DAHLONEGA — Dean Bryant heard the call to ministry at the age of 17. He says the devil heard it, too, and tried to convince him otherwise.
It was a wrestling match that left him sick for a time with no medical explanation. A few weeks later, the teenage preacher gave his first sermon with words he said were handed down from heaven.
Next year, the Rev. Dean Bryant, who turns 76 in February, will mark 60 years in the ministry. He has retired from the active pastorate, but not from being a minister. He logs more than 30,000 miles a year on his car as he visits sick, sometimes dying, people in their homes and hospital rooms.
Bryant doesn’t work for a particular church; he just goes where he feels led. He still is taking orders from God, who called him to serve when Bryant was 17.
He officiated at 45 funerals last year. In 2007, the number was 64. Often, they are for people to whom he was called for a word of prayer and to read a verse of Scripture.
Almost every day, he visits area hospitals. Sometimes he goes knowing that someone is there. Other days, he said God just leads him there. In previous times, he could look at the hospital lists and find familiar names of sick people he needed to see. Now, federal privacy laws make that more difficult.
But that hasn’t stopped him. Bryant is likely to see a family from Lumpkin, White, Habersham, Banks or Hall counties in the cafeteria or lobby of the hospital and offer a word of encouragement.
"In the hospital, God has just put me in places and people will say, ‘Man, I’m glad you’re here,’" Bryant said.
His retirement from the pulpit was due, in part, to three heart attacks he suffered 16 years ago. He keeps in shape with an unusual exercise regime: Climbing hospital stairs.
"I’ll ride the elevator back down," he said.
Aside from a small Social Security check, Bryant survives on offerings made by friends, many of whom have been touched by his ministry. His work has not gone unnoticed. The intersection of Ga. 115 and Ga. 52 in Lumpkin County has been named in his honor by the state.
"Sometimes things start running low, but God always comes through," he said.
He confines his work now to five counties and tries to avoid trips to hospitals in places like Atlanta or Augusta.
The visits can range from a few minutes at a hospital bedside to a prolonged wait in more dire circumstances. He still finds the experience of being there for the dying and their families to be stressful.
"When I get up, some days I don’t feel like going and I don’t ask questions ... I just go," Bryant said. "It’s on those days that I’ve had the sweet presence of God that touches me and that old tired and sick feeling just leaves me."
Bryant is an old-fashioned country preacher who heard God’s call and never has looked back. Even in casual conversation, he speaks in that almost evangelical cadence that readily identifies him as a preacher.
But his words are earnest and sincere, much like his ministry.
I asked him if he would like to keep doing what he’s doing.
"I hope the Lord calls me, and I fall out on a hospital floor," Bryant said.
Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 770-718-3423, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.