With a new degree in political science and prelaw in hand, Michael Evans almost didn’t make it to Bethlehem Baptist Church.
“I was on my way to law school, but I ended up at Brite Divinity School” at Texas Christian University, he said.
He’s thankful for the diversion.
In 1989, at the age of 22, Evans began his career at the 144-year-old West Mansfield church as youth minister/associate minister. Two years later, he became the youngest pastor ever at Bethlehem, which is believed to be the oldest African-American church in Tarrant County.
“My predecessor, Rev. Calvin Sammons, said to me, ‘Michael, come down here. We’re a country church looking toward big-city things,’” he said. “My wife and I lived in North Arlington. We didn’t know anything about Mansfield in 1989.”
Under Evans’ direction, Bethlehem embarked on a grassroots campaign to pressure the city for services and improvements for lower-income neighborhoods in West Mansfield, an area the church contended had been neglected over previous years and decades.
That turned into what Evans calls a amicable partnership with the city, which has led to major street reconstruction projects, park improvements and privately built affordable homes on tax-foreclosure lots provided by the city.
Meanwhile, Bethlehem expanded its campus at 1188 W. Broad St. to make room for new programs to improve literacy, health and social services for residents of its church community and across the city. Its congregation has grown to more than 2,000 members, Evans said.
Evans served nine years as a Reserve Navy chaplain, and is now president of the Mansfield school district board of trustees, one of only three to have ever served on the school board and the first as president. He lives in a house he says straddles the Mansfield-Arlington border, with his wife, Lisa. They have two sons: Michael Evans Jr., a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Richard Evans, a senior at Legacy High School and an “aspiring welder,” his dad says.
“I definitely take pride in the community in which I live,” said Evans, now 48. “There are people today who call me friend that may not have done that 20 years ago, and I feel the same way.”
What was it like taking the helm of the oldest African-American church in Tarrant County?
We didn’t talk about it that much at the time. We were just trying to… teach kids and take care of people. But there’s a responsibility to “younger churches” to uphold the kind of standards in the community, where people know that your church is one that is open to receiving the hurts and the hardships of all people, no matter what their socioeconomic situation is. We have the responsibility of being a good partner with other churches, regardless of what denomination they are.
What was first on your to-do list when you became pastor?
When we got there, Bethlehem had already started with the GED program, and they worked with Meals on Wheels. The first thing I wanted to do was develop a literacy program for our young people, because there were children in the youth department who could barely read. Everything else just kind of came. If we saw gaps in social services, we worked to fill those gaps. We would put together groceries and feed people. We gave gasoline vouchers and made counseling referrals.
What expansion has Bethlehem undergone during your tenure?
We’ve had four (additions) – the Community Education Center, then the Mission House, the T.M. Moody Gymnatorium and the Kidz Zone. That’s our academy. We do the early childhood development, from 18 months up to kindergarten. Our goal is to transition those children to public school with a Christian foundation.
What is your reaction to the recent instances of white police officers killing unarmed black men?
These things have been happening. The only reason they seem to be recurring with some frequency in the eyes of the public is because we are living in the age of video surveillance.
What needs to be done to address it?
We need to have a good relationship with law enforcement officers. They are a necessity in our society. They put their lives on the line. These guys can’t duck and dodge. Sometimes it’s kill or be killed. And if you don’t have a relationship with the people who live in said communities, you’re going to respond in a certain way based on preconceived notions or innate prejudices.
What is the church’s role in responding to the conflict?
The church’s job is to speak truth to power. Many churches in minority have called it like they see it. If it’s a mistake, we call it a mistake. If it’s racism, we call it racism. [Additionally,] the church’s role is to bring the department and the community together and help facilitate a dialogue that will improve relations between the two.
How has your perspective on the school district changed since you’ve been school board president, running board meetings and meeting employees and students?
That’s one of the reasons I love serving as school board president. I love to see the passion our teachers and administrators have. I have not met one teacher in our district who simply punches in and punches out like this is just a regular job. The teachers I’ve met have a sense of calling, and teaching is more of a ministry to them than a job.
What’s your assessment of church and community relations today?
“The city is growing; the church has a very good working relationship and partnership with the city government. We’re part of an outstanding community of churches who have a heart for social service and community care. It’s a good time.
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641