A spiritual prize fighter for the Lord
TERRELL, Texas — Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so…
TERRELL, Texas — Jack Evans Jr. rose from his seat on the front row of the Graham-Kennedy-Farmer Auditorium at Southwestern Christian College.
Dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and tie, the oldest son of Jack Evans Sr. — one of the most influential African American preachers in the history of modern-day Churches of Christ — approached his father’s coffin.
Evans Jr. picked up the open Bible that rested atop the closed casket.
His dad’s Bible.
Then the brokenhearted progeny stepped on stage to eulogize his 81-year-old father, who served for nearly 50 years as president of the only historically black higher education institution associated with Churches of Christ.
“Y’all knew him as the president and the preacher and the crusade speaker,” Evans Jr. told a capacity crowd of 1,500 Christians who filled the auditorium 30 miles east of Dallas. “But to us, he was just Daddy, and we’re going to miss him tremendously.”
Evans Sr. was a Houston native who moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the 1950s and became one of the famous black traveling evangelist Marshall Keeble’s “boy preachers.”
He died Nov. 1 after battling dementia.
Lawton remembered his close friend as a “powerful preacher, prolific writer, defender of the faith (and) great debater.”
Evans Sr. led Southwestern from 1967 to the end of 2016, making him one of the longest-tenured presidents in U.S. higher education history.
“Live the life, and then preach the Word,” Evans Sr. said at a 2018 tribute to him at the Fifth Ward Church of Christ, the Houston congregation where he was baptized at age 15 in 1953. “If you don’t live the life, then the Word won’t really help you.”
Besides his half-century at Southwestern’s helm, Evans Sr. was the main speaker for the national Crusade for Christ for decades.
Every two years since 1979, hundreds of members of Churches of Christ have traveled to a different major city for the crusade, which features a door-knocking campaign and a weeklong gospel meeting. However, health issues prevented Evans Sr. from keynoting the last few crusades, including the 40th anniversary event in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year.
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“Dr. Jack Evans Sr. has fought a good fight. He has finished his course. And he has kept the faith,” said Shelton Gibbs III, minister for the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson, Texas, referencing 2 Timothy 4:7. “He can now lay down his sword and shield and rest in peace, knowing that his work has not been in vain.”
Evans Sr. also distinguished himself as a master debater who vigorously defended his belief in the “one true church” against denominational pastors and leaders of non-Christian faiths, such as Islam.
“From the age of 16, Evans had been a towering figure in the pulpit,” said Ervin D. Seamster Jr., who succeeded Evans Sr. as Southwestern president in 2017. “As his education and training continued … his reverent, booming voice became one of his most recognizable instruments.
“Word of his undeniable prowess in the pulpit and his impressive knowledge of the Bible preceded Evans wherever he traveled. His popularity skyrocketed. Everyone who saw or heard Jack Evans knew this man was something special.”
His passing came just seven months after the March 31 death of Patricia Officer Evans, his wife of 60 years and the “queen mother” of Southwestern for decades. She was 77.
“He and my mother literally wore themselves out,” Evans Jr. said of his parents, whose other survivors include younger sons Herbert and David. “They gave everything they had to this brotherhood and Southwestern and their family.”
Originally known as the Southern Bible Institute in Fort Worth, Texas, Southwestern Christian College moved to Terrell — an East Texas town of 18,000 — in 1949. Southwestern’s campus previously housed the Texas Military Institute.
Roughly half the nation’s predominantly black Churches of Christ have ties — through a minister, elder, deacon or leader’s wife — to Southwestern, its administrators say.
Nationwide, there are 1,172 predominantly African American congregations, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. Those congregations account for nearly 200,000 men, women and children in the pews on any given Sunday — or 14 percent of the 1.4 million total adherents of Churches of Christ in the U.S.
After graduating in 1957 from the Nashville Christian Institute, Evans Jr. enrolled at Southwestern, then a junior college.
In 1964, after earning a bachelor’s degree in history and religion at Eastern New Mexico University and a master’s degree in history and English at the University of Texas at El Paso, he returned to Southwestern as the academic dean and a history instructor.
Three years later, at the height of the civil rights movement, he became the first black president of Southwestern. The first three presidents were white.
However, his trailblazing appointment didn’t please everyone.
Margaret Ivory is a 1978 Southwestern graduate and the wife of Leon Ivory, minister for the Hood Street Church of Christ in Waco, Texas. She said she and Evans Jr. — then children — were in the segregated room as the transition from white to black leadership occurred.
“I remember that night that there was one Anglo brother — that guy turned so red,” Margaret Ivory said. “Jack Jr. said he was scared. I was scared, too.
“That man said, ‘I declare that Southwestern Christian College is going to close in one year under Negro rule.’”
“That man said, ‘I declare that Southwestern Christian College is going to close in one year under Negro rule,’” she recalled. “My mother and all the ladies — who are probably now in their 80s and 90s — they took brother Evans into a room. He was a young man, and they said, ‘Brother Evans, we’re not going to allow this school to close.’
“And brother Evans believed those sisters. Most of the buildings you see here are because of the Bowser Women,” she said, referring to a group of supporters named after G.P. Bowser (1874-1950), a prominent black minister instrumental in Southwestern’s founding.
By 1973, Evans Sr. helped Southwestern obtain accreditation as a two-year junior college. In 1982, Southwestern began awarding four-year degrees in Bible and religious education. The college has remained fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Through the decades, Southwestern — which has about 120 students — has faced repeated financial struggles. But Evans Sr. focused on his faith in God.
Asked in 2013 if the college might be in danger of closing, he told The Christian Chronicle, “That’s been an issue ever since we’ve been in existence. … I have just worked here based on the faith that it would get better, and I still believe it. I don’t live under the threat or the fear of closing.”
Two weeks after Evans Sr.’s passing, hundreds of gospel preachers and Southwestern alumni traveled from across the United States to remember him.
A celebration of his “life, labor and legacy” Friday night and his memorial service Saturday afternoon both lasted for hours as minister after minister — and friend after friend — stepped to the microphone to pay tribute.
Daniel Harrison was one of Evans Sr.’s best friends. The two first met as students at the Nashville Christian Institute. They traveled with Keeble to gospel meetings and delivered short messages before he spoke.
Evans Sr. “preached the Gospel with enthusiasm and all his might,” said Harrison, longtime senior minister for that Chatham-Avalon Church of Christ in Chicago and recently retired director of the national Crusade for Christ. “He remained doctrinally sound, but not only sound — he loved preaching.”
At the funeral, the sweet smell of fresh flowers lining the stage in Evans Sr.’s memory permeated the auditorium.
The rumbling sound of trains passing on the tracks by the nearby intersection of Jack Evans Drive and Bowser Circle could be heard over the prayers and hymns such as “He Bore It All” and “Our God, He Is Alive.”
Jack Evans Sr. “preached the word of God as if it were actually that — the word of God.”
“I was thoroughly impressed with one attribute that I admired throughout his preaching career,” said Jefferson Caruthers Jr., minister for the Carver Road Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, N.C., who first heard Evans preach at a Los Angeles tent meeting in the 1970s. “That is, he preached the word of God as if it were actually that — the word of God.”
Gerald Lee, senior minister and elder of the Pearland West Church of Christ in Pearland, Texas, said he never “witnessed a crack in his armor.”
“He loved his family. He loved God. He loved the church. He loved SWCC. He loved his friends. And he loved humor,” Lee said. “His person — his persona — literally fueled an era of time in our humble history, accomplishing the purpose that God gave him.”
Years ago, Lee remembered, he drove Evans Sr. to a Dallas airport to fly to a meeting the two were attending in Florida. Along the way, the Southwestern president tried to help with directions, but Lee rebuffed him, saying, “I got this, Dr. Evans.”
“Now, if you know anything about Dr. Evans, if you cross him wrong, he might not say anything right then, but he never forgets it,” Lee said.
A few days later, returning from the meeting to the Florida airport, Lee got confused by the signs.
“I said, ‘Dr. Evans, which way should I go?’” Lee recalled. “He said, ‘You got this.’”
The crowd laughed as Lee proceeded to quote part of Revelation 14:13: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, and their deeds will follow them.’”
“Dr. Evans, my friend,” Lee concluded, “you got this.”
God showed Evans Jr. mercy, the son said, by letting him return from preaching in Memphis, Tenn., in time to hold his father’s hand all day “while he was in transition.”
“One little tear came out of his eye. He knew I was there,” Jack Evans Jr. said. “And I thank God that he gave me that time with my daddy.”
The two listened to Mahalia Jackson, Evans Sr.’s favorite singer, as his father stared straight ahead.
“One little tear came out of his eye. He knew I was there,” Evans Jr. said. “And I thank God that he gave me that time with my daddy.”
Evans Jr. delivered a passionate, 24-minute eulogy in which he referenced numerous Scriptures and principles that his father taught him. He paused only occasionally to regain his composure.
At the end, he lowered his voice, his words barely above a whisper.
“Daddy, it’s all right,” he said before sitting down. “I’ll see you a little later.”
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