The minister and trauma psychologist bridging the worlds of spirituality and psychology

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The men’s choir had just brought down the house with the gospel classic “Miracle Worker” when Thema Bryant danced up to the lectern at First AME Church in South L.A.

Rising to the full height of her slim, 5-foot-7 frame, the 49-year-old ordained minister and psychologist smiled wide at the congregation before launching into her sermon — part preacherly rapture, part group therapy.

She was wearing purple, she said, in honor of it being the last Sunday of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. She praised God for the survivors in the house and for those who grew up witnessing domestic violence and were committed to breaking the cycle. Then she made the unusual move of thanking the Almighty for the former offenders in the pews — keyword “former” — who were making a different choice because, as she reminded the congregation, domestic violence is a choice.

“We’re all in here,” she said, her call-and-response cadences growing stronger as the parishioners called out affirmations of “C’mon now!”

“Victims, survivors, bystanders and former offenders, we’re all in here. And it’s only when we get healed that our community will be well. Amen? Amen? Amen!”

Pastor Thema Bryant, also a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, preaches at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South L.A. Bryant’s many admirers within academia, the psychology field and the Black church say that she often serves as a bridge between them.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The room had fallen silent when she began, but by the time she finished, the organ was pounding out invisible exclamation marks and the church rang with applause.

It was a tricky maneuver, this straddling of psychology and religion at a Sunday morning service at a venerable Black church. But Bryant, who lectures nationally and internationally on diversity, multiculturalism and trauma, is equally at home in both worlds.

Since Freud first cast religion as a collective neurosis in the early 1900s, religion and psychology have historically eyed each other with suspicion, if not outright antagonism. Some psychologists argued that religious belief was a way of avoiding reality, while some religious leaders questioned the need for psychology when a person could turn to God.

Bryant’s many admirers within academia, the psychology field and the Black church say that she often serves as a bridge between them. Perhaps this explains why more than 332,000 people follow her inspirational musings on Instagram.

“She is what I call a philosopher-therapist-poet,” said her brother, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the 15,000-member New Birth Missionary Church outside Atlanta. “Hearing her preach, you are in a lecture hall, a spoken word cafe and lying on a couch.”

Thema Bryant

Thema Bryant is the new president of the American Psychological Assn. “She is what I call a philosopher-therapist-poet,” said her brother Jamal Bryant, pastor of the 15,000-member New Birth Missionary Church outside Atlanta.

(Austin Kwomo)

This month Bryant became president of the American Psychological Assn., the nation’s largest organization of psychologists, with more than 130,000 members. She is only the fourth Black woman and the second minister to assume the presidency in the organization’s 130-year history. The last time a minister led the group was in 1893.

Her historic election is emblematic of a growing openness among psychologists to engage with faith and spirituality, said Kenneth Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University. “There’s an acknowledgment that there are aspects of being human that are not well captured by psychology — things like meaning and forgiveness, hope and humility,” he said.

Bryant sees people of many faiths — and no faith — in her private practice and says spirituality comes up only when it’s relevant for her clients. She never tries to convert anyone. Still, her official bio identifies her as both psychologist and Christian minister.

“I resist the idea that to be professional means you have to be a blank slate,” she recently told a graduate class at Pepperdine University, where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. “I hope you will bring all of yourself into the space, because what is healing is authenticity.”

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Ministry is in Bryant’s blood.

She grew up in Baltimore where her father, Bishop John Bryant, was the pastor of Bethel AME Church before becoming a bishop overseeing other pastors. Her mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, served alongside him, leading international volunteer groups that distributed medicines and other aid and running a women’s ministry. Her father’s father and his sister were pastors as well.

Pastor Thema Bryant delivers a Sunday sermon at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Pastor Thema Bryant delivers a Sunday sermon at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She sees people of many faiths — and no faith — in her private practice and says spirituality comes up only when it’s relevant for her clients.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Cecelia Bryant often brought her daughter and son along on pastoral visits to the sick or elderly. Jamal would read Scripture, Bryant would sing or dance. One year Cecelia Bryant took both children to Haiti to volunteer in an orphanage over Christmas.

“The way she related to people just won people to her of all age groups,” her mother said. “She has walked in that grace of compassion and generosity since she was a child.”

John Bryant remembers when he asked his congregation to go into inner-city Baltimore to win people to Christ. While checking on his flock’s progress, he came across his daughter— then a skinny 11-year-old — praying with a large man he’d never seen before.

“She had him in both hands, and there were tears coming down his face,” he said. “When she finished she said, ‘Do you believe?’ and he said ‘Yes, I do,’ and she turned him over to the group who would collect his information.”

Amazed, he asked his daughter what she had said. She told him she’d prayed the prayer of salvation with the man, and said that Jesus would love him and change his life.

“To see her doing that at a young age, I knew she was a child of destiny,” he said.

Today, Bryant says she’s not surprised her young self was able to deliver that message. “Having grown up surrounded by people of faith, I had a strong belief that God loved everybody,” she said.

Asked where her spiritual confidence and self-possession comes from, Bryant points to her parents. “My mother said she always wanted us to be comfortable wherever we were, whether it was the projects or the White House.”

Bryant’s early interest in psychology was rooted in her father’s pastoral counseling. “People were always calling the church or calling the house for pastoral care,” she said. When she discovered psychology — counseling minus the pastoral duties — she was sold. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me,’” she said.

She has the wisdom of a 90-year-old grandmother and the philosophy of a German scholar.

— Jamal Bryant on his sister, Thema Bryant.

Her clients, parishioners and students say she has a particular gift for being able to see them in their fullness.

“Just her presence and her demeanor — you feel she has an interest in what you’re talking about and how you’re dealing with it,” said Dominique Haddon, who went to Bryant for couples counseling with her husband, gospel singer Deitrick Haddon, when the two were filming the reality series “Preachers of L.A.” “It allowed me to look at myself and self-reflect before I look at others.”

Wanda Kwomo, a member of First AME Church, said that Bryant “has the ability to speak to all generations — not just the youth — but our seniors and older people.”

“I’ve seen men crying and getting healing from her,” Kwomo said, “going up to her at church, saying, ‘You don’t know what you did for me,’ or ‘I needed that.’ ”

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Jamal Bryant put it this way: “She has the wisdom of a 90-year-old grandmother and the philosophy of a German scholar. And to be an ordained clergy on top of that — she’s a phenom.”

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Bryant spent most of her childhood in Baltimore, but when she entered 10th grade her father became the bishop of West Africa for the AME Church and the family moved to Liberia. Jamal wasn’t happy to miss his senior year of high school in America, but Bryant loved it.

In Baltimore she had been celebrated for her academic abilities and talents, but she also was a victim of colorism, teased by her peers for being a dark-skinned Black girl. In Liberia, where her skin, natural hair and African features were celebrated, she grew to love herself inside and out.

A year after arriving in the country, she entered a national contest for Miss High School Liberia that was broadcast on national television. The emcee asked why she imagined she was eligible for the honor as an American teenager. “I said it would not be right if we let enslavers decide that I’m not part of the community,” she said. The announcer was speechless. She won the contest by unanimous vote.

Singer Victory Boyd performs during a service at First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Singer Victory Boyd, right, shown with Pastor Thema Bryant, left, performs during a service at First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bryant’s clients, parishioners and students say she has a particular gift for being able to see them in their fullness.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

But the family’s time in Liberia was abruptly cut short. A civil war had broken out and the fighting was moving closer to Paynesville, where they lived. In the spring of 1990 the Bryants were told they had to evacuate within 48 hours or the U.S. government could no longer ensure their safety.

She was painfully aware of her own privilege in being able to leave. “I didn’t do anything to earn a seat over someone else, but by virtue of where I was born I could get out,” she said. “It made me feel like, how do I give back? How do I make it count?”

Bryant’s decision to devote herself to the psychology of trauma also was spurred by being sexually assaulted when she was 20. While she was on break from Duke University, where she was studying psychology, a friend of her family briefly greeted her in the balcony at church. A few days later he showed up at her parents’ house, a place he’d been several times before. She let him in, never imagining he would harm her.

Bryant was shattered. “It was shock, devastation, confusion, betrayal, heartbreak. And also guarded. If I can’t trust this person who was close to my family, then I need to be really vigilant because anybody can be a deceiver.” She was unable to talk about it with her immediate family for years.

Back at Duke, she struggled academically for the first time in her life. “That’s what led me to get help,” she said.

She went to counseling and slowly started telling more friends what happened. She also found healing in the arts, particularly dance. “An assault does not just affect your cognition and thoughts, it’s an attack on the body,” she said. “I was able to come through it so well because it wasn’t stuck in my body, and I didn’t develop a hatred for my body.”

Today, she often tells groups of psychologists that she danced her assault before she spoke about it. “It was dance as grief and mourning, and dance as storytelling, going through the moments of that day,” she said. “There’s a part of the experience that language can’t capture.”

Today Bryant identifies as a sexual assault survivor in nearly every talk she gives. She can do this, she said, because she is genuinely free from shame.

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“I believe and I know in my core that somebody else’s violation of me is nothing for me to be ashamed of,” she said.

And there is another reason she speaks about it so often.

“There has never been a public gathering, no matter what size, where someone doesn’t come to me and say, ‘Me, too.’ ”

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In college, Bryant believed her life’s work would be psychology, but she also felt herself pulled toward ministry.

She started sending her father sermons she’d written, until he gently told her to stop. She became a chaplain for the Duke University chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and then traveled the country doing devotionals for various churches. At a devotional for sorority sisters in North Carolina, someone said, “I didn’t know you were a preacher.” She said, “I’m not!”

She moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and, after resisting the call of ministry for a decade, enrolled in a master’s of divinity program at Pepperdine University in 2014.

Today she is one of several ministers under the head pastor at First AME, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd. She runs the church’s mental health ministry and is assigned to deliver the Sunday sermon four times a year.

“She goes right to the point, right to the jugular,” said the Rev. Judi Wortham, another minister at the church. “Every time she preaches it’s like, ‘Were you in my bedroom last night? How did you know exactly what I needed to hear?’ ”

Bryant said she sees little difference between her work as a psychologist and as a minister.

“The overarching theme of my work,” she said, “is healing.”

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Over the years, Bryant has served as the American Psychological Assn.’s representative to the United Nations and as president of its society for the psychology of women. When she was approached about running for president of the organization in 2021, the timing felt right, given the coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota.

“I’m a trauma psychologist and we’re in a pandemic,” she said. “I studied the trauma of racism and we’re dealing with these protests.”

The initiatives she’s laid out as president of the APA include a mental health summit in Washington called “Psychology for the People” and the creation of culturally informed trauma and grief recovery kits with both written handouts and video clips that will be free to the public. She is also planning to devote a special issue of one of the APA’s academic journals to the ideas of decolonizing and liberation psychology. It’s a framework that is central to her own work, but it is not always taught in psychology schools.

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“It’s looking at people in their social, political, and historical context — not just at race, but also gender, economic status, faith and sexuality,” she said. “It’s asking the question how do your various identities affect your mental health, and not just as a barrier or a problem, but as a resource.”

Although the APA term is only one year, Bryant’s goal is to use it to make psychology accessible to a diverse group of people, including those without access to academic institutions or a therapist’s office. Her book “Homecoming,” published last year for a general audience, and a podcast of the same name serve a similar purpose.

“How do we get the information to the people?” she said. “For me, that very much reflects my dad’s approach to pastoring: What are you doing for underserved communities?”

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On a recent Saturday, before Bryant gave a keynote address via Zoom to the Los Angeles County Psychological Assn., the convention chair, Jaz Robbins, introduced her former professor and mentor.

Robbins, who recently received her doctorate in psychology from Pepperdine, noted some of Bryant’s professional accomplishments and then spoke from her her heart. “Get ready to be filled and get ready to be inspired,” she said.

The title of the talk was “Diverse Healing Pathways for Trauma Survivors. “ Over the next two hours, Bryant detailed how clinicians might use movement, dance, meditation and spirituality in their own practices to help clients who had experienced trauma feel comfortable in their bodies — to come back to themselves.

But before all that, Bryant began, as she so often does, by singing a song. Today it was “We Are The Ones” as performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock:

We are the ones, we are the ones, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Although the event was virtual, there was a palpable shift of energy as she began to sing.

The woman who can turn a church sanctuary into a group counseling session had just done the opposite — she’d turned a psychological convention into sacred space.