Sunday Best

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

October 1994By Comments

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. We were not challenged or bombarded with customs and traditions that caused us to question who we were. In a multi-cultural society, our children need to have a firm understanding of their African heritage and learn to be proud of themselves.”

Paradoxically, this Afrocentric dimension of Windsor Village’s ethos is clearly tailored to help young blacks fit into America’s cultural mainstream. For example, the rules of a boy’s group known as the Okechuku (“God’s Gift”) Tribe require that Sentwalis (“Brave Ones”) maintain good personal hygiene, keep their shoes shined and their hair neat at all times, wear their pants with a belt, eschew any jewelry other than a watch, carry no weapons, abstain from fighting, and behave in the classroom. They must also be punctual in meeting their responsibilities and contact their adult mentors at least twice a week. Young men who stick with such a program are more likely to wind up at the Wharton School than in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Children who achieve their goals hold positions of honor at Windsor Village. On this particular morning, Caldwell introduced forty or so members of the latest confirmation class. Observing that a few of their confirmands were nervous, he asked the youngsters to repeat after him. “I am not nervous. I just think I am nervous. Satan is making me nervous. Now, Satan, I’ve got you under my feet, and I cannot be beat.”

The young people, fairly evenly divided between middle- and high-schoolers, gave positive answers to Caldwell’s questions about their beliefs and their dedication to the church, including their willingness to tithe their allowances and income from part-time jobs. The pastor then asked them to identify themselves individually and, if they desired, to make a brief statement. Every confirmand elicited an affirming round of applause and amens. Then citing the African proverb “It takes a whole village to rear a child” and noting, “we are all in this together,” Caldwell invited the families, friends, and any others who desired to gather around the students and lay hands on them while he led a prayer on behalf of “these, the most valuable assets in our church family.” He asked God to let these children know “that you are pleased with their decision” and told Satan to “take your hands off of our youth. Loose ’em and let ’em go.” He declared them free from bondage of premarital sex, laziness, class-cutting, cheating on examinations, and lack of self-confidence. And he besought God: “Lord, if there’s a youth here today that doesn’t like the shape of his or her nose, that doesn’t like the complexion of his or her skin, or doesn’t like the texture of his or her hair, Lord, let them know you made them. You made them in your image, and you don’t make junk! Hallelujah!”

Adults are also expected to meet their obligations. In keeping with the church’s encouragement of political activism, Caldwell announced, “We want to be in prayer for all those persons who did not vote last Tuesday. If you didn’t vote, please don’t let me know. In the past, some folk were knocked down by water hoses, bitten by dogs, beaten up, killed so that we could have the right to vote. Anyone who does not exercise that right is an abomination to God and a miserable misrepresentation of our foreparents. Some of the same folk who have had or who will ask members of the pastoral staff to show up as character witnesses had the nerve to not vote last Tuesday in the very election related to the judges in whose courts their cases will appear.”

The success Caldwell has attained and the attitudes he fosters have not gone unnoticed. He sits on the boards of Texas Commerce Bank, Hermann Hospital, the Greater Houston Partnership, the United Way, and the American Cancer Society, and he plays a key role in more than a dozen other civic and denominational bodies. He represented Houston’s Protestant clergy by leading a prayer at the inauguration of Rice University president Malcolm Gillis in the fall of 1993 and is sure to appear on more lists of Houston’s religious, civic, or African American leaders.

The latest of the daunting projects Caldwell has taken on is the Power Center. Impressed by Windsor Village’s programs and pastor, Fiesta Mart chairman of the board Donald Bonham arranged to have the church receive 24 acres of land and two buildings containing more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, a gift valued at $4.4 million. When renovated, at an expected cost of $2.5 million, the properties—at the intersection of South Main and South Post Oak, not far from the church—will house the Imani School, an African American–managed branch of Texas Commerce Bank that will provide affordable mortgages and loans to individuals and small businesses, a medical clinic operated by Hermann Hospital, an art gallery, a recreational center, and a variety of federal social-service agencies. The spiritual centerpiece of the complex will be Holyfield Chapel, a two-story prayer center made possible by a million-dollar gift from the former heavyweight champion, a member of Windsor Village since 1988. With admirable accuracy, the Power Center’s scriptural watchword is Isaiah 61:4 : “They shall repair the ruined cities and restore what has long lain desolate.”

I’m not sure, and feel no strong need to probe, just where Kirbyjon Caldwell’s theology falls on the scale of orthodoxy. His education at Perkins would seem to rule out his being a biblical literalist. His position as pastor of a flock of thousands, many of whom come from backgrounds in which the literal truth of the Bible was never questioned, makes it necessary for him to leave his listeners considerable latitude in interpreting his sermons.

When it came time in the service to pray for those with special needs, he asked, “How many of us believe in miracles?” When nearly everyone answered in the affirmative, he said, “You don’t have to believe in them. I was just asking. But we need a few real believers to come and stand behind these people and lay hands on their shoulders. Let us pray.” As people linked together, Caldwell left little doubt that he believed God could and would act to improve the lot of those gathered before him, but he neither demanded anything of the Almighty nor claimed any supernatural powers for himself. “Lord,” he said, “we’re going to trust you no matter what. We’re going to continue to believe in you, no matter what. But our responsibility is to ask, seek, and knock. And here we are asking, seeking, and knocking.”

Education, organizational savvy, political acumen, and strong personal faith can all help a pastor build and maintain a large constituency, but the bottom line in a black preacher’s power is the strength of his preaching. I have heard Kirbyjon Caldwell speak or converse on several occasions and he is capable of subtle and sophisticated discourse. I was delighted, however to hear him announce on one particular morning that he intended to preach “an old-time, fundamental, down-home, slam-dunk sermon on how to whup Satan.” A whupping, he noted, is much worse than a mere whipping.

Beginning with his take on I Peter 5:8 (“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”), Caldwell scoffed at the popular image of Satan as a cartoon character garbed in a red jumpsuit and brandishing a pitchfork. “If you’re looking for that manifestation of the devil, you’ll never see him, except on Halloween.” Then, without specifically repudiating the notion of a personal devil, he described Satan’s activity in ways that would easily satisfy those open to allegorical interpretation. When children are unable to communicate effectively with their parents, the devil has seized control of their communication channels. AIDS, stab wounds, drugs, gun violence, all these reflect evil efforts to wipe out the younger generation. Greed, fornication, adultery, backbiting and gossiping are the work of personal demons. Racism, sexism, and classism are signs of social demons. He described a social demon he recently encountered in the person of a high school principal who had asserted in a faculty meeting that “the reason our TAAS scores are so low is because we have too many black and brown kids going to school here.” Clearly, Caldwell charged, this woman had mentally placed a glass ceiling above every African American and Hispanic child in the school. “And if that is her mind-set,” he observed, “you can imagine how she implements the program. You can imagine what the level of expectation is.”

The day when this kind of demonic behavior could be tolerated, Caldwell declared, is over. “We’ve got to learn to defeat both the personal demons and the social demons,” he said, growing ever insistent. “No more of this okey-dokey, watermelon, 1870’s, everything-gonna-be-all-right-after-a-while, pie-in-the-sky, slave-master plantation mentality. This is a new day!”

In another segment, Caldwell compared Satan to a villainous wrestler from the early days of television, wrestling the microphone from its stand and holding it under one arm in a simulated choke hold. Matching actions to words, he said, “Remember how he would get somebody in a choke hold and turn away from the referee and then start hitting him in the face? Well, some of you are like this microphone. Satan’s got a strong hold on your neck.” Again, without denying external causation, the pastor put the onus back on his listeners. “You are responsible for the junk that flows through your mind. When a thought comes to your mind and you know it is of the devil, don’t even think about it. Don’t give it any time. Dismiss it! Reject it! Resist it! Say, ‘Satan, I know this thought came from you. I send it right back to you in the name of Jesus.’ If you had done that in months gone by, some of you wouldn’t be in the trouble you’re in right now.”

His audience with him, he staged another little playlet, this one starring Satan and Eve, with Adam as the feckless husband. “Adam and Eve were in the Garden, minding their own business, when up jump the devil. Devil says, ‘Psst! Eve. What’s this over here?’

“ ‘That’s the tree God told me not to bother.’”

Breaking into a high falsetto, he had Satan say, “Eve, let me tell you why God told you not to bother it. God knows if you eat, you’ll become as smart as God is. Go eat that tree, girl!”

Caldwell continued, “Then Adam, just henpecked as can be, in love, decided that he’d rather do wrong and be with her than do right and be without her. He sits down and eats too. That’s the first tempting experience in the Bible. If Eve had rejected and resisted that suggestion from Jump Street, there would be no problem. But she let Satan nest in her hair. You can’t keep the birds from flying over your house, but you can sure keep them from nesting in your hair.”

One of Satan’s favorite ploys, Caldwell asserted, is to convince people that they suffer handicaps that cannot be overcome or to make us stew over slights and imagined unfairness: “Satan keeps reminding us that our mom or dad may have had a favorite child in the family and it is not us, or reminds us that a sister was called pretty because she had a certain type of hair or a certain pigmentation of the skin that we did not have, or makes you think about the brother who played football or basketball and got all the accolades and all you could do was make good grades, and he was a hero and you were nothing.

“And here you are, thirty-five or forty years old, and Satan is still bringing that stuff to your remembrance. And we are still in the headlock because we allow ourselves to be in the headlock. Jesus Christ came to destroy the work of the devil. The victory has already been won. We don’t have to fall down to Satan. We have a deliverer! We have an emancipator! We have a savior! We have our Lord!”

Caldwell once described his recipe for preaching as “start low, rise high, strike fire, and sit down.” This morning he had risen high. Now it was time to strike fire. Over the next ten minutes, he paraphrased Paul’s famous instructions regarding “the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10–17), pausing at every likely stop to let the organist sound a rising pulse as the people shouted, “Yeah!”; walking, stalking, dancing, jumping across the broad dais.

“Paul says, ‘When you get up in the morning, just don’t put your underwear on, just don’t put your shirt on, just don’t put your tie on. Put on your helmet of salvation, so when Satan tries to tell you that you are not saved, you can say, I’m saved and I know I’m saved, because the blood of Jesus saved me.

“‘Then don’t stop with your helmet. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. . . . Gird your loins with the truth.’” He tied an invisible apron around his waist and gave his parishioners a knowing look. “If we just put some truth over our loins, we wouldn’t get into the trouble we get in.

“When you put your shoes on, don’t just put on ordinary shoes. Put on some shoes that are ready to tell the good news of Jesus Christ . . . He woke me up this morning, started me on my way . . . put me in my right mind . . . gave me the power to praise his name . . . put a little pep in my step . . . a little glide in my stride . . . and I’m glad about it!” He snatched a lightning bolt of power from the sky, stepped with admirable pep, and strode with supernatural style.

“Then take the shield of faith. And when Satan shoots his darts at you, hold it up!” He demonstrated proper shield technique, warding off attack from every direction. “Satan comes with his drugs, Hold it up! . . . Satan comes with his lies . . . Hold it up! . . . Satan comes with the racism, hold it up!

“But there’s one more piece.” He drew an invisible double-edged “sword of the Spirit” from its scabbard and brandished it like Zorro. “Every other piece is defensive. This piece is offensive! God made the Word to whip heads and take numbers. God made the Word to put a Z on Satan’s chest. Put the A on his chest, for I have all things in Christ Jesus! Put the B on his chest, I’m blessed in Jesus Christ! Put the C on his chest, I’m consecrated, I’m committed to Jesus Christ. I wish I had time to tell you my ABCs.” As the crowd exulted in victory, he stomped on a whupped Satan’s chest and shouted, “Satan! . . . Satan! . . . Satan! . . . Satan! . . . I’m mad as heaven, and I’m not going to take it anymore! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

At this point, the musicians had resumed their places and were offering backup. Individuals, then little clumps, and finally, the entire congregation was on its feet, cheering in victory. United Methodists or not, they were on fire. This was classic black preaching at its finest, and Windsor Village was red hot. And Kirbyjon Caldwell, true to his own prescription, knew it was time to stop. As the obvious climax came and passed, he moved quickly to the invitation, calling those who needed prayer to come to the front, emphasizing that even though our problems might not be our fault, they are our responsibility.

When the penitent had gathered before him, he led a fervent prayer on their behalf, asking God’s forgiveness, and a double-portion anointing of the Holy Spirit, and getting in a last shot at some local sins. “Somebody here has been abusing his or her spouse. And the last time you did it was the last time it will be done. In the name of Jesus, I can feel it. Somebody at the altar right now is flirting with cocaine, big time. It started off socially, but now it’s a big deal for you. But the last time you did it is the last time you are gonna do it. God bless you. Hug somebody.”

Then, in quick succession, he told all who desired to participate in “God’s kingdom-building process” that “the doors of the church are open” and invited them to unite with Windsor Village. The service quickly wound down as ushers passed offering baskets to collect “God’s tithes and our offerings” while Caldwell made a few announcements, asked people to sign up for various activities, and commented a bit, but not much, on the need to give generously.

As it was in the beginning, so now again the choir combo noodled around pleasantly, rather than singing or playing anything in particular. Kirbyjon Caldwell put his microphone back on the stand, picked up his Bible, and pronounced a benediction found in no prayer book but perfectly expressive of a man at home with his power and his people: “God bless you. Later. Love you. Bye.”

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