By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
For the Reverend Dr. Dana Carson, the revelation unfolded in installments.
In early 2002, Carson, pastor of Praise Tabernacle, a predominantly black church in East Austin, began to get a feeling in his prayers -- an "internal voice" as he described it. It may have been in January; it may have been in March. The exact date remains unclear. At the time, though, the stirrings seemed unclear to him as well. Prayer rarely presents itself as a kind of bank statement, but more often comes across as untidy, ambiguous and ultimately verifiable only in the mind of the beholder.
Carson says he didn't do anything with his thoughts at that time; didn't act on the restlessness surging through him.
In July of last year, the message crystallized in dramatic form. One might expect as much from Praise Tabernacle's neo-Pentecostalism -- a Christian tradition infused with the exuberance and fervor of a Broadway musical.
Carson had brought in his friend Darrell Hines, head of the Christian Faith Fellowship Church in Milwaukee and a national speaker on the religious circuit. In the midst of his sermon, Hines began weeping. He looked Carson straight in the eye and he announced, "Dr. Carson, the Lord told me to tell you that your work is finished here." Then, he turned to the congregation and said, "Release him."
"That's what he said, 'Your work is done in Austin,'" says Carson. "And since the Lord had already spoken to me, I knew exactly what that meant! But I wasn't willing to go public with it, because I had an extremely successful ministry in Austin. So I wasn't really trying to react to that and leave my flock there. But after that, I just had to say, 'Yes, Lord.'"
At that time, Carson says he had no knowledge of Alvin -- a folksy town of 21,000 nestled in the swampy green of Brazoria County 25 miles south of Houston. To most, Alvin is best known for being Nolan Ryan's hometown and the recipient of Tropical Storm Claudette's wrath in 1979. Although metro growth has been pressing in, it's still the kind of place where City Clerk Tommy Peebles can make it from home to work "in 90 seconds if the lights are green."
In September of last year, with an eye on the Houston area, a realtor brought Carson and his leadership team out to look at the old First Baptist Church in Alvin -- a wholesome looking red-brick building on a quiet residential street where a canopy of trees stretches languidly into the distance.
"My initial reaction was 'No way!'" he says. "You have to remember, I designed and built a building from the ground that had a sanctuary that can seat 2,000 people. It had a gymnasium; I was used to something contemporary and it was off the most major highway in Austin. And so it was accessible to everyone."
He paused and then added, somewhat parenthetically, though hardly inconsequentially: "And, then, I'm a black man."
That fact is essential in understanding why Carson has put his $5 million Austin church up for sale to come to Alvin -- a city that's 67 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. It's essential in understanding his vision of becoming one of the first black pastors to lead a megachurch congregation of equal parts black, white and Hispanic. And it's also essential in understanding why 300 people from Austin would uproot their lives and move with him to follow the message.
Some find this religious commitment inspirational. Others say it's disturbing. And whether Dana Carson is acting on divine impetus or desire for omnipotence, one thing seems clear: He is a man of ambition and action.
"I emptied my life savings into this -- literally," Carson says of the $1.2 million Alvin church. "When I moved down I had no money in savings left, I spent it all here."
"I believe that God is going to send that kind of revival here to this area. And I believe I'm going to be used in some major way in that."
Church services at Reflections of Christ's Kingdom, or "the ROCK," Praise Tabernacle's new name in Alvin, rev up like the thunderous crackle of someone kick-starting a lawn mower. As piano keys tinkle into action, the choir launches a soaring overture that takes up half the service with songs blended seamlessly into each other. A short, bald lead singer leads the fever -- stomping, huffing, puffing, whirling and scampering back and forth across the stage like a melodic Tasmanian Devil. A fervor washes over the crowd and sparks madcap swaying, furious skanking that spills out into the aisles. Garbled speaking in tongues tumbles forth from lips puckered by the Holy Spirit.
"I needed that," says member Kiesha Curtis. "People can worship and praise and you wouldn't feel like you stood out. People are encouraged to be individualistic." At the ROCK, that individualism reigns, gloriously.
One man tears off on a Blues Brothers sidestep shuffle around the sanctuary. Another thrashes about epileptically, launching Pete Townsend windmill jams on his air guitar, before returning to his seat to take a breathless nip at his water bottle. In front, a woman twirls a shawl with flamenco intensity. Near her, a man weeps, shaking violently and rocking himself into the fetal position.