Urban Faith Profiles Hampton University chaplain Debra HagginsThe Hampton University Ministers’ Conference is one of the most influential gatherings of black church leaders. And HU chaplain Debra Haggins O’Bryant is the event’s driving force.

Like an annual pilgrimage, some 6,500 black ministers and music directors from a variety of churches around the nation flocked to Hampton University last week for soul-stirring preaching and worship, with a healthy dash of networking. The Hampton Ministers’ Conference, sponsored by Urban Ministries Inc. (parent company of UrbanFaith.com), is widely regarded as the largest and most influential gathering for African American pastors and church leaders eager for inspiration and insight.

At the 96th annual edition of the conference, however, there also was an unmistakable academic undertone befitting the event’s college campus setting. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provided a special keynote. And the conference debuted its Church Development and Leadership Academy, where seminar participants earned continuing education credits.

Credit the guiding hand of Rev. Debra L. Haggins O’Bryant for the new educational emphasis. In her second year as HU’s chaplain and the conference’s executive secretary, O’Bryant’s influence is clearly evident. Her previous jobs in Virginia’s public school system and as an interim pastor at Norfolk’s historic Queen Street Baptist Church provided her with a unique blend of experience for her new responsibilities at Hampton, where she holds the distinction of being the first female chaplain. During a break at last week’s conference, Rev. O’Bryant and I discussed her dual roles.

URBAN FAITH: How has felt pulling together such a massive conference the second time around?

DEBRA HAGGINS O’BRYANT: I did not realize the magnitude of it all and how intense and involved the behind-the-scenes preparation is. It looks relatively smooth from the outside, but it takes a full year to plan. I’m already planning for 2011.

And you’re doing it while being a year-round campus chaplain at Hampton.

Correct, but I love it. Attendance in our chapel is absolutely wonderful. The sanctuary holds about 500 persons. Several Sundays we are filled to capacity. There are about 300 to 350 students in regular attendance.

What do you think is drawing so many students?

It’s the contemporary service. Many of them were going to church in the off-campus community because they wanted that more contemporary feel. Historically, we’ve had a very traditional service. One of my goals coming in was to increase the level of student involvement, so the music has changed. We still have teaching as our mainstay, but it’s not just [a quiet] chapel service. It’s just plain church now!

How contemporary is it? Have you added gospel rap?

[Laughter] Well, we haven’t done the rap thing yet. I’m not sure how to step into that one. Students still have to dress more formally for church, and I think the students like that. But they’re free to worship openly. They’re free to dance. I’m very much an educator, so I know the importance of developmental appropriateness. College students are still looking for answers, so we guide them.

How do you make church relevant to them, beyond the music?

I teach them some basic life skills with stories of the Bible. Many of them know the stories. In my sermons, I take biblical personalities and I show how they apply to their lives. I latch onto things that are happening in the media and pop culture. I talk about life and experiences.

Teaching seemed to be an undergirding theme at this year’s conference, with classes such as “Psychology from Scripture” that you might see in a course catalog. Why was the academy added?

It kind of bothered me that we had been preaching and teaching but were going back to our respective ministries in need of more practical tools to apply. Other ministers mentioned this to me also. With that in mind, the lecturers we brought in this year are pastors who are experts in their fields. Dr. Geoffrey Guns, for instance, is known nationally as an expert on leadership. He gave me lots of direction. We got extremely good feedback from his lectures last year.

And there was also Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech.

I thought Mr. Duncan was wonderful. There was no other place that he could go to get this many clergy from such a variety of denominations and deliver the message of the church getting involved in the struggle of improving the country’s education system. My interpretation of what he said was that we need the church to put the education of our youth as a top line priority.

But hasn’t it always been a top priority?

I think it’s been on the agenda, but I don’t know how high. Some churches are doing well with youth ministries, but we need tutorial programs, SAT and ACT prep programs and so on. God’s word is dedicated to love and wisdom. Learning is extremely important

What should local churches do immediately?

Contact their local school districts and schools. Make appointments with the principals and the PTA. See how schools need assistance and target that need with help.

What about church-and-state separation issues?

The schools will know where to draw the line. A lot of churches have tutorial programs. Churches in the black community have long been involved in education in the past. It’s nice to be in partnership. Just a conversation to say that we’re here and we’d like to help is what can happen now and that will lead to more.

You seem to be settled in and ready to tackle even bigger things.

I feel wonderful. I love my job. It’s the perfect opportunity to combine my leadership skills as an educator with my pastoral experience. Everything I’ve done has brought me to this point. I’m in the right place at the right time.

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