At the end of 1999, I found myself at a precipice. At that point I knew intrinsically what I was lacking to become a “whole person”, yet I had not been able accomplished that feat. I knew that I needed to change, so I began making drastic changes in my life, in an effort to preserve it. Part of that change involved moving in a more spiritual direction and learning to be less pragmatic in my approach to life. I prayed for change and change in my life began.
One Sunday morning, as I was sitting at home watching Sunday Morning on CBS, it occurred to me that I had developed a great degree of expertise in many areas but was not working to improve my spiritual self. I realized that I knew very little about the church personally or The Church as a cultural force in the community! I had to ask myself: ‘How is it that I know so much about so many things but have never sought to know the thing that many others, including my family members, view as the foundation of the community?‘ I knew that I had to rectify that dilemma, so I started going to church more often.
I come from a family with three generations of clergy. My maternal grandfather was a Baptist minister and my maternal uncle is a Methodist minister. Both are named Walter. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I sidestepped that legacy. My younger brother, Reverend Mark Timothy O’Bryant received the calling.
As a child, I lived in an environment that was rich with spirituality. I have always understood the value of prayer and positivity. I have always had a strong personal relationship with the Lord but at an early age, I found myself ambivalent toward The Church, in part due to what I perceived as bourgeois indulgence and politicization of western religions.
In my youth, I was quite the revolutionary minded proletariat who viewed Jesus as a militant religious figure who was later demonized by western man’s ambivalence toward historical religious figures. I have always tried to model my life as I believed HE lived HIS life as a man when HE walked this earth. Jesus delivered his sermons in the fields and in the streets. HE had no fear of men and the institutions that they created. HE brought men and women together in the understanding that GOD governs our existence not men. I knew early on that if average men used Jesus as an example as to how to behave as men, we could live good exemplary lives. There is a contemporary phrase “what would Jesus do”. I incorporated that notion early on in my adult life and I know that I have made better decisions than I might have in many many situations because of Jesus as a role model for my conduct as a man. I never felt that I needed The Church as an institution to give that insight to me. I thought that a spiritual connection to the My Personal Savior was enough.
Throughout my life, I have been intrigued by religious and spiritual figures. I was impressed at any early age that men like Martin Luther King Sr. changed their names and lives and outlooks because of men they admired. Malcolm Little became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali. Mahatma Gandhi sacrificed wealth and comfort and eventually his life to change the world he lived in.
I have also been a long time admirer of the Dahli Lama, who reminds me of Jesus, because of the trials and tribulations that he has endured, due to his convictions. What I know of him comes from the media and what I know about his religion is largely anecdotal. In my early professional days, the most pious man who I knew was a Buddhist. He was a Korean born doctor that I had the privilege of working with, during my time at the Coldwater Regional Center. We developed a camaraderie as I did with most of the men that were not from the local community. Of all of the men I worked with he had piety; a quality that most men I know simply do not possess. We would talk one on one from time to time. Our discussions about his religious values piqued my curiosity for eastern religion and offered me a broader outlook on religion per se.
I met a writer, some years ago that is a practicing Buddhist. I attended a Buddhist Ceremony with her, but the experience that I had was tantamount to eating a Pop Tart while craving Red Velvet Cake. My media fueled image of what I should encounter was simply not met. I decided the day I attended the Buddhist service that I would withhold any subjective judgments that I entertained regarding Buddhism until I had the opportunity to experience how other sects practice the religion.
A few years ago, I attended a wedding of a friend. She renewed her vows with her husband in a traditional Catholic Wedding that included mass. Typically when I’m in church, I find myself preoccupied with things that have nothing to do with the ceremony. On that Saturday, my mind was clear and I was in the moment! I found serenity, in a pious way, that I had not experienced, since my childhood. It whetted my spiritual appetites, in a way that I had longed for, for many decades.
Not long after that experience, I began attending New Mt Vernon Missionary Baptist Church where my brother had become the assistant pastor. I began attending the church in an effort to support his ministry, as my dear mother had done up until her death. I began attending church regularly for the first time since childhood. I hung in there all spring and summer of 2010. When football season began, I fell off!
Throughout the fall season, I watched Sunday Morning and the NFL pregame shows with much guilt and some remorse.
At the beginning of this year, I renewed my pilgrimage to church with vigor. I began dividing my church time between four churches: New Mt Vernon, Vernon Chapel AME, in my old neighborhood in Conant Gardens, Faith Clinic Church of God in Christ, pastored by my good friend Rev. Dr. Zachary Hicks and Peoples Community Church, an inter-denominational church that I have attended, since my early childhood.
I am working to understand the custom and intricacies of The Church. My longing to fill that spiritual gap in my life has led me to return to Peoples Community Church in the north end; a place in which I find comfort and familiarity. And I surprisingly know many of the ‘customs’ of the church that have remained constant for the past 6 decades.
Peoples Community Church recently celebrated its 57th anniversary. My parents began taking my brothers and I to Peoples Community, when I was a very young child. I sit there now during service and am overcome by the memories of the time I spent there in my youth. My father, who was a painter by profession, worked at the church, from time to time. My older brother and I played in the basement of this historic institution, as he worked. Now when I sit on the main floor of the church, I am overwhelmed by those memories but most importantly, I feel that I’m part of this institution.
Peoples Community Church remains as the one of the few constants in my life. My parents are gone. The founders of the church are gone but when I am sitting in those pews, I am home.