THE OVERSIZED PAGES of the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell’s appointment book are weathered, worried, highlighted, and dotted with Post-it notes, evidence of the important overwhelmed by the crucial surpassed by the vital. They are not the pages of a typical Methodist minister: To be sure, there are notations for weddings and sermons and Bible study groups at Caldwell’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, but there are also board meetings at Houston’s Hermann and M. D. Anderson hospitals and at Texas Commerce Bank. He has prayed with the Houston Rockets and thanked former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield for his $1 million contribution to the church; he has appeared at a press conference with Warren Moon when the Oilers quarterback was accused of beating his wife. He has given the invocation at events honoring President Clinton and has spoken to august African American organizations like the National Association of Urban Bankers. He has had meeting after meeting—with plumbers, bankers, restaurateurs, physicians, social workers, and small-business owners—for his entrepreneurial venture, the Power Center. He has blocked out three days for a revival in the Bahamas. And there have also been appointments with print journalists and television crews, conferences with a big-time literary agent, a deal for a spiritual self-help book that sparked a bidding war between four major publishing houses. This year, Kirbyjon Caldwell has moved through space and time with alacrity, a tall, incisive, cell-phone-addicted man who wears the mantle of modern-day role model as easily and as proudly as he wears his shrewdly cut suits.
“Through Christ, we can do all things,” he says from the pulpit, spreading his arms above his powerful frame, squeezing the doubt from his expressive face, revving the word— aaall—so that it sounds as if he is gunning a large engine. He means it literally: The 43-year-old Caldwell took himself from an impoverished Houston neighborhood to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a career on Wall Street only to walk away; then, after choosing a new career in the ministry, he transformed a dying church of 25 members into a thriving institution of 9,000 and created an entrepreneurial gospel that has propelled him toward national prominence as the next great voice from the African American pulpit. In a country desperate for leadership—one facing an ever-widening chasm between black and white, rich and poor, sacred and secular—Caldwell has willingly and ambitiously stepped up, preaching a steely pragmatism that leaves little to the mysteries of faith. “Brothers and sisters, know if you’re gonna win in this battle called life the victory does not begin on the battlefield, it begins in your head,” he said from the pulpit recently. “In this world,” he added, “being a Christian is a thinking man’s game.”
SITTING ON A STRUGGLING STRETCH of South Main, Caldwell’s claim to fame is a big beige box that shares a parking lot with a Fiesta supermarket and a host of small businesses catering to the poor neighborhood. But the Power Center has less to do with consumerism than “empowerment,” Caldwell’s most frequently used buzzword. He got the idea from observing the myriad offerings in a Wal-Mart several years ago, but instead of trying to separate those with low to moderate income from what little money they had, Caldwell, with the help of some of Houston’s most successful corporations, wanted to teach them how to create more of it. Hence the Power Center’s private school, a health clinic sponsored by Hermann Hospital and the University of Texas, a branch of Houston Community College, office suites, a 23,500-square-foot ballroom, a branch of Texas Commerce Bank (the only bank in the neighborhood), and various government and church social-service agencies. Those who agree with the writer Nicholas Lemann that the black underclass grows ever larger because the people on the bottom were abandoned not just by whites at the top but by blacks in the middle can see the reverse in action here; it is Caldwell’s aim to create a world that integrates the economically self-sufficient with those who would like to be.
If such aims have not historically fallen under the purview of Methodist ministers, they do now, as the role of the church has expanded from saving souls to attending to parishioners’ financial and psychological needs (“The Old Testament clearly speaks to the issue of economics,” Caldwell says, “and over half the parables told by Jesus deal with money”), and as the federal government has concluded that the best way to help the poor is to let them help themselves. Caldwell has come to embody these shifts, selling entrepreneurship as a plot of common gound. In the fifties and sixties, he asserts, those white Americans who sided with the civil rights movement did so because it was the nice thing to do. “Nowadays,” he says, “it’s not just the morally correct thing to do—it’s the expedient thing to do. If ethnic minorities do not interface with members of the business community, we will only grow further and further apart.”
The long-term success of the year-old Power Center remains to be seen—he hopes it will pump $28.7 million into the local economy over the next three years—but the idea of the Power Center has become an overnight success. Many black ministers are involved in similar projects around the country (most notably a consortium known as the Revelation Corporation of America), but few have Caldwell’s smarts or his background. When his project came to the attention of Wall Street Journal reporter Rick Wartzman last winter, a media star was born. “Once I heard he had a Wharton MBA and had worked on Wall Street, I thought, ’Wow, he’s our paper’s kind of guy,’” Wartzman said. His glowing front-page story revealed Caldwell to be adept at implementation as well as ideas; and it showed what can happen in the media age to a man with the right idea at the right time. From that article came a spot on the Today show and a phone call from a New York publishing house; from that