Is the Rev. Jamal Bryant the Man to Save Baltimore?

The charismatic, controversial pastor who helped bury Freddie Gray wants to save his city.

The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant CNN screenshot  

The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant is emotionally spent.

The past 11 days had taken their toll when The Root spoke with Bryant, 43, over the phone Wednesday. We asked him how he was handling these “hectic” days—his home city of Baltimore mired in charges of police brutality, the suspicious death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the subsequent peaceful protests and shocking violence leading to the National Guard’s patrolling of another American city. Bryant, who delivered the eulogy at Gray’s funeral Monday, knows that it’s been chaos, but the words to truly describe it have failed him.

Or at least words that didn’t sound “heretical.”

“Hectic” will suffice, among a few other words.

For himself, for the citizens of Baltimore, Bryant sums it up thusly: “It’s been overwhelming.”

Bryant’s search for the right words—whether in describing his experiences or during his talks with the press—is one he takes seriously, one he is careful with, considering his history. The charismatic, hip-hop-style preacher is a rising star both in the black Christian community and as an activist, traveling to Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., during the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths at the hands of police. But his mouth—the same one that gives fiery speeches and motivates the masses—also gets him in trouble. Most notably when he quoted Chris Brown in a sermon that went viral last summer.

In a sermon he gave on black men working to find “a black woman of substance,” he referenced Brown’s hit “Loyal,” which features the chorus, “These hoes ain’t loyal,” which Bryant quoted.

A lot of women were not amused. Brown, known as much for his violent antics as for his former teen-heartthrob status, is still a sore subject for many. A pastor seemingly endorsing misogyny was problematic, especially when nearly 60 percent of the pews in black churches are filled with black women.

Still, Bryant bristles at those who have labeled him a woman-hater and maintains that his intent was in the right place. “Listen to the whole sermon and not listen to a sound bite. Anything in a sound bite can be taken out of context,” he said, adding that people often quote other parts of the viral “Loyal” sermon—namely the “Little girls with dreams become black women with vision” quote—but won’t attribute them to him because he’s been labeled a sexist.

“They wrote ‘writer anonymous,’” Bryant said. “They take my stuff out of that exact same sermon, but you couldn’t ascribe it to me at the time because you’ve connected and vilified me under the Chris Brown quote.”

Still, he regrets the wording. “It was regrettable, and I’m more mindful and conscious of what I speak now,” Bryant said.

Bryant doesn’t want things like the “hoes” comment to derail his cause: fighting against discrimination, police brutality, mass incarceration and other issues affecting African Americans. It’s true, he has views that won’t jibe with those of many progressives. He is against gay marriage, but he also says that he has LGBT people in his church. (“I’m not a gay-basher; nor am I homophobic,” he said.)

Bryant believes that it’s more important to focus on our commonalities than on the one thing we may disagree on—whether that means putting aside gay marriage, getting street gangs to sign a peace treaty in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death or marching alongside Nation of Islam members to protect citizens.

“Do we agree that the prison pipeline has to end? Do we agree that racial profiling is wrong?” he asked. “We can always focus on what we don’t agree on, but is there anything we can agree with?”