The day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in 1964, construction crews rolled off the lot of the church’s future sanctuary, leaving a steel frame on the corner of Princeton Avenue and 45th Place.
For eight years, that steel frame stood as a symbol of the clash between the Rev. Clay Evans, pastor of Fellowship, and then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who would not forgive the pastor for hosting the civil rights leader and sought revenge by hampering efforts to complete the new church.
But by the time Daley’s son became mayor decades later, Evans had risen to prominence in the pulpit, gospel music and politics. His distinctive, raspy voice and gospel choir had earned international acclaim with millions of albums sold. Instead of fighting the younger Daley, Evans became one of his closest allies, bridging the gap between City Hall and clergy and empowering the Black church.
On Sunday, in a swan song of sorts for the elder pastor, Evans, 84, held a ceremony to mark the passing of Fellowship’s leadership to his successor, the Rev. Charles Jenkins, during a live recording of Jenkins’ first album at the choir’s helm. Jenkins said the album — titled “Pastor Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Live: The Best of Both Worlds” — bridges the two generations of ministry on Chicago’s South Side and brings Evans’ legacy full circle.
It was while working as a porter at one of Chicago’s renowned music clubs that Evans discovered his voice. Instead of starting a band, he became a preacher who started a choir.
Ordained in 1950, Evans and five others soon founded Fellowship, or “The Ship” as it’s known by parishioners. Evans quickly earned a reputation for his booming voice in the pulpit and choir. In 1965, the church’s choir recorded the first of three dozen albums.
At least 81 aspiring ministers studied under Evans, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Evans ordained in 1965, about the same time Jackson left seminary to march with King.
A year earlier, when other churches bowed to political pressure and declined to welcome King to their pulpits, Evans rolled out the red carpet, Jackson said, but not without consequence.
Richard J. Daley blocked permits and persuaded bankers to halt their loans for the new church building. Other pastors underwrote the rest of the construction, which was completed by 1973.
Jackson credits Evans for shifting the mindset of African-American congregations in Chicago and in turn altering the way politicians viewed the institution of the Black church. Before that time, churches were more concerned with “personal salvation over social emancipation,” Jackson said. Evans galvanized ministers to reach out to the community, he said.
Charles Bowen, an aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley who helped him win his first election, recalls his surprise given the history when Evans approached him in 1990 to serve as an intercessor between City Hall and Chicago’s African-American clergy.
“He felt Mr. Richard M. Daley should be given a chance and should not carry the weight of his father,” said Bowen, the former executive assistant to the mayor who retired in 2004. Bowen brokered the donation of lots for churches to develop in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Though some frowned on the arrangement, others savored the irony of the alliance between Evans and the younger Daley.
Evans said he believes in restoring and preserving legacies. It’s the reason he gives for endorsing the re-election bid of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger this year despite accusations of corruption. Evans thought that Stroger, like Richard M. Daley, deserved a chance to transform the family legacy.
“That’s what we do as ministers,” he said. “We wanted to be his physician. The well don’t need physicians.”
It’s also the reason Evans gives for handing over the reins of his church 10 years ago before many of his peers. Evans recognized that many pastors were staying past their prime and tarnishing their legacies by doing so. He didn’t want to take away from any of the good he might have created.
“If you can put it into the hands of somebody capable and committed,” he said, “it just gets better.”