A Good and Faithful
A conversation with the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, friend and pastor to President Bush
BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the largest United Methodist congregation in the nation, with 15,000 members. Caldwell is also a friend of President Bush's. They met when Bush was the governor of Texas; Bush admired Caldwell's work in using faith-based programs run out of his church to meet social needs. Over the years, they became friends, even though Caldwell is not a Republican. Why? Both are Texans. Both are Methodists. Both earned MBAs from renowned business schools. And both have a passion for faith-based programs. Beyond that, they both are known as straight-shooting CEO-types who don't get tangled up in a lot of introspection.
Today, Caldwell occasionally prays with the president on the phone, and Bush has long pointed to Caldwell's work as a positive example of what can be accomplished through local churches. Caldwell introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention, performed the benediction at the first inaugural, and spoke at the Sept. 14, 2001 National Day of Mourning. This year, he is again delivering the inaugural benediction.
Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell (no relation) spoke with Rev. Caldwell about his experiences as one of the president's spiritual confidantes.
After the 2000 Inauguration, a national brouhaha erupted because of how you ended your prayer. What do you remember about that controversy?
I don't think I got the complete brunt of it, but from all indications it was surely a brouhaha within some sectors--and the brouhaha was over praying in the name of Jesus. Quite frankly, I had no intention of excluding or insulting anyone or any faith community. It was a very benign mistake. At the end of the prayer I said - I think this is what really agitated some people - I said, "Let all who agree say `Amen.'" Well, that's how I've typically ended prayers--when I said let all who agree, the "all" meant all who agreed with the essence of the prayer, not all who agreed in the name of the name that's above all others, Jesus the Christ.
I would never be that insensitive in that type of setting. But given what was said and given what was heard, I can completely understand why folk would be agitated, if not insulted. As a kid says, "My bad." I will be more considerate on Thursday.
Eight months later, the president called on you again, this time to speak at the National Day of Mourning on Sept. 14, 2001. What do you remember of that service at the National Cathedral? Was it a spiritual experience?
I gotta tell you-first of all, I just prayed a lot that I wouldn't mess up. And I prayed that I would be used by God to accomplish God's purpose during that particular worship service. And then I literally blocked out the fact that people were viewing this service around the country and around the world. I was focused on the people I could see.
What really helped me was that there is one camera in that cathedral-just one. That one camera was placed inconspicuously, which de-emphasized the fact that it was being watched worldwide, and emphasized the fact that it was a worship experience. Now, the architecture of the building itself, in my humble biased opinion, did not readily lend itself to a preached moment because it is so very long. It is virtually impossible to make eye contact with anybody past halfway down the center aisle.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a spiritual guide for the president and the top people in government?
Definitely not the top people in government. To the extent that the president has reached out to me during these history-making moments, I am extremely honored-and honored is probably an understatement. He has reached out to me not once or twice, but three or four times now.
I think he's obviously comfortable in asking me to perform these tasks. I have been a good and faithful steward both of God's confidence and of his, and I hope I can continue to be used by the Lord to bless the people.