Religion • Kirbyjon Caldwell

He preaches the power of prosperity and the need to lend a helping hand.

September 1996By Comments

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 came a frenzied auction and, eventually, a six-figure book deal with Simon and Schuster. The publishing industry, starved for role models, and especially inner-city African American role models who could wow Oprah Winfrey, pounced on a project that could cover all the bases.

“I didn’t see it at first,” Caldwell says about his book project, though he is learning fast.

THE AIR IS ALWAYS ELECTRIC just before church in the soaring, peach-tinted sanctuary at Windsor Village, and the crowd is almost always SRO. At the pulpit, only faint traces of Caldwell’s cool developer persona remain; here he beseeches his faithful with a clever mixture of fiery preaching, pop psychology, and stand-up comedy. (“ Please don’t sit on my sweat rag,” he told one woman in the front row. “It goes on my face.”)

But that is what works. “Windsor represents a classic hybrid, a marriage between twenty-first-century theology and old-time religion,” Caldwell says, which means also that he is bringing the concerns of the white-middle and upper-middle class to its African American counterparts. He might preach a sermon on personal boundaries, turning the story of Eli and his ungrateful sons into a pop psychology parable, branding Eli “an enabler and a codependent” and soon after haranguing against “gossipism, workaholism, hotel-motel Holiday Inn-ism, incest, sexual abuse, shopoholics, [and] Lottoholics.” The audience, filled with strivers, responds with laughter and amens.

What is not preached from the Windsor Village pulpit is probably as important as what is. Though Caldwell does not shy away from the evils of racism, he eschews any hint of victimization. His is a church a Republican could love, with its emphasis on self-respect and self-improvement, and the pricey import cars in the parking lot back him up. Windsor Village has a no-excuses list of ministries for everything from AIDS to weight loss and real estate; the list of nonprofits it has organized (“501C3’s” to Caldwell) would put the most philanthropic corporation to shame. Like the Power Center, it is as much a community as a church; but unlike the black churches of the past, Windsor Village is more like a bridge than an island. “We are agents of information, enlightenment, pointing the way to the future and how to take advantage of it,” Caldwell says. (No one, however, takes advantage of Caldwell. Politicians are welcome at Windsor Village, but few are allowed to speak from his pulpit. “If they are running for office, they can’t say a word,” Caldwell says.)

The church is a reflection of Caldwell’s background and choices. He is the product of middle-class parents—his mother was a high school counselor who demanded as much from her children as her students; his father owned a clothing store and made flamboyant suits for the likes of B. B. King, James Brown, and the Temptations—but he grew up in Kashmere Gardens, which abuts the Fifth Ward, one of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods. Caldwell loved the energy around his father’s store and thought he would become an entrepreneur of some sort; observing pimps and prostitutes as well as legitimate businessmen made his options more expansive. “While I wanted a life of some comfort, I wanted to earn a living legally and morally,” Caldwell says. His smarts got him from Kashmere High School to Minnesota’s Carleton College (the University of Texas, he says, was too big and too racist) to Wharton in 1977; he was a bright student, far more interested in joining the larger world than in rebelling against it. That his father’s store was frequently burglarized by members of his own community had given Caldwell a jaundiced view of racial politics. “Let’s just say I’ve always had a balanced look at black power,” he says tightly. Caldwell progressed by following the unwritten rules for all ambitious minorities: he presented a sunny face to the world, kept his own counsel, and worked harder than anyone else. But after a year with First Boston on Wall Street and a brief period with the Houston bond firm of Hibbard, O’Conner, and Weeks, Caldwell walked away. He had grown up in the church and had finally heeded the incessant internal demand that he become a pastor. At the time, Wall Street was just beginning to boom. “You must be crazy,” Caldwell’s close friend and fellow broker, Gerald Smith, told him.

He went to SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and served as an associate pastor at Houston’s St. Mary’s United Methodist Church. In 1982, with the denomination losing members in droves, the Methodist hierarchy offered him Windsor Village, a moribund church in a middle-class neighborhood that had shifted from white to black. “You’re gonna have plenty of room to grow when you get to Windsor Village because those that are there are gonna go when you get there,” His father’s lifelong friend, Skipper Lee Frazier, told him. They did, but with Caldwell’s buppie and brimstone preaching and Frazier’s show-biz instincts (the former deejay and manager of Archie Bell and the Drells put Caldwell on public access TV), the church grew exponentially, attracting people from all parts of town, from all walks of life. In the eighties Windsor Village was the fastest-growing Methodist church in the nation.

The only group who failed to appreciate Caldwell’s accomplishment was the Methodist leadership itself. When it became evident that Windsor Village needed a new sanctuary for its growing population, Caldwell took his expansion plan to the Board of Missions for approval. With Gerald Smith’s help, Caldwell had come up with a way to float bonds rather than borrow money. The Methodists turned them down. “They kept coming back to the mission board, and we’d ask them to do this and do that and they’d do it very well,” says Sam Duree, a minister who was present at the board meetings. “This happened three or four times. Finally, in the midst of a meeting I said, “If this was a white church, we would have approved it six months ago.” That day, the board approved the plan unanimously. “Once you understood where Kirbyjon was coming from, you knew it would become a major church,” said Smith, who added, “His leadership from the pulpit would make him a very strong leader in the community.”

“THIS IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF BLACK preacher than you’ve ever seen or you’ll ever see again,” the late African American congressman Micky Leland is supposed to have said of Caldwell to one member of Houston’s white business establishment. The messages of powerful black ministers from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan have long frightened whites; in the sixties and seventies tax dollars that disappeared into questionable church-approved poverty programs exacerbated suspicion and prejudice. But Caldwell represents another generation, one in which opportunity, though limited, has been more widely available; with his education and sophistication, he has narrowed the gulf between himself and established power brokers. As Texas Commerce Bank chairman Marc Shapiro says approvingly, “You don’t find many ministers who have an MBA and a career on Wall Street.”

Though Caldwell demurs, many white businessmen credit Leland with providing his entree into the world of downtown power. Leland, who started out as a dashiki-clad radical, was helped along by socially prominent mulitmillionaire John de Menil. As de Menil opened doors for Leland, so Leland opened doors for a generation of bright, ambitious African Americans. Caldwell’s turn came in the late eighties, during a struggle for control of the Houston Independent School District. The HISD had become increasingly ineffective; local businessman Charles Miller assembled a committee of business and minority leaders to seek out better school board candidates. One of these committee members was Caldwell. “Out of that group came some of the best and brightest of that time,” says Miller, now of Meridian Advisors. Soon enough, Caldwell was joining corporate boards that desperately needed diversification, giving the invocations at events honoring George Bush and Bill Clinton, and attending a housewarming with his wife, Suzette, at Mayor Lanier’s new River Oaks high-rise apartment.

Grumbling was heard in the black community about Caldwell’s white alliances, but he made his presence count. He pushed Hermann Hospital to increase its use of minority contractors; he helped Texas Commerce Bank shift from being a mediocre minority leader to being one of the best. Caldwell also withstood criticism in some white enclaves when he urged the withdrawal of American businesses from South Africa and, during the post-O. J. Simpson trial hysteria, supported the family of Warren Moon when they asked the public to allow them privacy in domestic matters.

Generally, however, Caldwell expends his capital judiciously. When the media hounded him for comments on the recent spate of black church burnings, for instance, he made himself scarce. The result: Caldwell, who preached an impassioned sermon on the burnings in the privacy of his church, avoided the fate of a group of local African American ministers; their photos appeared on television and in print alongside that of a black Muslim who posed, surrounded by guards wielding assault weapons, in front of the wreckage of a Greenville church.

Quite simply, Caldwell had mastered the game, having discovered the most effective nexus of race and power. “He has such an engaging personality,” says Texas Commerce’s Shapiro. “He can be very direct, but he still has a great smile on his face and you know that you can work with him constructively in that spirit.” Or, as Miller says, “You can have the right kind of conversaation. He won’t be in your face or drawing lines.” Or, as another community leader notes admiringly, perhaps too admiringly, “You forget he’s black.”

CALDWELL HAS THE SHOWMAN’S longing for approval, but he also has the leader’s need to tell people what they need to hear. When he speaks to African American groups, the irreverent politesse that is so effective with the downtown crowd dissolves quickly into outrage. “A disproportionate percentage of poor people are black and brown,” Caldwell says. “That’s why all talk about this becoming a colorless society”—he hisses the phrase with contempt—“that to me is not the issue. We will always be a colorful society. So the question is, How do we reengineer systems, structures, procedures that will deploy their collective gifts and talents?” Part of that responsibility, he believes, lies with the black elite. And so the National Newspaper Publishers Association, convening in Houston for its annual convention, gets a lesson in economics instead of a prayer breakfast sermon, a speech powered as much by intellect as faith.

Behind talk of bridge building and paradigm shifts—the transition from the age of Rockefeller to the age of Gates—is Caldwell’s fury. “We as African Americans get the most of the worst and least of the best,” he declares. Calling for the improvement of public education, he pages frantically through an imaginary history text, decrying the absence of black faces. “Here we are in 1896—I mean 1996—if I don’t see myself how am I gonna learn?” he demands. Denouncing the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the destruction of affirmative action, the dismembering of racially constructed congressional districts, he issues a warning: “Racism is alive and well and dressed up in three-piece suits. The last thing we need are some Oreo cookie pastors and some Oreo cookie publishers.”

Then it’s on to consumerism. For every dollar earned, he says, blacks spend $1.05. “We’ve got to learn to save and earn and invest,” he says. The old world of diminishing resources has been replaced by replenishable ones. “People are always talking about pie. Give us our slice of pie. We might run out of pie,” he says, spitting out the word. “Don’t let anybody sell you that stuff about pie. We got a bakery! We got croissants! We got cakes! We got bagels! We got muffins!” he raises his voice and falls into a hectoring cadence: “If you always do what you always done, then you always get what you’ve already got—” The rest is lost, as the big-city publishers leap to their feet, clapping and shouting amen, Caldwell, amen. Thirty thousand dollars to keep an African American male in jail, five thousand dollars to keep him in school, he shrieks; without economic power, there is no hope.

After closing with one of his favorite Bible stories, that of Ezekiel, who rebuilt his army from the dry bones of the dead, Caldwell makes his move for the exit. The converts keep clapping, popping up and down to snap his picture, to hold on, but he’s already gone, racing to participate in the funeral service of his mother’s close friend.

All things through Christ, all ways. “Initially I used to wonder what it would have been like,” Caldwell says of the corporate life he abandoned. “I don’t wonder that anymore. I know that this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Related Content