outreach programs they say are the core of their faith.
“I think it is sad you have to even lock the doors of the church,” Nelson said. “It was just the mindset where I grew up; you didn’t do certain things around the house of worship or even among the people of God. All that is changed today.”
In March, the Kentucky Baptist Convention — one of the state’s largest denominations — held a statewide church security conference for the first time. More than 1,000 people attended, said Paul Chitwood, the convention’s executive director. He said many people come to church because “they are hurting and they are confused.”
“The church wants to receive those people. And just because somebody looks different or acts a little different, well we want them in our churches,” he said. “But sometimes there is an individual who wants to do harm. We want for our churches to be prepared to respond to that and protect the congregants.”
Nelson said his church, which is not affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, has police officers in their services. He said they would likely “tighten up” security. In the meantime, he says he his praying for the victims and for the men charged with the crimes.
“Every soul is precious to God,” he said. “And it should be to us.”
The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, center, gives the benediction at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2014. The Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate pastor, left, and the Rev. Dawn M. Hand, executive pastor, right, joined her. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The share of women in the ranks of American clergy has doubled — and sometimes tripled — in some denominations over the last two decades, a new report shows.
“I was really surprised in a way, at how much progress there’s been in 20 years,” said the report’s author, Eileen Campbell-Reed, an associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn. “There’s kind of a circulating idea that, oh well, women in ministry has kind of plateaued and there really hasn’t been lot of growth. And that’s just not true.”
The two traditions with the highest percentages of women clergy were the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, according to the “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.,” released earlier this month. Fifty-seven percent of UUA clergy were women in 2017, while half of clergy in the UCC were female in 2015. In 1994, women constituted 30 percent of UUA clergy and 25 percent of UCC clergy.
Clergy Women in American Denominations. Graphic courtesy of StateofClergywomen.org
UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray credits the increase to a decision by her denomination’s General Assembly in 1970 to call for more women to serve in ministry and policymaking roles. She noted that as of this year, 60 percent of UUA clergy are women.
“All that work in the ’70s and ’80s made it possible for me, in the early 2000s, to come into ministry and be successful and lead thriving churches,” said Frederick-Gray, “and now be elected as the first female, first woman minister elected to the UUA presidency.”
Campbell-Reed and a research assistant gathered clergywomen statistics that had not been collected across 15 denominations for two decades.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, who co-authored the 1998 book “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” welcomed the new report as a way to start closing the gap in the research.
“While the experiences of women and the evolution of church life and leadership have changed dramatically over the past two decades, there have been no comprehensive studies on women and church leadership,” she said.
Reached between recent convocation events at Andover Newton Seminary, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a retired UCC minister, said the report’s findings were reflected around her.
“I was sort of looking around and seeing so many women and remembering that in my years in seminary in the ’60s how few of us there were,” said Crabtree, a trustee and alumna of the theological school. “So it’s definitely a sea change in terms of women’s ordination.”
Campbell-Reed’s research found a tripling of percentages of clergywomen in the Assemblies of God, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America between 1994 and 2017
But Campbell-Reed also found that clergywomen — with the exception of Unitarian Universalists — continue to lag behind clergymen in leading their churches. In the UCC, for example, female and male clergy are equal in number, but only 38 percent of UCC pastors are women.
Instead, many clergywomen — as well as clergymen — serve in ministerial roles other than that of pastor, including chaplains, nonprofit staffers and professors.
Paula Nesbitt, president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, said other researchers have long observed “the persistent clergy gender gap in attainment and compensation.”
For women of color, especially, significant gaps remain, and for women in some conservative churches, ordination is not an option.
Campbell-Reed noted that clergywomen of color “remain a distinct minority” in most mainline denominations. Those who have risen to leadership in the top echelons of their religious groups, she said, have done so after long years of service.
“Some of them are also being recognized for their contributions and their work, like any other person who’s got longevity and wisdom, by being elected as bishops in their various communions,” she said of denominations such as the United Methodist Church and the ELCA.
Women’s Leadership by Denomination. Graphic courtesy of StateofClergywomen.org
Campbell-Reed also pointed out the role of women who serve churches despite being barred from pastoral positions in congregations of the country’s two largest denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church.
Former Southern Baptist women like herself have joined the pastoral staffs of breakaway groups such as the Alliance of Baptists, which have women pastoring 40 percent of their congregations. And Catholic women constitute 80 percent of lay ecclesial ministers, who “are running the church on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Patricia Mei Yin Chang, another co-author of “Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling,” said the new statistics prompt questions about the meaning behind them, such as changing attitudes of congregations or decreases in male clergy.
“Those are two really different causes and they may differ across denominations,” she said.
Campbell-Reed, whose 20-page report concludes with two pages of questions for seminaries, churches, researchers and theologians, said she thinks the answers about the often-difficult job hunt for clergywomen relate to sexism.
“Just because more women enter into jobs in the church or are ordained does not mean that the problems of sexism have gone away,” she said. “At times, the bias is more implicit but no less real.”
But some women are reaching “tall-steeple” pulpits — leadership in prominent churches — instead of being relegated to struggling congregations, often in denominations on the decline.
Frederick-Gray said her denomination, which she said is working on race equality as well as gender equality, is seeing greater opportunities for women to preach in its largest churches. Of the 41 largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association, 20 are served by women senior ministers.
Women’s leadership, Frederick-Gray said, is necessary at a time of decline for many religions.
“The decline is not the responsibility of women,” she said. “But maybe we will be the hope for the future.”