Crusader Staff Report
Reverend Clay Evans went home to glory, but thousands in Chicago are turning out to say thanks to a spiritual powerhouse who changed many, many lives.
This weekend Evans will be given a grand sendoff beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, December 7 at the Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville. The funeral is open to the public.
Evans was scheduled to lie in repose on Friday, December 6 at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, an institution Evans founded on the South Side.
Later Friday, a special government and civic celebration was planned at Fellowship for elected officials and dignitaries.
The final service will be the funeral at Apostolic Faith Church, which seats 3,200 people. The megachurch is expected to be at full capacity during an epic funeral that will cap nearly two weeks of widespread mourning in Chicago and America.
Evans died Wednesday, November 27 at 94. He was a minister from the old school of Gospel. A fearless crusader, he was widely respected among Chicago’s Black clergy, mayors, governors and faithful believers across the country.
Born June 23, 1925 to Henry Clay and Estanauly Evans of Brownsville, Tennessee, Clay Evans was one of nine siblings. He left the Jim Crow South in 1945 to seek a better life in Chicago. In 1946, Evans married “the prettiest girl in the choir,” Lutha Mae Hollingshed. They had five children: Diane, Michael, Ralph, Claudette and Faith Renee; they also raised a nephew, Stevie Stewart.
With only five members, Evans began Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on September 10, 1950. A dynamic leader, Evans along with the Fellowship Choirs spread the gospel, and his church quickly became one of the most significant in Chicago.
In 1952, just two years after founding Fellowship, he launched his radio ministry, reaching beyond the walls of the church. In 1977, he moved to television with the acclaimed What a Fellowship Hour. With a choir led by his sister, Lou Della Evans-Reid, Fellowship has recorded over 40 albums.
Under Evans’ leadership Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church grew rapidly. From Fellowship, Evans launched the ministerial careers of more than 90 people, including Mother Consuella York in 1954 and Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1965.
In 1954, Fellowship purchased a building at 46th and State Streets, which Evans recalled, “was a garage, but we turned it into a cathedral.” By 1959, Fellowship had outgrown the space, and Evans led a 1500-car motorcade as the congregation moved to a former Lutheran church at 45th Street and Princeton Avenue.
Evans’ organizational leadership transcended Fellowship. He opened the doors of his church, “the Ship,” to welcome Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to launch Operation Breadbasket and Operation PUSH with Reverend Jesse Jackson.
In 1963, with an ever-growing membership, Fellowship broke ground on a new building next door. Construction of the new church came abruptly to a halt in 1966 when Evans, one of the few pastors in the city welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when most business, religious and political leaders disapproved of his Northern campaign.
Evans paid a price for following his conscience: the loans and permits for his new church were cancelled. For seven years the steel framework would bear witness to his defiance of the power brokers. With Reverend Jesse Jackson’s help, an interdenominational group of Black and white pastors stood by Evans and a new building loan was approved December 18, 1971.
By 1973, he opened the doors to a state-of-the-art church at 45th Place and Princeton Avenue. Just four years later, his acclaimed “What a Fellowship Hour” television program would be broadcast from this site.
The circular structure of the new church was designed by Evans to include ample performance space for Fellowship’s choir and recording studio. Clay Evans’ Gospel music voice is recognized throughout the world.
His founding of the Broadcast Ministers Alliance and development of Concerned Clergy for a Better Chicago established new channels for African American empowerment in Chicago. He also founded the African American Religious Connection (AARC) and helped lead the National Baptist Convention, DuSable Museum and Black National Religious Broadcasters, among others.
A strong advocate for education, Evans established the Clay Evans Scholarship Fund (CESF) which has supported the college dreams of high school students in Illinois and Tennessee for over 40 years.
After 50 years of leadership, Reverend Evans retired in 2000 and passed the mantle to Reverend Charles Jenkins, his personally chosen successor. He continued an active schedule of ministry and community events long after his retirement.
In 50 years, church membership rose from the original five to thousands. Many followers put their faith into action, and Evans fostered clubs, committees and community service opportunities within Fellowship. Members planned anniversaries, sponsored teas, hosted conferences and organized concerts.
In 1994, a new Education Building was constructed on the site of the old church. The structural design included ample meeting spaces for expanded programs, seminars and events.
Evans was recognized as an inspiration for many. His legacy lives on at the Chicago Public Library, where he placed his archives and where a HistoryMakers interview with him can be viewed.
Reverend Clay Evans created over 10 additional ministries within Fellowship to address particular outreach needs or groups. These include the AIDS & Substance Abuse Ministry, Bus Ministry, Christian Education Ministry, Food & Clothing Ministry, Senior Citizens Ministry, and Youth Ministry.
By 2002, the Fellowship Manor Senior Center at 5041 S. Princeton completed his dream to add senior citizen housing to the list of church services.
Fellowship offered members opportunities to attend annual banquets, revivals and travel. In 1979, Evans led his first tour of holy sites in Israel where members had a chance to reconfirm their Baptist faith through baptism in the Jordan River.