Man on a Mission

By Robert Strauss '73

Kirbyjon CaldwellWhen Kirbyjon Caldwell ’75 answered a call to the ministry, he gave up a future in the world of finance. Now this senior pastor of a Texas megachurch and adviser to presidents is using his business acumen—and his faith—to bring jobs and hope to the underprivileged people of Houston.

Kirbyjon Caldwell ’75 had it all. He was living in Houston, his beloved hometown, and working on the ground floor of the bond business, which was burgeoning then, in the late 1970s. He had an MBA from Wharton and had spent a couple of years working in investment banking in New York City.

“I was doing well, I have to admit,” says Caldwell.

Yet something was amiss. He sensed that he wasn’t on the right path. He had long believed that he would be good in the ministry; from the time he was a toddler, his Sundays were spent in church and church activities. Yet he was not quite prepared for the “calling” he got one October day in 1978. “It was powerful, and it was real,” says Caldwell. “When God calls you, you answer—and definitively.” So at the age of 25, he quit his job and enrolled at divinity school at Southern Methodist University.

“One of the guys I worked with actually cursed me out,” says Caldwell, who is now senior pastor of the 14,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church, one of the largest congregations of any kind in the United States and said to be the largest United Methodist church anywhere. “I knew I was giving up a secure financial future, but I also knew what I was meant to do.”

After a year with another small congregation, in 1982 Caldwell took over the ministry at Windsor Village United Methodist, then a 25-family church that, while it was not in the worst section of Houston, was on the declining end of the city.

The job was a good challenge for someone with a business background, says Caldwell. He began looking for new members and making connections in the Houston commercial and civic worlds to help shore up Windsor Village’s neighborhood. Under his aegis, congregants fixed up housing and he, in turn, browbeat politicians to strengthen the infrastructure.

Caldwell, an avid golfer who played several sports at Carleton, also courted celebrities, and, at least for a time, sports stars who had connections to Houston—NFL quarterback Warren Moon and boxer Evander Holyfield, for example—became affiliated with Windsor Village United Methodist.

So did the state’s most famous son. Seeing a newspaper story about Caldwell, who by that time had been at the church for nearly a decade and had grown the congregation to about 2,000 families, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, put in a call to Caldwell. The story, now a Texas legend, goes that Caldwell was ready to hang up on what he believed was a prank call—why would a conservative white governor be courting a black urban minister?—but Bush persisted. In time, the pair formed a bond through religious faith and mutual respect. Caldwell gave the benedictions at both of Bush’s inaugurations and performed his daughter Jenna’s wedding ceremony. Over the years since the two men met, Windsor Village United Methodist has grown in fame and scope.

In the 1990s the church took over a Kmart strip mall and turned it into what Caldwell dubbed “the Power Center.” The complex grew to include not only worship space but also a medical clinic, a community college satellite campus, a K–12 charter school, an AIDS outreach center, and a branch of the Texas Commerce Bank (there had been no banks in the neighborhood previously).

“I hesitate to call it one-stop shopping,” says Caldwell, who has an infectious laugh. “But if you don’t provide services like this, you can’t expect to heal the soul either. As a minister, I have to make sure my goals are all in tune.”

Caldwell’s tune, at least politically, changed a bit during the recent presidential campaign. In what he describes as one of the hardest phone calls he’s ever had to make, he told President Bush that he was supporting Barack Obama, to the point of becoming one of Obama’s spiritual advisers.

“If there had not been a black candidate running, I’m not sure [Caldwell] would have gone that way,” says Anthea Butler, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of religious studies who has studied evangelical ministries in the African American community. “Caldwell’s congregation is predominantly African American. He goes for John McCain and one-third of his congregation would have walked off. Does race always trump belief? I don’t know. But Caldwell seems like a practical man and this was what was going to work for him.”

Caldwell demurs. “Black people have voted for a whole bunch of white people,” he says, adding that he supported more of Obama’s positions than McCain’s.

It’s not the first time Caldwell has had to deal with controversy over the intersection of politics and religion. He was irked about the criticism he got after his benediction at Bush’s first inaugural, in which he asked that the Bushes be blessed in their time in the White House and ended “in the name that’s above all other names, Jesus, the Christ, let all who agree say Amen.” That caused a firestorm, particularly among non-Christians, who said it was another sign that the Bush administration was religion-based and exclusionary. At the time, Caldwell told a Religion News Service reporter: “There does come a time when you need to stake your claim. I always prayed in Jesus’s name. No need to change it now.” His benediction at the second Bush inaugural ended with these less controversial words: “Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

While Caldwell tends to turn the subject away from his connections to the White House, he acknowledges that his relationships with past and current presidents have helped draw attention to his primary mission: tending to the Windsor Village community and to Houston as a whole. 

Caldwell and DubyaCaldwell grew up in Kashmere Gardens, a black middle-class neighborhood in Houston. His mother was a high school guidance counselor, and his father was a tailor who made clothes for a number of local and touring musical acts. When the Temptations and James Brown came through town, they came to his dad’s shop, and Caldwell remembers fondly the night Tina Turner came to their house and tucked him into bed.

In high school Caldwell was drum major, vice president of the student body, and a member of the golf team. “I was a middle-of-the-road-type fellow,” he says. “I got along with the nerds, the athletes, the band, and the ROTC folks.” Carleton was actively recruiting promising African American students when Caldwell graduated from high school in 1971, and he decided to take a flyer on it “sight unseen.” He had considered going to the University of Texas, but in the end thought it too large and, at the time, too racist. His father encouraged him to go to a different part of the country, and a small town in Minnesota seemed as different as a city guy from Texas was going to get.

“[Carleton] gave me a new perspective. I had to leave Houston to appreciate it more,” says Caldwell, who studied economics and government at Carleton under future U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, among other faculty members. Caldwell says he was “called to live in Houston,” and not just in the religious sense: “I always planned to come back home.” He is a tireless booster for his hometown, citing its population and industry growth rate. “But the critical intangible is a can-do spirit that literally emanates from the pores of this great city of Houston,” says Caldwell emotionally, as if he is standing at a pulpit. “That is how I see myself and our ministry. It is a faith in God, yes, but it is specifically [a faith in] Houston.”

Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, says that Caldwell is an important part of the Houston business and educational communities, and credits his work with Windsor Village and the Houston Independent School District as the inspiration for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiatives, first in Texas and then nationally.

“[Caldwell] cut through red tape to help people in a side of town that had been underutilized. He brought the faith and education communities together to give underprivileged children more opportunities,” says Moseley. “Governor Bush was taken by the fact that a pastor was pushing these concepts and being successful with them.”

Caldwell’s current project involves developing 234 acres on abandoned land near the Power Center. Plans include building 454 single-family homes, a 121-unit independent living facility for seniors, a 198,000-square-foot community center, a dental center, a YMCA branch, and retail space. “This [area] was cow dung and not much else, and now it will be a $181 million enterprise, which will create jobs for hundreds of people and hope for thousands more,” says Caldwell, still drawing on his economics and business background. “We went from zero to $181 million in seven years. This is what faith is about.”

Caldwell’s allegiance to Houston may have been mutually beneficial. Butler, the Penn religion professor, says that megachurches tend to proliferate in the southern and western United States, where there is a lot of room to spread out, and less so in the Northeast, where there is congestion.

Lori Pearson, an associate professor of religion at Carleton, says that the African American megachurch is a relatively new phenomenon. Megachurches tend to be white, suburban, and conservative, she says. They also tend to be nondenominational, so they don’t have to follow a doctrine or a hierarchical structure that would threaten the usual charisma of their leaders.

Windsor Village, like other African American megachurches, is Methodist, and Caldwell is educated in and works within that structure. His congregation is primarily liberal and Democratic, albeit somewhat conservative in its religious beliefs.  The church seeks to provide community-based outreach programs, which are less common in white, suburban megachurches.

“Even among the evangelicals in Methodism, there is a tendency to push for social justice, so it is not as unusual for an African American megachurch to be under a traditional Protestant denomination,” says Pearson.

That said, Butler points out that megachurches rarely outlive their pastors, so if Windsor Village is to survive beyond Caldwell’s leadership, the pastor, who is now 56, should be lining up a successor. “You have to have the show guy up front who is the spiritual head of things,” she says. “People get disillusioned and leave unless you have that charismatic authority figure.”

Caldwell, though, believes his congregation is unimpressed by his personal celebrity. “I think they view it as a non-factor,” he says. “I don’t make a lot of it and don’t talk about it.”

In 1999 Caldwell received an honorary degree from Carleton, and he and his wife, Suzette Turner, support two funds at the College: the David Maitland–Robert Will Prize and the Sheridan Prize. He and Turner—who is his second wife and an associate pastor at the church—have three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. (Caldwell’s first wife, Patrice Johnson, was chief of staff for U.S. Representative Mickey Leland and died in a plane crash with him and others while they were en route to a refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1989. Patrice House, a shelter for abused children at the Power Center, is named after her.)

Although Caldwell has thought of trying to extend his ministry beyond Houston, he has not done it. However, he says, “if someone wants to come [here], I would readily tell them what I have done. Surely it can be duplicated elsewhere.”

And he tells his children that as much as they might like living in Houston, there is no substitute for seeing other places.

“The world is too big and life is too full for you to stay at home unless you have to,” he says. “Let your reach exceed your grasp. I came back, but I came with a mission—and with experience and faith to tell me how best to accomplish that mission.”

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