2016-06-30
GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (RNS)-- Some would describe stepping into the political limelight to introduce the future president of the United States on nationwide television as their life's biggest moment.

But for the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, accepting the invitation to introduce then-Gov. George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention last summer was only one of several defining moments, along with the more prosaic -- but, for Caldwell, central -- priorities of personal faith and family.

Pastor of the 13,400-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Caldwell spoke about his life's pivotal choices Jan. 31 to an international audience at the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership held here at Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.The predominantly African-American Windsor Village, which Caldwell began serving as pastor in 1982, is now the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States, according to the United Methodist News Service.

Caldwell also pastors St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston. He took over the pastorate of the then-moribund inner-city church in 1992 on top of his Windsor Village duties.A key link between the Houston pastor and the White House is Bush's passion for "faith-based" community development, which puts the financial muscle of government behind social programs directed by religious organizations. Windsor Village is a beehive of economic activity, sponsoring, among other outreaches, the Pyramid Community Development Corporation that operates the 104,000-square-foot Power Center, a multipurpose facility including a bank, clinic, business suites, commercial lease-space, and an employment training outreach.

Another Windsor Village program, Corinthian Pointe, is a planned residential community of 450 homes. With a family-life center, prayer center, tennis center, commercial park, and catfish ponds, the project bears a price tag of $82 million, according to Windsor Village spokesperson Irv White.

"We are basically doing what he's talking about," Caldwell said of the president's recently announced faith-based initiatives. "That was the initial catalyst that kind of brought us together," Caldwell said, adding he met Bush about 51/2 years ago, a few days after the governor had read about Caldwell's development programs.

While Windsor Village's nonprofit organizations received no state funds and technically do not qualify as official examples of Texas-sponsored faith-based programs, Caldwell said, "the mere fact that the president champions the cause ... makes our work a lot easier." Calling for "converting our creeds into deeds," Caldwell stressed what he believes is a cover-to-cover biblical mandate to approach finances wisely. Citing the Genesis imperative "to till the garden and guard it," he said, "Over half the parables told by Jesus in the New Testament deal with money." For the church, economic development activities "are main courses," Caldwell said, "not dessert or appetizers. We really have strived to take the sanctuary to the streets."

James E. Kirby, professor of church history at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, placed Caldwell's economic outreach squarely in the stream of Methodism's historic interest in serving the underprivileged.

Recalling that Goodwill Industries had their start in Methodist circles, Perkins' bishop-in-residence emeritus John Wesley Hardt suggested viewing Caldwell as a translator of the "pragmatic" social vision of the Wesleyan tradition for the "more affluent age" of the 21st century.


Theology shows up a couple of degrees later than business on Caldwell's resume. Majoring in economics as an undergraduate, Caldwell earned a master of business administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School in 1977. He was working at a bond trading firm in Houston when ministry began to tug at his heart.

"I was poised and polished and a picture of professional perfection," Caldwell writes in his recent book, "The Gospel of Good Success." "I had all the fast-track credentials: that Wharton MBA and one year as a Wall Street broker and investment banker." But Caldwell left all that to study at Perkins and graduated in 1981.

Retired Bishop J. Woodrow Hearn, who presided over the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church from 1992 to 2000, underscored the unique potential in Caldwell's combination of business acumen with pastoral gifts. "The mixing of those two is to his advantage," Hearn said. While Caldwell's financial background helps him relate to key players in the local economy, "Kirbyjon is an extremely effective minister," Hearn observed.

Describing himself as Bush's "spiritual supporter," Caldwell provided the benediction at the presidential inauguration in January in addition to introducing Bush at last summer's convention. Caldwell said there was a nuance to serving as "supporter" in matters of faith, pointing out Bush had not asked him to be his spiritual "adviser." "I share with the president that I'll be praying for him everyday," Caldwell said. "I pray for his safety, I pray for his marriage, and for his children," he said, adding he also asked God for a "spirit of discernment and wisdom" for the new leader.

But the support could extend beyond prayer.

"Should an issue arise that I want to weigh in on, I will either call him or e-mail him, send him a letter," Caldwell said. As spiritual confidant of the new leader, Caldwell offered his own profile of Bush's faith commitment. "He reads his Bible on a daily basis," Caldwell said. "He's a real deal," he added. "You don't have to worry about him lying to you.

Despite the respect he accords Bush, Caldwell said he reserves the right to disagree. "I personally would not have recommended John Ashcroft," Caldwell said about the president's controversial choice for attorney general. Critics assailed Ashcroft what they saw as a questionable record on civil rights.

However effective Caldwell's dollar-wise Houston outreach, his Crystal Cathedral message only a couple of weeks after the inaugural prayer revealed the firm personal commitments behind the increasingly public figure. "The greatest institution is the institution of marriage," Caldwell said, placing his decision to marry number two in his list of five pivotal life choices, just after choosing to become a Christian and before deciding to have children.

He urged his audience, many of them pastors themselves, not to focus on ministry to the neglect of other aspects of their lives. "Don't allow your sanctuary ... to become your mortuary," Caldwell told his Crystal Cathedral audience. "The ministry is behind children and marriage."

John C. Holbert, professor of homiletics at Perkins School of
Theology, praised what he sees as Caldwell's strength of character. Though Holbert never had Caldwell in class, he remembered Caldwell went to Carlton College in Northfield, Minn., as an undergraduate hoping to experience life as a racial minority at the Midwestern school.

"This always suggested to me that he had a supreme self-confidence and would always find ways in every situation to be exceptional," Holbert said. "His subsequent career has, I believe, borne all that out." Caldwell's faith-driven panache showed up in the inaugural prayer, after which he was criticized for closing with a specifically Christian reference to Jesus.

"There does come a time in your life when you need to stake your claim," Caldwell said. "I always prayed in Jesus' name. No no need to change it now."
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