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Faith column: Pastor talks race and rock and roll

January 29, 2011

Love this guy Jimi Calhoun. He’s a contemplative Pentecostal, a longtime musician who’s played with the likes of Dr. John and Mick Jagger and a church pastor/planter who has a real gift for straight talk about race in the church.

Here’s the link to the column.

And the full text:

Pastor still draws inspiration from rock and roll past in effort to confront race problems in church


My meeting earlier this month with Jimi Calhoun falls into the better-late-than-never category. I’d been meaning to interview him since he first contacted me two years ago about his about-to-be-published book “A Story of Rhythm and Grace: What the Church Can Learn from Rock & Roll about Healing the Racial Divide.”

The great thing about Calhoun, a wiry, youthful-looking 63-year-old who has pursued careers as a rock ‘n’ roll musician and a church pastor, is that he’s both patient and perpetually moving forward. When we sat down for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in West Lake Hills, Calhoun had two new projects under way: a second book and an East Austin multi-ethnic church he and his wife are starting with two other couples.

But first I wanted to get caught up on “Rhythm and Grace.” In the book, Calhoun describes a life spent in “two cities.” In one city, he played bass guitar for big-name rock ‘n’ roll acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Dr. John. There, he found that music naturally brought together people of different races. In the other city, he served as a black pastor in a white evangelical community that emphasized loving God and loving people but wasn’t always adept at race relations.

“(My) worldview,” Calhoun writes, “has been shaped by an ethos that says that loving relationships between human beings is not simply an altruistic dream or slogan, but an imperative. Sadly, love and acceptance were not always that freely given in both ‘cities,’ as it seems my skin color caused more disquiet within the evangelical community than in the world of popular culture.”

Calhoun, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and describes himself as a contemplative Pentecostal, has pastored evangelical churches around the country, including white congregations in California and Florida. He has also served as a missionary in Belize. He and his wife, Julaine, moved to Lakeway in 2008.

Though he looks more the neatly dressed part of the churchman — as opposed to the image of the wild-haired bassist on his book cover — Calhoun still draws on the lessons he learned on the rock ‘n’ roll stage, including the possibility of building multicultural communities.

That might be why he’s willing to take a chance trying to create a racially diverse church led by a racially mixed pastoral staff — no small challenge.

We’ve heard it repeated again and again in the past 50 years, but consider how true the Martin Luther King Jr. observation remains today: “(T)he most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

It’s a reality many Christians have come to accept, which is why Calhoun’s book struck me as a rare challenge to our attitudes about race. It’s one thing for a black pastor to address racism from a pulpit in a predominantly black church. White congregations can hear that lament and agree vociferously and say, “Yes, racism is a terrible blight on our society. We should not stand for it.”

But it’s another thing entirely for a black pastor to talk about race within a predominantly white church where he is the leader. That’s when it becomes more real. That’s when folks tend to get uncomfortable.

In “Rhythm and Grace,” Calhoun recounts the many times he experienced what he calls “race casting.” Visitors to his church in California often would assume he was the janitor. Some members referred to him as “the black pastor.”

One couple considering joining the congregation told him, “We think we want our children to grow up with a white spiritual role model.”

More recently, Calhoun was turned down for a ministry job at an Austin church because, leaders told him, they had already hired a black staff member.

Calhoun talks matter-of-factly about encounters that might make another man’s blood boil. Many times, he says, white Christians instinctively see African Americans as inferior intellectually, which is why church leaders might be willing to have a black music minister but hesitant to hire a black teaching pastor.

But Calhoun’s mission, as he makes clear in his book, is not to make people feel guilty but to emphasize compassion and a willingness to move forward. “I’m saying that we should learn from our past,” he writes, “and not live in it.”

This is one of the reasons David Avila, pastor of East Side Art House, jumped at the chance to partner with Calhoun in an East Austin ministry. After stumbling on “The Story of Rhythm and Grace” at a book store, Avila felt he had discovered “my brother from another mother.”

Calhoun was articulating what Avila had felt for years as a Hispanic growing up in Austin. Some churches talk a good diversity game, he said, but fail what he calls the payroll test. At a truly multiethnic church, he said, you won’t only find people of color in the pews, you’ll find them in leadership positions as well.

For Avila, an artist and somewhat reluctant preacher, Calhoun’s patient, loving and articulate approach made him the perfect person to help the church confront its race problems.

“He doesn’t say it in an angry way where people say, ‘Oh, here’s another angry black man,’ ” Avila said.

Calhoun’s mission is bigger than race. To hear him talk and to read his book, it’s clear he’s primarily driven by a determination to love people, especially those on the fringes. His compassion, he says, comes from a combination of the hippie ethos of the 1960s music scene, the teachings of Jesus and the workings of the Holy Spirit.

“At the end of the day,” Calhoun said, “I really love people. And I love them in spite of themselves.”


One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2011 5:16 am

    Must chase this bloke up – he sounds grand.

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