During interviews Tony Evans, 51, sits quietly, methodically thinking through each question, and then gives soft-spoken answers. When he gets behind the pulpit, though, a transformation occurs: The studious theologian becomes a rousing preacher, delivering his message with waving hands, shiny eyes, and a thundering voice.
His stage flair garnered him national recognition as a Promise Keeper platform speaker who eloquently promoted racial reconciliation and community renewal. With a gravelly baritone voice and linebacker looks, he pastors one of the largest nondenominational churches in the nation and is now heard on 500 radio stations in 40 countries.
"Sometimes people get offended when they meet him because he's not like he is on stage. He is quiet," confided his 26-year-old daughter, Priscilla Evans Shirer. At home, she says, her father leads a solitary existence surrounded by yellow writing tablets and lots of theology books. His studious habits earned him distinction as the first black student to earn a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Pastor Evans credits both sides of his personality to one childhood event: the night his father gathered the family around the kitchen table and made a profession of faith. At the time, Pastor Evans was only a 10-year-old boy who stuttered so badly that he could hardly talk. But he never forgot the drastic change in his family.
A few days later, his father-a Baltimore longshoreman-threw out all the liquor-making equipment he kept hidden in the basement. Then the constant bickering between his parents, who were on the verge of divorce, suddenly stopped. "They fell in love again," said Pastor Evans, who keeps a painting of his parents posed with the family Bible above his desk. After that, the Evans family regularly attended church, hosted home Bible studies, and shared the gospel with Baltimore prisoners. "Before there was conflict and suddenly there was peace. Our family became stable and strong," said Pastor Evans.
Christ's power to heal a broken family made a lasting impression on the young Tony Evans. But so did the poverty surrounding his tiny Baltimore row home. A sense of "purposelessness" plagued his inner-city playmates, he said: "Many people were just wandering around. They were unaware of God's blueprint for life, God's demands and expectations." So eight years later, while serving as an usher at an old-fashioned tent revival, he committed his life to helping others find their God-given purpose. By then, he had overcome his stuttering problem and wanted to become a traveling evangelist. At age 18, he packed his bags for the all-black Carver Bible College in Atlanta. Upon graduation he made plans to attend another all-black school, but college professors instead pushed him to Dallas Theological Seminary, even paying his application fee despite his expressed "phobia" of the South.
It wasn't an easy transition. As only the third black man to enroll at the seminary, he had to attend mostly white churches to learn about other denominations. Unfortunately, some of those churches "were not very welcoming," said Pastor Evans. The experience evoked another, less positive childhood memory: "I remembered telling my father that I wanted a hamburger at the local White Castle restaurant, and then he told me we couldn't because they didn't serve blacks there," he recalled. "That's the first thing I remember as a boy that awakened me to segregation and racism. And then to later find out there were supposedly Bible-believing churches that did not integrate-that was especially confusing."
But rather than become discouraged, he simply changed career plans: Instead of becoming the next Billy Graham-style evangelist, he became a racially uniting church leader. "My point is not some kind of artificial church integration strategy as much as it is getting Christians across cultural, class, and racial lines to accomplish common goals," he said. To accomplish that task, he founded The Urban Alternative-a national nonprofit ministry that forges partnerships between suburban and inner-city church leaders to create Christ-based community renewal.
His own church-the Dallas-based Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship-became the first testing ground. Inspired by his family's conversion in the midst of inner-city despair, Pastor Evans formulated a church mission of transforming communities through individual spiritual change. Nearly 25 years since its inception, the 6,000-member church has founded over 100 Christ-based outreach programs in cooperation with local businesses. "God took a kid who struggled to speak and made that his profession. I chuckle at that," said Pastor Evans. "I believe God arranges all the good, bad, and ugly experiences in your life to prepare you for your Christian calling."