Reverend James Bryson Jr. didn’t want to answer God’s call to serve the First Church of Deliverance. He said he thought about it, but that was only after some members of the congregation reached out to him. Nearly two decades later, Bishop Otto T. Houston III retired in August of 2015 leaving the legendary Bronzeville-based church in need of a new leader.
“I was not necessarily looking to be a pastor,” said Bryson Jr.
Bryson, a real estate developer by trade, was then in his mid-50s and content with being the church’s music director, which was a position he held for the last 17 years.
“I was happy doing what I was doing,” he said.
In fact, Bryson Jr. sought to settle into an early retirement. And, like most who are called before God, He prayed and asked for clarity.
“Moses questioned God,” said Bryson Jr., now 59. “Joshua questioned God — everybody that has done work for God.”
“I knew while I might’ve been insulting God by asking him to prove himself, there’s a scripture in First John that says you can try the spirits and see if it’d be of God.”
On May 8, Bryson Jr. led his congregation in celebration of the First Church of Deliverance’s 90th anniversary — an opportunity he would’ve missed had he shied away from his true calling. Under the iconic cross — which beamed in green, white and red lights and demanded praise — his choir, along with special guests from the Trinity United Church of Christ, lured the crowd in for song and praise.
First Church was founded in 1929 by Reverend Clarence H. Cobbs.
Bryson Jr.’s ties with First Church go all the way back to when he was 9 years old and used to listen to Cobbs and his service on the radio. He stayed up past his bedtime, often tucking his little transmitter underneath his pillow at night and playing it just loud enough without his parents hearing.
When Bryson Jr. was 17, he took his mother’s car and drove to First Church to attend the evening service.
“There was magic in the air,” he said.
He noted that it was already packed around 10:40 p.m. and one could only find seating in the back row. With a wide smile, Bryson Jr. — still in disbelief — clung onto that feeling and shared what happened next.
“Rev. Cobbs…whenever he did something out of the ordinary, the place would get quiet,” he explained. He added that the Reverend moved out of the pulpit and walked down the middle aisle and handed him a single red rose.
“He said, ‘The Lord has need of thee,’” Bryson Jr. said. “Then, he turned around and went back.”
Inside Bryson’s office, which sits on the second floor of First Church’s community center, he pointed to his desk, a long glass table and a few other pieces of furniture. They stood mightily, not weathered by time, atop the green carpet that rolled out into the room like an endless pasture. Paired with tall, white walls, the furniture’s dated style and dark exteriors were put into sharp focus. These items once belonged to Cobbs.
“I’ve just patched it up because I don’t want to get rid of it,” Bryson Jr. said of his inherited furniture collection.
For him, these pieces act as a reminder of his responsibility to carry out Cobbs’ mission of faith and commitment to the community. Every day that Bryson Jr. has worked at his desk, gathered his colleagues around that glass table or invited a new member of his church to visit his office, he is taking a step forward to shape the future of First Church.
Cobbs built an empire to offer safety, sanctuary and fellowship for the people of the South Side with First Church. This included a mobile service truck that helped residents during disaster emergencies and nursing homes for seniors of the area and those with disabilities.
Nowadays, First Church operates a food pantry, runs a clothing boutique and hosts annual back-to-school events.
“I tell them that eight blocks to the north, south, east and west belong to First Deliverance,” Bryson Jr. said. “Anything that takes place within that radius, we’re responsible for providing leadership.”
On top of one of his tables, a small picture collage unites Cobbs with his successors like Houston III, Rev. Eugene David Gray and Rev. Harold D. Porter. A portrait of Cobbs also hangs high on a wall near the entrance door. His face and his spirit linger.
“You know a friend of mine who joined the church about a year ago asked me one Sunday: ‘When is Rev. Cobbs coming to church?’” said Rev. Troy Gore, assistant pastor to Bryson Jr. “And, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘You say his name every Sunday.’”
The 52-year-old Gore laughed, but that’s the thing: Cobb’ message and his teachings live through sermons and stories. They also live through the generations of families who come to First Church.
At the anniversary service on May 8, Dr. Otis Moss III, of Trinity United Church of Christ, gave a sermon in honor of Bryson Jr. and the church’s legacy. He walked the crowd through the meaning of choice and following God’s will. He began with a Biblical story about four brothers who were ill with leprosy and decided to leave their colony and step into an enemies’ camp for help. They knew their chances could result in death, but they had to make a choice.
“When you step in faith, God is already down the hill [and] around the corner,” Moss III said. He took it even further to say that every decision and every action can lead to a domino effect. Perhaps if Bryson Jr. didn’t lean into his faith, and those before him didn’t lean into theirs, Moss III wouldn’t have had the chance to be at First Church that night either.
That evening, Bryson Jr. saw what Cobbs — what God — had in store for him all along.
“We’re instruments, and we’re being played by the maestro of all time,” Bryson Jr. said.