Engaging in Dialogue
OAK GROVE, Missouri — Alex Bryant Jr. and his wife, Angie, have tried to be reconcilers between cultures and generations throughout their 21-year marriage. It’s never been easy.
Before their wedding in 1995, relatives on both sides had to adjust to the thought of a spouse from another race becoming part of the family. The wedding party blended black and white faces equally.
Bryant’s ministry experience includes being the first African-American staff member (as assistant youth pastor) at James River Church in Springfield, Missouri, as well as the college and young adult pastor at First Assembly of God, another megachurch in Fort Myers, Florida. He also served as director of the St. Louis Dream Center at a time when in Ferguson less than five miles away a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American in 2014.
Since June 2015, Bryant has been executive pastor at New Life, an Assemblies of God church in Oak Grove, Missouri.
In the wake of further police shootings of black men in the summer of 2016, Bryant felt the Holy Spirit directing him to record a video to post on Facebook. Using two dozen notecards, but no spoken words, Alex uses a variety of facial expressions as the song “Who Am I?” from the 2014 motion picture Annie plays in the background.
Angie refined a few points on cards and suggested the couple’s five children be a part of the video. Their children — sons Trey, Michael, Mason, and Joshua, plus daughter Katie — step in one by one as Alex flips cards with messages such as “It’s dark vs. light, not black vs. white.”
“I’m not technologically savvy,” says Alex, a gentle and good-humored man who stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall. “I just set my iPhone up on an easel.”
The 3-minute, 23-second video went viral, with over 10 million views and 68,000 shares in the first week. To date, it has received 34 million views. Alex has answered 6,000 emails regarding the message, the vast majority of them overwhelmingly positive.
“The most frequent responses are people saying thank you, I cried, you have a beautiful family, you spoke the truth, you said what I’m feeling, and thanks for the positive message,” says Alex, who graduated from Evangel University with a double major in business management and biblical studies.
The Bryants believe they are helping to change attitudes. Both black and white individuals want to know how they can help, and the Bryants urge them simply to begin dialoguing with others.
“People don’t like to start conversations because we don’t want to look stupid,” says Alex, 44. “We’re so polarized by the state of events and emotions are high with the election season. So let’s reframe the question. We don’t have to choose a side.”
Bryant lauds Todd Blansit, New Life Church lead pastor, for promoting racial reconciliation and healing. In a town of 7,800 that is 95 percent white, New Life is attracting a growing number of minorities as a result of a racially diverse staff. Blansit has been intentional about hiring Bryant and two other African-American pastors on the staff of seven: worship pastor Brandon Estelle, a Grammy nominee, and youth pastor Brandon N. Smith.
“I never really set out to hire minorities,” Blansit says. “I just wanted to get the best candidates and they happened to be minorities, and God has used that. It’s one thing to talk about reconciliation and post on social media, but this church is demonstrating it.” Blansit commends Bryant for being a godly role model to younger pastors and missionaries he mentors across the nation.
The church has doubled in size to more than 1,000 regular attendees since Blansit took over four years ago. More than 50 families in the church have adopted or foster children. Blansit and his wife, Tiffany, have adopted two daughters and on Nov. 18 expect to adopt a son they have been fostering.
“We need to engage culture, not judge it, and be totally pro-life, not just pro-birth,” Blansit says. “The Church needs to be the solution to God-given mandates, whether that’s taking care of kids or racial reconciliation.”
Alex says rather than blatant bigotry, racial remarks frequently are uttered due to insensitivity or ignorance. Angie, who notes she had Georgia ancestors that owned slaves, sorrowfully recalls her prejudicial prenuptial position. She figured Alex’s relatives would be grateful for him “marrying up” to a white woman.
“As white people we don’t realize the depths of our prejudice,” says Angie, who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. “White and black people can learn from each other.”
Still, it’s a conversation in which many people would rather not participate.
“Christians can’t just sit back in a bubble and pretend that it doesn’t exist,” Alex says. “We have to engage in dialogue and shine our light in places that may be uncomfortable.”