For more than five decades, the historic Monumental Baptist Church was synonymous with its larger-than-life, civil rights giant and the Memphis pastor who stood on the balcony as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Th Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles retired from the pulpit in October 2015. He died in late April 2016, leaving a congregation grieving, but not without direction.
Upon his retirement, Kyles tapped the Rev. Wade Bryant as his successor. Since then Bryant has been making some positive, 21st-century changes to a historic church experiencing “new and exciting growth.”
“In that first year of my pastorate, we had 75 new members to join our church,” said Bryant, Kyles long-time associate and successor. “Now, we are up to 172 new members. We have added 50-60 new members a year.”
Such growth trend does not reflect the norm of many urban churches. Blight and the closure of small businesses in neighborhoods and communities in both North and South Memphis have contributed heavily to an exodus.
“When Rev. Kyles first died, some members left the church,” said Bryant. “They were here at Monumental because of him. And that is understandable. He was a well-known civil rights leader, who had been with Dr. King in his last moments.”
Others were too grieved to return, and there was a period of great sadness and adjustment, said Bryant.
Kyles had put in place a plan of succession. Originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, Bryant, who came to Memphis in 1978, had been a member of Monumental Baptist Church for 38 years. Much of that time he served as associate minister.
“I had several opportunities to pastor my own church,” said Bryant. “This one particular time, I was being considered for the pastorate, along with another preacher. Rev. Kyles had given his blessing and told me to pursue the opportunity because it would be good experience for me.
“Then, one day he asked me to stop by the house. He told me to please withdraw my name because he needed me to serve with him for five more years.”
Five years turned into ten. By 2015, Kyles had decided to step down. Bryant was called to a meeting of deacons and trustees, along with the pastor.
“They were debating what being a co-pastor actually meant,” said Bryant. “No one asked me anything, but I realized they were talking about me being named as ‘co-pastor.’ I marveled that no one asked me whether or not I was interested in such a position.
“But when it was all said and done, I was named co-pastor. It was determined that I would become pastor, provided the church approved. Pastor Kyles retired, and I became the pastor. About 70 percent of the members voted me in.”
Kyles continued to come as the revered emeritus, and according to Bryant, it was comforting to see him come in.
“Those months, coming into the sanctuary and sitting in the pastor’s seat seemed to revive him. It certainly did something for us.”
After Kyles’ death, Bryant said he felt a divine impetus to rebrand Monumental and usher the church forward with a 21st-century outreach effort.
“I delivered 30-second words of encouragement on Hallelujah 95.7 FM, and they began to pay off,” said Bryant. “New people were coming to the church. I revised our motto: ‘Prayer, Power and Praise on the Parkway, I’ll see you there.’ I had a church logo designed. It all seemed to work for us.”
The neighborhood witnessing efforts were revived, with teams of members knocking on doors and inviting families to worship with the Monumental Church family.
Bryant began spending money on new cameras and audio-visual equipment for taping church services in 2018. By December 2019, he had revamped the entire department, with the church equipped to broadcast a clear, crisp transmission of a service.
Three months later, the pandemic hit and service was closed. Virtual church services have continued to broaden viewership online. New members continue to make Monumental their church-home.
“We reopen church services on Sunday, July 4th,” said Bryant. “I’m so happy, I don’t know what to do. I’m so tired of preaching to a camera.”
Bryant and his wife, Brenda Bryant, have an adult daughter, Kimberly Bryant.