Sunday Best

With love, discipline, and old-time religion, Kirbyjon Caldwell has built one of Texas’ most vital churches.

The pleasant riffs emanating from the combo of organ, piano, guitar, muted trumpet, trap drums, and bongos seemed to have a spiritual provenance, but a few members of the congregation at Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church found themselves hard-pressed to tell where the Sunday service was actually going or, indeed whether it had actually started. At the front, a tall, lithe young man in a rainbow striped polo shirt stood as if to make an announcement, then sat down without comment. Finally, things began to congeal.

A men’s choir, snappily dressed in black tuxes, filed into place and pumped out a lively gospel song that had the whole congregation clapping along. Then, as if to confuse the handful of white folk in the crowd of nearly 1,500, the minister of music, a large woman with a beaming countenance and major league pipes, led a rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” so sedate it would have fit right in at First Church on Main Street USA. I could see that it would not be easy to pin an all-purpose label on a religious community that is at once black, upwardly mobile, rapidly growing, and quite possibly, the most vital congregation in the entire United Methodist Church—a largely white denomination that has epitomized the decline in American mainline Protestantism.

As it happens, more than one person was surprised by the style of the hymn. The man in the polo shirt, now holding the microphone, began pacing back and forth, enjoying the pedagogical joke he and the chorister had played. “Some of you sang that song as if you thought it would bite you. Others of you were just in absolute shock, because you did not think we sang songs like that at Windsor Village. Well, let us sing once again the first verse of one of the great hymns of the Christian church. Everybody ready  Here we go.” And, after a few false starts when he felt they were under-performing, there they went.

The Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, the 41-year-old senior pastor of the Windsor Village church wears a casual shirt in the pulpit to undercut any excuses from those who say they don’t have proper clothes to attend what some detractors call a bourgeois church. It also helps him remain comfortable through three back-to-back Sunday services that run nearly two hours apiece and attract what is said to be the largest weekly aggregation of worshipers in Methodism.

Kirbyjon Caldwell defies stereotypes. Countless young black men have used the ministry as an instrument of upward mobility; Caldwell chose it at a point in his life when some would have considered it a step backward. Academically successful at Kashmere High School in Houston’s Kashmere neighborhood, he attended Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota, where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1975. After earning a master’s in finance at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, he did a stint on Wall Street with First Boston, then returned to Houston to take a job in fixed-income bond sales with Hibbard, O’Connor, and Weeks. Conventional success seemed assured, so he was as surprised as anyone when in October 1978, at the age of 25, he felt a definite call to the ministry. There was no blinding light, no vision of Jesus, no message in the clouds—but a sense of divine summons was clear and unshakable. “I didn’t know how to process it,” he recalls, sitting at a table with several issues of the Wall Street Journal shoved to one side. “I wasn’t looking to do it, I didn’t know about seminary, but I just somehow knew I was supposed to pastor a church. With encouragement of his minister at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, he enrolled at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and graduated in 1981.

After serving for a year as an associate pastor of St. Mary’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Caldwell was appointed pastor of Windsor Village. The post sounded more impressive than it was. The church had 25 members, only half of whom attended regularly, and its unimproved property was for sale. In twelve years under his leadership, the congregation has grown to more than 7,000, with a weekly worship attendance of 4,900, and continues to grow by 800 to 1,000 members a year. Though he concedes that the church’s high concentration of middle-class blacks and such celebrity members as Warren Moon, Zina Garrison Jackson, and Evander Holyfield have made it “the place to be,” Caldwell contends that much of the growth has come from the ranks of “the unchurched, the de-churched, and the inactive.” He and his associate ministers have had similar success at another dying Methodist church, St. John’s in downtown Houston, for which he accepted pastoral responsibility in 1992. Since then, worship attendance has risen from 12 to more than 500.

Referring to themselves as “God’s kingdom builders in action,” Caldwell and his parishioners have built an impressive institution. At last count, the “lean, mean kingdom-building machine” comprised more than ninety separate ministries, including a bevy of choirs, scout troops, and sports teams; alcohol and drug rehabilitation counseling; support groups; an AIDS/HIV outreach; the Patrice House, a 24-hour shelter for abused children, named after Caldwell’s former wife, Patrice Johnson, who served as chief of staff to Congressman Mickey Leland and perished with his party in a 1989 plane crash in Ethiopia; the Imani School for Young Children (pre-kindergarten through fifth grade); and a variety of tutoring and mentoring programs for young people.

Common to most of these programs is a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and self-discipline, the importance of education, the crucial need for stable families and pride in being black. “When a child asks, ‘Why do I have to be black? Why can’t I be white?’” Caldwell observed, “Mama has a lot of work to do. It is important to make certain that children understand who they are culturally. This was not as much a problem when I was growing up in all-black schools.

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