By Grayson Hester
When Reverend James Briggs graduated from the now-defunct Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), he had no intention of returning to his native Dallas, Texas.
He also harbored no desire to start his own ministry, having seen the hardship such an endeavor put upon members of his own family. “It was something that I was not interested in doing. My father and grandfather and uncle all started ministries, and I’ve seen the road of doing that challenging work,” Briggs said.
But there’s nothing quite like a church to make someone rethink everything they thought they knew about the church. New Highland Baptist Church, a predominantly white congregation in Richmond, Va., had offered Briggs a two-year “intentional interim” pastorate which would require many duties classically associated with pastoring – baby dedications, weddings, baptisms and so on.
New Highland wasn’t alone in offering Briggs pulpit positions. A generational minister and experienced orator, Briggs offered talent and an identity newly- valued, by the majority white CBF.
As a member of the Steering Committee for CBF’s Pan African Koinonia (PAK), Briggs knew the racial politics, aspirations and shortcomings of the Fellowship intimately.
With the help of a mentor, he had discerned that joining another pre-established CBF institution was not, at that time, his calling. “And when I shared this with my mentor at the time, where I was serving on staff in Richmond, he would say to me, ‘There have been a lot of churches that have asked you to come and fill the pulpit as they search for a pastor. That’s a good avenue to take,’” Briggs said. “He responded, ‘But you might also look at starting a ministry.’”
Difficulties notwithstanding, Briggs saw a fresh chance to speak age-old truths, an exciting opportunity to say things in bold ways that some seasoned (and that white) CBF congregations might not find agreeable.
With the help of this mentor, and the nagging, nurturing guidance of the Spirit, Briggs decided, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, to “go his own way.”
“I realized, instead of me having to sugarcoat and worry about how [these churches] received my responses to their questions, why not just go ahead and do the bold and courageous work that’s been assigned to me,” Briggs said.
Such is how a third-generation minister, initially turned off by the idea of starting his own church and disinterested in returning to Texas, ended up planting a ministry in Dallas. “That is what led me to moving back to this part of the country. I’m originally from Dallas, but I was very hesitant to start a ministry there, something I shared with my mentor even then,” Briggs said.
Dallas hosts a pantheon of megachurches and creates a kind of religiosity which equates churchgoing with social status. It’s chockfull of tithers and pew-fillers who are more than willing to throw their oil money at churches they deem worthy of their financial lubrication. In other words, Briggs would be entering a crowded and highly specialized religious market.
It did not deter him. “I was like, ‘There’s a lot of megachurches in the Dallas area,’” Briggs said. “And [my mentor] said, ‘Hey, write down all the names of the big churches in the Dallas area, and write down the pastors’ names. Write down the best guess as to what you think the membership is for those ministries. Is that all the people who live in Dallas?’”
If it is true that wherever two or more are gathered the Spirit of God resides, then it is also true that not every person in the greater Dallas area attended a church capable of meeting their individual needs. The market may have been crowded, but with the Spirit, there’s always room.
“And it was then that it became very apparent to me that there’s still work to be done, and we all have different assignments and we’re meeting needs in the ways that God has called us to,” Briggs said. “And so – that was way back in 2015 when he shared that with me – and we launched our ministry October 9th, 2016.”
A chaotic time for the nation – knee-deep in the sewage of a harsh presidential election, choked in the grip of racial terror and renewed calls for justice – portended a similarly ripe time for Briggs and his growing ministry.
Anxious people seek bold truths. That’s exactly what Briggs and his Daybreak Metropolitan Church in Addison, Texas, work to provide. “Whenever something’s new, people are intrigued,” he said. “Intrigued by the message. Our thing is ‘think, live, be.’ What does that mean?”
In Briggs’ telling, Daybreak’s purpose is to break not just the dawn, but the perception of church as existing primarily within the confines of four walls.
This developing ministry encourages its members to “think about what God is doing in the world and in you,” Briggs said. “It means to live out the calling that God has placed on your life. And it means to be the symbol of bringing God’s presence and nearness where it can be felt.”
Many of Briggs’ own family members, who had long fallen by the wayside of church, returned to the fold, enamored with the promise of a church that walked its walk and talked its talk.
At Thanksgiving, for instance, Daybreak provides hygiene bags, clothing and food for the Dallas area’s unhoused population, which resembles that of other metro areas in its expansion.
In the pulpit and on the radio, Briggs does something which would automatically disqualify him from many of the churches which had originally sought his leadership.
“I’ve also preached a sermon series entitled Church on FM,” he said. “An FM station, so to speak, has content that differs from the AM stations. And so, those sermons covered a bevy of topics from not just tolerating, but affirming same-gender relationships to paying attention to justice issues.”
It is this affinity for and attention to social justice issues that compels Briggs to maintain his committee membership with PAK. As part of the CBF’s ongoing commitment towards anti-racist dialogues, practices and outcomes, its Pan African Koinonia provides Black Cooperative Baptists a space to organize, to commune and to see others in ministry who don’t just look like them, but who seek to practice church in similar ways as well.
Briggs holds the distinction of being part of the group’s first leadership change, carrying on and ratifying a young tradition as youthful as it is malleable. “PAK exists within CBF to bring a voice to CBF that otherwise wouldn’t be heard,” he said. “There are a lot of incredible things going on in Black Baptist life. And oftentimes, those things are not made known or folks are just not aware of them.”
More than a marginal group or a token constituency, the Black Baptist contingent within CBF life represents ingenuity, vitality and deeply-rooted justice-seeking that centuries of religiously-sanctioned White supremacist oppression have all but forced Black Christians to cultivate.
It is within CBF’s best interests, both financially and spiritually, to not merely welcome, but to center, their experiences. “It highlights some of the incredible work that’s happening in Black Baptist life of churches that help make up CBF. And it also gives CBF an opportunity to get some insight as to how some of the issues that need to be addressed in Black church life can be answered and handled in a more accurate way, in a more informed way,” Briggs said.
Whether in the old wineskin of institutional CBF life, or in the new wine of a church plant, Briggs embodies this “incredible work that’s happening in Black Baptist life.”
Standing in a long tradition of Black religiosity, of which his father, uncle and grandfather are but one part, Briggs isn’t merely branching out. He’s returning to his roots, and it is from there that life can truly grow. “And so, just bringing that awareness and that knowledge to an organization like CBF,” he said. “There’s so many great things that can happen. And I believe that it increases our chances of doing good Kingdom work.”
Amen. This was a wonderful article, very informative. Thank-you