By Kristy Bay
Reverend Co’Relous Bryant first felt the call to the Gospel ministry at 12-years-old. He grew up immersed in an independent Fundamentalist Southern Baptist church in northern Florida. While he felt called to pastor, his idea of a minister was different from the pastoral figures in his childhood faith. “My favorite image of ministry isn’t the shepherd or gardener,” Bryant said. “It’s the foot-washer. That’s what my ministry was always intended to be: walking alongside the people of God.” At that time, Bryant couldn’t fathom where God would lead him.
In 2007, Bryant enrolled at New York University on a full scholarship as a theater major, but quickly added political science to his degree. In 2011, as Bryant graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he found himself in a spiritual wilderness. All he knew was that he could no longer reconcile the theology of his childhood with his adult life experience. “I wasn’t theologically savvy enough to know what I did believe; but I knew what I didn’t believe,” Bryant said.
Bryant felt as if his calling to pastor also had to be disavowed. He returned to Jacksonville, Fl. wanting to work towards social change, but without any ideas on changing his spiritual direction. “In working with the non-profit organization, Jackson Public Education Fund,” Bryant recalls. “My first task was to go to all their community partners in person and thank them for participating in a recent campaign.”
That list included CBF partner congregation Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church (HAB) in Jacksonville. “I walked into the doors of HAB and saw a woman standing in the pulpit of this church with Baptist in the name!” Bryant exclaimed. Anne Vestal England was preaching that day, and her profound gospel message, plus the familiar hymnody from his childhood, introduced Bryant to CBF. “My initial dance with CBF began at HAB at a time when I was wrestling with becoming an ex-Baptist,” Bryant explains. “It was pivotal because it allowed me to reclaim my Baptist heritage and to reimagine what kind of pastor I could be—even in a Baptist context—one who knows how wide and expansive God’s love is. And can still sing “What a Friend we Have in Jesus.”
From that encounter, CBF became a pillar of support for nurturing Bryant’s calling and career. “I interned in the Global CBF Office with Devita Parnell. There I learned about all of the programs and resources and scholarships that CBF affords young people, no matter where they are on their journeys.”
Bryant was a CBF Leadership Scholar, then a Vestal Scholar and finally a Student.Go intern. It was this last connection that allowed Bryant to return to New York City during his final semester at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology as an intern at CBF partner congregation Metro Baptist Church. “I was drawn by the shape of ministry in this [urban] context,” Bryant said. “Unhoused populations with food insecurity on one side, but then on the other, you have the Wall Street executive who wakes up one morning and asks himself for the first time, ‘What does it all matter? If I lost it all tomorrow, will my life have mattered?’ I think I’m the kind of pastor who can not only work to get that family fed but also can sit with that investment banker and help him [be spiritually fed].”
As graduation loomed for Bryant, CBF once again provided a pivotal connection. A friend and former Passport pastor saw a job posting at St. James Episcopal Church in New York City and immediately thought of Bryant. When Bryant applied, the staff at St. James said, “You’re no ordinary Baptist,” and hired him. Bryant’s close connections to CBF also helped form a new connection beyond anything he could have dreamed with the new senior minister at the historically renowned Riverside Church in Manhattan.
“This woman had never laid eyes on me,” Bryant recalls. “But through the grace of God, she invited me to preach at their Watch Night Service. I was standing where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood; where Mandela had stood; where Barbara Brown Taylor had stood—all of my heroes.”
It was a moment Bryant will never forget and just one instance of the lavish goodness of God in his calling. “Leave room or space for God’s grace to surprise you,” Bryant said when describing what his journey taught him. “Yes, plan. Yes, have an idea. But leave room for God to surprise you.”
Bryant’s mantra for 2022 puts it another way, “To the great unfurling…” Whether in the Big Peach, or the Big Apple, God is unfurling a tapestry that weaves things together and cultivates stories of all kinds.