CHICAGO — Legendary pastor Rev. Clay Evans, who founded one of Chicago’s historic Black churches and served as a civil rights leader in the city, has passed away.
Evans, who was also a husband and father of five, died on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. He was 94.
His death was also confirmed in a social media post by Pastor Charles Jenkins, who took over for Evans at his church before retiring earlier this year. Jenkins wrote on Instagram that the beloved pastor “has gone to sleep eternally and is now in the presence of God.”
Evans founded the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in 1950 and served as its leader for 50 years.
“He will be forever be known throughout the world as The Godfather of ministers, preachers, & pastors everywhere,” Jenkins wrote. “He took his final breath on Earth but his legacy will live on forever through his biological family, his friends, his spiritual family, over 100 spiritual sons and daughters, and millions of people around the world who have been touched by his life and work.”
Evans was the Founding National Board Chairman of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and once hosted the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his church.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said in a statement that Evans’ death “has left us all with yet another unimaginable loss.
“Although we may stumble about blindly, trying to center our balance in the midst of our hurt and pain, we are comforted by Scripture, which teaches us: ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’”
His death comes in the same week as the death of retired Chicago priest and Civil Rights activist George Clements.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Evans a “religious and civil rights leader who called for the best in our humanity.”
“When he spoke, his voice was heard in Chicago & echoed across America, & we are a better city & nation for it,” Emanuel wrote on Twitter. “My deepest condolences to his family and all those whom he loved & served.”
Jenkins wrote glowingly about Evans.
“He will forever be known as a civil rights leader [who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King and Reverend Jesse Jackson], gospel music pioneer, civic leader, community staple, and trusted counselor to all including presidents, governors, mayors, and anyone in need of advice,” Jenkins said.
Evans “has been responsible for launching the ministerial careers of ninety-three people, including Mother Consuella York, the first female to be ordained in the Baptist denomination in Chicago,” according to the website of the church at 4543 S. Princeton.
In 1968, Evans ordained Jackson. Working with Jackson, he helped form Operation PUSH, according to the HistoryMakers website.
In some of the most heated days of the civil rights movement, he defied Mayor Richard J. Daley in welcoming King to Chicago.
“When Dr. King decided to use Chicago as a northern expansion of the civil rights movement, Rev. Clay Evans had to endure some political fallout” for his support, said funeral director Spencer Leak. “The word had gone out [from City Hall] that ministers should not invite Dr. King to their churches.”
Evans embraced him and worked with him, and as a result, it became difficult for him to get construction work done on his church, Leak said. “Building permits were very difficult to obtain because of his support for Dr. King,” he said.
Rush (D-Ill.) joined in the condolences, calling Evans “a prophet, a priest, and a pastor to both parishioners and pastors.”
Evans was born in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Gospel music broadcaster Bob Marovich recounted the pastor’s early days in Chicago in a biography Marovich wrote with Patty Nolan-Fitzgerald for Malaco Music Group.
“He migrated to Chicago in June 1945, at age 20, with plans to be an undertaker, but he could not afford the tuition fee to attend mortuary school,” said Marovich, author of “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.” “Instead, he worked at a pickle factory, as a window-washer, as a pie truck driver, then found work at the Brass Rail, a local lounge, and dreamed of a future as a big band singer.”
He sang with various church choirs and wrote gospel songs, including “By and By,” a 1950s hit for the Davis Sisters, according to Marovich. After founding his church, Evans became a soloist and performed on his choir’s gospel records.
“Sam Cooke and other professional singers attended Fellowship to enjoy the choir and listen to Evans preach,” Marovich wrote.
Evans began his broadcasting career in 1952, Marovich said.