The Birmingham Genealogical Society meets the fourth Saturday of each month (ex. Nov. & Dec.) in the Arrington Auditorium at the Downtown Birmingham Public Library. Guests are welcome!
Next meeting: Saturday, August 25th at 2 p.m.; Refreshments at 1:30 p.m.
Speaker: Linda Hartley, Executive Director, Brother Bryan Mission
Program Topic: Brother James A. Bryan & the Brother Bryan Mission
Details: www.birminghamgenealogy.org or BPL-Southern History Dept. at (205) 226-3665.
James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941) could, and did, walk into any downtown office, school or shop, announce himself, drop to his knees and … pray. He would intercede on behalf of each and every person in the room, no matter how rough. And even those not normally given to public displays of piety would fall silent and drop their head. Bryan was the minister of Third Presbyterian Church on Birmingham’s Southside. He was an “inept pulpiteer” and a poor administrator. But in a town and a time that largely viewed segregation as the divinely decreed social order, he was a civil-rights activist. He was a selfless and tireless advocate for the poor, establishing several outreaches to the homeless and to orphans, eclipsing the city’s most generous philanthropists in his service to those less fortunate. And he was humble, known to both the poor and the mighty as, quite simply, Brother Bryan.
Bryan was an educated man who had taken his degree at Princeton. But he was a man who by all accounts viewed Christianity quite simply as something to be practiced, to be given away. He was so devoted to living the gospel that he often came home without his coat, having given it away. His practical devotion to the gospel earned him the sobriquet “religion in shoes.”
When he died, Brother Bryan was eulogized far and wide as a man of unswerving integrity and indefatigable service to the poor. The city of Birmingham memorialized its beloved pastor by dedicating a statue that depicts him praying on his knees. It sits at a highly visible intersection near Five Points South, the city’s entertainment district and one of its most diverse and eclectic neighborhoods. It is the kind of place where one assumes the egalitarian old minister would have felt at home.
But Bryan’s greatest legacy to his community is found, as one would expect, in service to the poor. Near the end of his life, Brother Bryan asked a few of his closest friends to find a place that would take the poor and unwanted men of Birmingham off the streets and give them food and shelter. His friends granted his wish, and in 1940 the Brother Bryan Mission became Birmingham’s first homeless shelter. Today, the facility houses more than 60 men and is described as a “long-term mission — a safe place where determined men can recover from depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and other related problems.” The mission has operated for more than 63 years without any financial support from the city, state or federal government. It is a fitting tribute, indeed, to the man who has become known as the “patron saint of Birmingham.”