By Peter Vankevich
First impressions mean a lot.
With the arrival of the new pastor in July of the United Methodist Church, School, Road, Richard Bryant, that impression can be quite varied. It would depend on whether one attended his first service at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church, looked at his blog, “Richard’s Food for Thought,” (http://richardsfoodforthought.com), saw him recite his poetry at an August poetry reading decked out in a newsboy cap and madras pants, or had a chance to listen to him recently on Ocracoke’s community radio station WOVV.
Intertwined in the radio interview was a play list he brought along that included spiritual songs Grandma’s Hand by Bill Withers and Softly and Tenderly by Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet. But wait, in the mix was Just a Friend, a rap piece by Biz Markie, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward by the Phil Ochs of the U.K., protest singer Billy Bragg, a French song by Joe Dassin and even Kalinka by the Red Army Chorus.
Bryant, ordained in 2007 and recently turned 40, grew up in North Carolina. He arrived this summer with his wife Mary and his three daughters Mackenzie, Caroline and Jordan, who all are enrolled in the Ocracoke School to replace Pastor Laura Stern, who relocated to Raleigh to become the Associate Pastor at Millbrook United Methodist Church in Raleigh.
He and his family spent the last two years in Northern Ireland in a village outside of the city of Londonderry and along the border of the Republic of Ireland where he ministered to two United Methodist churches in a predominantly Catholic enclave. Although life in Ireland is much better today than 20 years ago, there are still signs of the conflict that have not entirely gone away. “There are lots of things that are just below the surface that could erupt again,” he said. “Pipe bombs and armed caches are still being found there that don’t make the press.” In Northern Ireland, the police, unlike the Bobbies in England, are heavily armed, he said.
“When your children get used to seeing men with machine guns walking down the street we thought maybe it was time to come home,” he said.Part of his ministry there focused on reconciliation, including inviting Protestants and Catholics to share meals together.
“We had a wonderful time in Ireland and made many friends there, but it was a different environment as you can imagine with different challenges placed upon us in ministry,” he continued. “It is nice to come here where it is so peaceful and tranquil.” He writes on his blog about doing church activities in a smarter, simpler way that goes beyond the clichés of contemporary, emergent, evangelical, high-church, low-church, progressive, conservative and other labels.
“I am about Methodist practice, Quaker ethics, and Mennonite living,” he says about his methods. “I am about making church as easy to use and as important to people as an iPhone 5.”
Bryant is a prolific poet, much of which can be seen on his blog. His themes are as eclectic as the musical play list he brought into the radio station, covering spirituality, reflectiveness, daily life and humor as evident in The Wal-Mart Blues poem he read at the poetry night.
Well-rounded in education, he holds degrees in history, Russian studies and theology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Duke University. He also undertook additional post-graduate work in post-Soviet Studies at the University of Leeds.Over his career, he spent two years in Russia, worked for a summer on an archaeological dig in Israel and a shortened Peace Corps stint in French-speaking Africa (Togo).
A person attending his weekly 6:30 a.m. Bible study group at the church rec hall will observe that in addition to providing detailed observations on the New Testament, Bryant can expound on the Koran and the history of Islam sharing insights on the current state of radical Islam that is gripping much of the world these days.
Bryant says he is looking forward to meeting all of his Ocracoke neighbors.So, the next time you see a guy wearing long madras pants on the island, feel free to introduce yourself.The odds are high that it will the new UMC pastor.
Sunday services are at 11 a.m. and rebroadcast at 5 p.m. Sundays on WOVV (90.1 FM on the island and online at wovv.org).