Kirbyjon Caldwell Biography
Opted Out of Corporate World, Took Active Role in Community, "Restore What Has Long Lain Desolate"
From his base in Houston, Texas, Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell runs an impressive church outreach program that has attracted national attention, and made him an unofficial advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush. Caldwell has turned his Windsor Village United Methodist Church from a struggling congregation of just two dozen members into one of Houston's most dynamic community-revitalization centers. Its mission operates on the principle that helping others achieve economic independence and dignity fulfills the Christian tenets of brotherhood and compassion, and its success provided some of the inspiration for the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, created in Bush's first term. "For a church to intentionally turn its back on economic development and financial enlightenment," asserted Caldwell in an interview with Dan McGraw of U.S. News & World Report, "not only are they passing up an opportunity to make America a more vibrant and safer place to live, they also are denying one of the main threads that runs through the Bible."
Caldwell grew up in Houston in a middle-class household in the city's Kashmere Gardens section. His neighborhood was adjacent to the Fifth Ward, one of the city's rougher areas. Caldwell's mother was a high school guidance counselor, and his father owned a custom clothier that made suits for James Brown, the Temptations, and other celebrities. After graduating from Kashmere High School, he headed far from Texas, to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he earned an undergraduate degree in economics in 1975. After that, he went on to the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate business degree. He began his career with First Boston, a Wall Street investment bank, and eventually returned to Texas to a join a Houston bond firm.
Opted Out of Corporate World
Caldwell had a lucrative career ahead of him, but in October of 1978, at the age of 25, he decided to enter the ministry. Though he belonged to Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, he had never been particularly religious. "I didn't know how to process it," he recalled in an interview with Texas Monthly's William Martin. "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." He entered the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, finished in 1981, and was ordained a minister in the United Methodist Church.
Unlike some other Methodist denominations, Caldwell's chosen church was a predominantly white one. Church officials sent him off to his first job as an assistant pastor at St. Mary's United Methodist Church, but within a year he was made senior pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church. The congregation was situated in an evolving southwest Houston neighborhood and had just 25 members at the time, a victim of the neighborhood's changing racial demographics. Caldwell set out to find new members, and a longtime friend of his father's became his unofficial mentor. Skipper Lee Frazier, who had managed 1960s soul acts like Archie Bell and the Drells, put him on public-access cable television to win over a new audience. Soon, locals were coming to witness Caldwell's animated, eloquent preaching style in person, in which he enjoined his flock to follow Christ by taking a more active role in their community. "If you didn't vote, please don't let me know," he warned them one Sunday, according to Martin's Texas Monthly article. "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."
Caldwell's church began to attract scores of new members, and at one point became the Methodist denomination's fastest-growing congregation in the entire United States. Its new members were mostly middle-class black families, but there were some local celebrities, too, such as boxer Evander Holyfield and Houston Oiler football player Warren Moon. Even television personality Star Jones of ABC's The View was a member in its early days, when the church had just 100 members and she was a University of Houston law student.
Took Active Role in Community
Caldwell began to rise among Houston's younger generation of civic leaders in the late 1980s, in part over a battle for control of the Houston Independent School District. Windsor Village, meanwhile, was evolving into a dynamic community help center thanks to his leadership. It launched several nonprofit organizations under its auspices, including Patrice House, a shelter for abused children named in honor of his late wife Patrice Johnson. She had been chief of staff to a Texas congressman, and perished in a 1989 plane crash in Ethiopia. Other programs offered tutoring to schoolchildren and matched teens with mentors. He saw self-esteem issues as one of the biggest challenges facing African Americans, as he explained to Martin. "It is important to make certain that children understand who they are culturally," he asserted in the Texas Monthly interview. "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 multicultural society, our children need to have a firm understanding of their African heritage and learn to be proud of themselves."
When Houston's United Methodist Church hierarchy asked Caldwell to fix another failing congregation, this one in downtown Houston with just nine members, Caldwell decided to appoint a couple he knew to run it. They had no formal training in the ministry, but were socially committed and began to have great success with their program called Daybreak they launched at the church. Daybreak was a new way to help the homeless, offering them daily showers, laundry facilities, and counseling services. St. John's grew from nine to 2,000 members within five years.
Caldwell's own flock was still growing: Windsor Village went from 7,000 members in 1994 to 11,000 by 1999. It had also attracted some national attention thanks to an article in February of 1996 that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which highlighted Caldwell's unique ideas about economic empowerment. That led to a book deal, and The Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional, and Financial Wholeness was published by Simon & Schuster in 1999. Caldwell, who coauthored the book with Mark Seal, explained its message to Kim Sue Lia Perkes in the Austin American-Statesman. "For some folks, the question is, 'Can I handle success successfully?' and a number of us are flunking that exam," he asserted. "We are either exploding with pride and self-aggrandizement or imploding with shame and self-destructive behavior."
"Restore What Has Long Lain Desolate"
By that point, Caldwell and his Windsor Village had already opened the doors of the Power Center, 104,000-square-foot building that was once a Kmart store but renovated through a combination of public and private funding in one of the most blighted areas of Houston. It housed a school, medical clinic, satellite classrooms for a local community college, low-cost office space, and a branch of the Texas Commerce Bank that was the sole bank in the neighborhood. The Power Center was also home to government and charitable agency offices such as a Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition-program office and an AIDS outreach center. Its real mission, however, was to create jobs in the lower-income neighborhood and show its residents how to create wealth. This was not at odds with Christian values, he told Mimi Swartz in another Texas Monthly interview. "The Old Testament clearly speaks to the issue of economics, and over half the parables told by Jesus deal with money." In the other Texas Monthly article, Caldwell noted that the Power Center's motto was lifted directly from Isaiah 61:4: "They shall repair the ruined cities and restore what has long lain desolate."
Black ministers have traditionally played a role in American political life on the local and even national level, beginning with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Caldwell was no exception. He first met George W. Bush in 1995 when the future President—also a United Methodist churchgoer—was Texas governor and expressed interest in the Power Center and its programs. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Caldwell introduced Bush in a six-minute speech that made some of his congregation uneasy, for Bush's stance on affirmative action and other issues had failed to attract much support among African-American voters. Caldwell, however, stressed that he was a political independent and would remain so. A few months later, he earned some national-level criticism for the prayer he offered at the Bush inauguration in January of 2001. Caldwell concluded with the words, "Let all who agree say, Amen." Those concerned about the traditional historic separation of church and state—the principle, some say, upon which the United States had been founded—asserted that Caldwell's words were inappropriate in an official ceremony for what is supposed to be a secular government in which all religious denominations are officially tolerated.
Soon after the inauguration, the Bush Administration created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It operates under the tenet that religious organizations might be more effective managers of social programs than traditional government agencies, and Caldwell's Power Center was touted as a prime example of this idea. In September of 2003, Bush visited the Power Center to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Caldwell, wrote Swartz in Texas Monthly, has "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."
Though Caldwell once again delivered the prayer during the 2005 inauguration for Bush's second term, he remains a political independent. He has been publicly opposed to some of the Bush White House policies: Caldwell supports reproductive rights for women, for example, as well as gun control and affirmative action; he is also opposed to the death penalty. His second book, Entrepreneurial Faith: Launching Bold Initiatives to Expand God's Kingdom, was published in 2004. When victims of Hurricane Katrina began arriving at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center in the late summer of 2005, Caldwell became part of local leadership team who began organizing a massive food drive to feed the evacuees. The goal of Operation Compassion, as it was called, was a $4 million fundraising drive to provide meals for the visitors over the next 30 days, and culling 700 volunteers to deliver them. "I do not view this as a faith community issue," Caldwell was quoted as saying by Tara Dooley of the Houston Chronicle. "This is a human decency issue."
(With Mark Seal) The Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional, and Financial Wholeness, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
(With Walt Kallestad) Entrepreneurial Faith: Launching Bold Initiatives to Expand God's Kingdom, Waterbrook Press, 2004.
Austin American-Statesman, November 5, 1999, p. F2; September 13, 2003, p. B1.
Houston Chronicle, March 20, 1999, p. 1; August 4, 2000, p. 37; January 21, 2001, p. 32; November 9, 2004, p. 2; January 19, 2005, p. 7 September 3, 2005, p. 9.
Texas Monthly, October 1994, p. 56; September 1996, p. 112.
U.S. News & World Report, January 13, 1997, p. 47.
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