By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
Somewhere in the midst of this, Carson, their pastor, will slip in, rather unremarkably, from a side door in the sanctuary and take his seat in the first row.
This is Wednesday evening Bible study, the height of midsummer and the busiest phase of their transition. Carson says 200 people have already made the move to Houston and his staff has just started its first week here. Taking his cue from the first chapter of Joshua, he asks them, rhetorically: "What do you do in times of transition?"
As the spotlight catches him, his eyes sparkle. Carson played basketball all his life, though at a stocky five foot eight, he looks more like he's built to be a running back. The only physical feature that gives away the 42-year-old's creep toward middle-age is a snowy plume of white hair that rises up near the center of his forehead and tails off inches later. Sporting a loose sweater and black slacks for Bible study, Carson looks as dapper and comfortable as a PGA pro.
"One of the most difficult things for God's people is to understand that you've got to keep moving," he announces.
By turns, he is the consoling shepherd and the electrifying coach -- one second acknowledging that changes are difficult, the next, accelerating into a roar about overcoming friction. He guides the crowd into echoed conclusions -- condensing biblical verse into tidy Tony Robbins epigrams -- asking each to look at his neighbor and repeat things like: "Opposition is my friend in times of transition."
The crowd nods along. "That's right!" "Yessir!" "Uh-huh!" Various affirmations punctuate his riffs, a jolt of agreement that rolls through every few minutes. He proposes a list of things to do in times of transition:
First, let the past die.
Folks jot this down in their notebooks. Carson speeds through the bookish terms he could use to explain this -- terms like "cognitive development." He mentions just enough to hint at an academic résumé that includes two master's degrees, a Ph.D. in Christian Psychology, and a Doctorate of Ministry from Boston University.
His footwork matches his rhetoric -- he'll dance toward a subject and then back away, less like a boxer in the ring than a ballplayer cautiously planting himself in the batter's box.
The second thing to do in transition, he advises, is to "get up and get over."
"How many of you are facing some steep places you have to get over?" he asks. Most hands in the room shoot up. He likens their test to Joshua crossing the river Jordan. He talks of Lot's wife who got up, but just wouldn't get over. Suddenly he freezes in symbolic imitation of this biblical figure -- one foot kicked forward in vaudeville fashion, head cocked to the side with a silly expression, stopped dead in his tracks. The audience buckles with laughter.
Just before bursting into song, Carson draws his sermon to a close. "Finally, you gotta get to steppin'," he says. "You cannot transition if you cannot move."
Sometime after a service later that week, Demetria Rideau, 32, finds herself flipping through the "Job Finder Binder" in the bookstore. She just moved from Austin five days ago. Being one of the more recent arrivals in a congregation that's been slowly filling in for nearly a year, Rideau has not yet secured a job. The following day she has an interview. And the following day as well.
It was only in February 2001 that she moved to Austin from Houston with a job transfer. At that time, she went in search of a church community, feeling that it was time to get her spiritual life together. She found Praise Tabernacle.
"People were very open, very kind, always willing to help, always available," she says. "That would draw anyone in, especially if you're in a city where you don't know anyone. It's great to feel like you belong somewhere." Carson's flock indeed seems as bent on embracing newcomers as it is in channeling the Holy Spirit. Near the beginning of every service, a call goes out for all those new to the ROCK to stand up. "Saints" (what members of the church call themselves) then swarm over bodies and squeeze in between chairs to pile on greetings to the first-time visitors. Handshakes, cheery introductions, hugs and even kisses go out to complete strangers. Ushers trail in, shortly after, with brochures on how to join the church.
Rideau joined just before Carson began to get his stirrings. When the move was announced, she decided without hesitation, Rideau says, that she would leave her job and come back to Houston. "When I first heard, I was excited. I felt everything I'd gone through prepared me for this mission," says Rideau. "The things Dr. Carson wants to do for the community, I'm really excited about."
She claims she doesn't worry too much about her own welfare: "I know God didn't call us out here to leave us stranded. I know He's going to make a way for me to get a job. As long as I seek Him first, all other things are going to be taken care of."
Kiesha Curtis, who joined Praise through college friends, also didn't blink when the call went out. "It was in August 2002 and I was on vacation and my girlfriend called me and said, 'Dr. Carson says we're going to Houston,' and I told her, 'Well, tell him to sign me up!'" she says, reenacting the burst of excitement. "I believe that my pastor is so dynamic and so anointed -- the way he loves on his members and the people that I met there. I honestly believe that I couldn't find that at any other church in Austin. After being a part of his ministry for a while, he's like a father to you." Elder Charles Moody, one of Carson's top lieutenants, also expressed as much. His father died when he was four years old, so "[Carson] is like the only father I've ever had."
Many of the members of the church talk of how the timing for the move was just right. Elder Rob Williams, one of the first to come to Houston last summer, had been laid off by Dell in Austin and his lease was up. He had some anxieties about moving here, especially with the depressed tech market, but came anyway. He didn't find a job, but since "there's only so long you can surf the Internet all day," he wound up helping out at the church all the time. Carson carved out a job so that Williams is now employed at the ROCK.
It might come as a surprise to some that a pastor would wield such influence over his congregation. Experts on black Pentecostal churches say that while a move of this magnitude is unusual, you can't underestimate the scope of their ministers' authority.
"Pastors have a great deal of power in all Pentecostal churches, but no more so than in black churches. It's almost apostolic power," says Dr. Vinson Synan, author of Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition and dean of the Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Dr. Michael Emerson, professor of sociology at Rice University who has studied race and religion, agrees that the power can be overwhelming.
"They are God with a small g. In black churches, traditionally, the pastors are exalted," says Emerson.
The power increases even further when, as with Carson's Praise Tabernacle and the ROCK, the church remains nondenominational and responsible only to its own vision. With that autonomy, churches can grow and decline very rapidly. A pastor can receive a Divine Call and move his church without much in the way of organizational red tape. And the congregation will follow.
"People that are not really involved in the church at a real serious level, they don't understand how important a pastor is to parishioners," says Carson. "They've learned to see the word of God in them; they like the way they teach; there's a chemistry, there's a symbiotic relationship. They don't take that lightly. And so they don't want to lose that. So when I told them I was going, they were willing to go."
Some experts on controversial churches argue that that amount of influence and attachment can be risky.
"The pastor is beyond confrontation at these kinds of churches. You never raise questions that in any sense might challenge or jeopardize the position of the pastor," says Dr. Ronald Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and author of Churches That Abuse.
He explains that those in the congregation sometimes have dependency needs and need someone to "cosign for their lives." They would not consider the pastor equivalent to God, but right up there on a pedestal with a direct pipeline to God.
Dr. Steven Lambert, author of Charismatic Captivation, an analysis of powerful neo-Pentecostal churches, believes that only time will tell if a pastor's judgment is sound. "If it's God-driven, no one can stop it," he says. "If it's man-driven, it will eventually be stopped." No one would deny that a dynamic personality is essential to the growth of a superchurch. What's more, powerful church leaders often perceive "control" as "caring" and not unhealthy, but vital.
When asked how to answer the skeptics who question his moving this many people, Carson gives a blank stare and a confident, peaceful smile, and speaks somewhat cryptically: "First of all, to those that need an answer, there is no answer that will do. And for those that don't need an answer, there's no answer required."
"With that said, this is nothing new," he offers. "T.D. Jakes, one of the biggest ministers in the country, left Virginia with two or 300 people and moved all the way to Dallas, Texas, and now he has a 20,000 member church. Noel Jones -- he relocated from Fort Worth, Texas, to L.A. and he now has a 15,000 member church. Robert Schuller relocated from Chicago to L.A., and who knows how many thousands of people they have. So this isn't something that's never been done before."
"I tell people, companies relocate; corporations relocate; people relocate for jobs," he says. "And the reason that it seems crazy or irrational for most people is that money is their God and so they can see people moving for jobs, but they cannot see people moving for spiritual priorities.
"The other thing that people don't understand is that these people were ready for those life changes," he says. "See, sometimes people are dissatisfied with where they are and they just need an opportunity presented to them to give them a way out."
For Carson, too, this move represented a way out. Growth had stalled in Austin. He needed somewhere new to catch fire -- to earn a spot with the major players on the megachurch circuit.
"Had we been in Houston as long as we were in Austin, our church probably would have been 30,000 members or so," he boasts.
That same swagger shows up on the basketball court. When asked what the strongest part of his game is, he playfully touts, "Without sounding arrogant, I have no strongest part of my game. My game is just," he pauses, "strong."
Carson's game will need to be strong enough to save not just "thousands" of souls, but rather "millions." Winning such prominence would validate a long journey from his days growing up on the South Side of Chicago. For a man whose last name now has a train of academic acronyms trailing after it, the Reverend Dr. Dana Carson was once Dana Carson, high school dropout. Although the ghetto upbringing seems to figure prominently in his image, the pastor admits to growing up in a working middle class family and denies having any "rags to riches" story. He was raised Baptist, but his family did not attend church regularly.
A self-described "frustrated NBA star," Carson, now a father of five, dropped out near the end of his senior year when a basketball scholarship fell through because of poor grades. He completed high school that summer and came to Texas for college. During graduate school in the '80s Carson says the Lord summoned him to minister and, like the move to Houston, he says he struggled with the call at first. He joined the ministry at a Baptist church in Austin for a brief period, but, finding the Pentecostal tradition more conducive to his style, he soon branched out to start his own church. On December 9, 1986, nine friends gathered for services at a mobile home in Austin and Carson's flock was born.
The congregation grew swiftly, bouncing among houses, hotels and a warehouse in North Austin for most of a decade. When the Praise Tabernacle facility opened its doors in 1996, the Austin American-Statesman reported that several hundred people had to be turned away as the 1,800-seat sanctuary had filled completely. Carson claims that his membership rolls boast more than 5,000. Yet the ministry was never able to sustain momentum -- "people would come and go and come and go," as one member put it. On average, Praise Tabernacle would draw several hundred regulars. A good many of those devoted followers came from the University of Texas at Austin, and those who have moved with him to the Houston area seem to be mainly in their twenties and thirties. While the young legs aid Carson's energetic ministry through their aggressive evangelization, the preacher says that the character of Austin wore on him over time.
"Austin, in its liberalism, is not a religious city. They don't have a lot of respect for spiritual definition," says Carson. "They don't believe in the absolutes. Houston and all of this area is still considered a little part of that Bible Belt. This area -- they believe in church. They go to church. Austin is not a church town."
Candace Smith, executive assistant at Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Austin, agrees that Austin can be a tough area for religious organizations: "There's a small pool of people who go to church in Austin. The people who do go to church are pretty committed to the church they're going to."
"Frankly, most people in Austin enjoy having a casual relationship with God," she says, adding that Praise Tabernacle was known for having the connections to bring in big name speakers, but that they rarely ventured into joint projects with other churches. "Praise was kind of moving in a direction that many of the churches in Austin were not moving in."
Elder Dexter Lockett of Praise Tabernacle acknowledges as much, saying the church's work made them both "trendsetters" and "loners." Other clergy in the area offered more biting criticism of Carson's ministry.
"He's looking to get 5,000. He's looking for numbers," says the Reverend Leonard James Sr. at Greater Works Baptist Church, just a few blocks from Praise Tabernacle. "He's a cosmetic preacher."
James flatly denied Carson's claim that Austin isn't a church town. Austin, James claimed, needs "flatfooted teachers, not showmen" and "not prosperity preachers who just talk about money." He added that he'd seen little of Carson in the community.
Janet Blake, day-care director at the nearby True Light Baptist Church and president of her neighborhood association, agreed: "He wasn't part of the community. He didn't come to neighborhood meetings."
"If you didn't have a lot of education, you didn't go there. If you didn't have a lot of money, you didn't go there," she says, railing against what she perceived as a Gospel of Wealth emphasis. "Their ministry was pretty much just to enhance themselves. There was no outreach."
She also felt skeptical about the move to Houston: "It's more about power with him. It's supposed to be about saving souls and he's saying, 'Follow me.'"
Carson doesn't deny that naked ambition drives him to great heights. From his theological vantage point, size matters. "The Bible says, 'Go ye therefore and make disciples.' That's an infinite number. If I can reach the entire Austin and globe for Jesus Christ, I am about reaching the masses. I'm not about, well, I've got a few people here, now let's stop, let's no longer reach out and touch lives," he says. "An empty church is not a testimony of what God can do or wants to do. So anyone who says that they are not about numbers, I think they've not grasped what the Christian mission is."
Freda Carson, who was divorced from Dr. Carson in 1998, argues much of the backlash comes from the competitive nature of the Austin church community: "A lot of traditional churches are not that friendly to nondenominational churches. When we started, people started leaving their churches to come to ours, so people were fearful of their livelihood -- it was a territorial thing."
Over time, though, Praise Tabernacle began losing its own flock. One former member, who asked to remain anonymous, identified himself as a right-hand man to Carson for nine years before leaving the church. He offered some reasons for the exodus.
"It became selective with people -- if you had education or you were a doctor, then you were in. If you were just an average citizen and you weren't able to bring in X amount of dollars, he didn't really want anything to do with you," says the man, noting that there was an "inner circle" of tithing "VIPs." He argued: "People got tired of being tapped out of money every week. They were just getting drained." At each of several services witnessed in Alvin, two collection offerings were built into the ceremony.
Carson denied that he has any involvement in the church's financial records, although he did acknowledge that the people who support a ministry are the people who should be catered to the most. He also agreed that some people couldn't handle the level of commitment his ministry requires: "We challenge you to reach out beyond your own selfish needs and touch the lives of other people. We challenge you to be financially committed to help us perpetuate the vision of this ministry."
Some felt frustrated, however, at Carson's wealth and the fact that he didn't live in the community. Carson has said his $639,000 home in the Lakeway community west of Austin is now up for sale. In 2000, he purchased a $371,000 home northwest of Houston. And documents from his 1998 divorce filings showed ownership of an S600 Mercedes-Benz, a Ford Conversion Van, a Mercury Villager and a Crest Savannah Gold Boat.
Carson defended his riches. "Number one, Jesus said, 'A workman is worthy of his hire.' Any finances that I receive is because of work I've done," he says. "Any business in America -- a CEO, a Michael Dell, a Bill Gates, a Donald Trump, whoever it is -- can only benefit as much as they benefit others, because you have a service, a good or a product and people only buy services, goods and products that they find value in for themselves. So, therefore, any financial success that I would have would be due to the value that I add into someone's life."
The anonymous former member says, however, that Carson maintained much of his authority by knighting members with empty titles so that they felt accountable to him. Outreach programs starting drying up, he says, and "anything that was bigger than him, he shut the program down." What's more, the man added, Carson never liked to have local preachers speak for fear they might capture some of his market.
Isaac Grant Jr., pastor of Greater Love Baptist Church in Austin, contests that last point. He says he was asked to speak once at Praise Tabernacle and gushes when asked about Carson, who originated at Greater Love before starting his own ministry in 1986. "He loves his ministry and he loves helping people, regardless of what people say," says Grant. "To be frank, I'm thankful to God he came from here and has treated me royally when I've went to him."
"Dana's a wonderful guy, a great pastor and a wonderful minister of the word," he says, adding that in Austin he was up against a city that pushes back against church projects. Grant may have been referring to two particular civic misfires in recent years. In 1995, Capital Metro, Austin's transit authority, paid Praise Tabernacle $400,000 to build a park-and-ride lot at its church, though low ridership eventually led to the bus route being cancelled. Ken Oden, attorney for Travis County at the time, investigated the contract, but never filed any charges. Carson questioned the Austin American-Statesman's coverage of the affair with a 1997 editorial in which he argued "the articles depicted a minority church on the public dole."
That same year, Praise Tabernacle backed an ill-fated affordable-housing project that would have put in rent-capped apartments near the church. The nearby Stone Gate Neighborhood Association filed a petition to block the rezoning and the City Council voted down the proposal. Trudy Brieger, former president of the association, says the mostly retired Stone Gate community was concerned about maintaining their quality of life against a potential transient population. Carson pins it on petty jealousy from other churches that were salivating over the $15 million tax credit Praise Tabernacle would have received. Joe Stinson, a member of Carson's congregation, called the affordable-housing failure "a kick in the teeth."
Stinson, an Austin police officer with a crushing handshake and just four years to retirement, will be one of a handful of core members who will stay in Austin to guide the "church-at-large," when Praise Tabernacle finds a buyer. If he wasn't so close to retirement, Stinson says he would have been gone with others.
"There's not many things you do absolutely for God. This is a God-move. People were pretty much settled here. I take my hat off to those that moved already," he says. One of Carson's "giftings" -- and he listed many -- is in handling relationship matters between husbands and wives. Other members have said, however, that Carson's own divorce in 1998 from Freda and his subsequent remarriage to another member of the congregation in 2000 caused considerable discord. When the subject came up with Carson, he responded irritably that "those issues are behind us" and that "those issues are painful" and "irrelevant." In sum, let the past die.
Around that same time, Carson began a Bible study group in Houston. Initially attended by a dozen or so people, Carson says he saw the cell group grow to several hundred -- although it shared the nomadic early nature of the Austin church, moving from one meeting spot to another.
"It was from there that when we began to look at the Houston area, that we came here," he says of Alvin. "And so we believe God's hand was working to get us in this strategic location."
Right now, this strategic location, Alvin's the ROCK, seems only a shell of its future greatness, the seedling of a megachurch. As Carson toured the facility on a recent weekday, some of his staff of more than 30 swooped in and out of hallways. His personal assistant, Lockett, a trim, lanky 31-year-old with a golden falsetto and an overwhelming friendliness, trailed behind, screening phone calls and darting out in front to unlock doors. Like many others at the ROCK, Lockett defers to Carson and responds to Carson with the kind of jump-to-it military cadence typically reserved for a general.
The Alvin church -- simple, humble from the exterior -- yields a surprising sprawl of day-care facilities, classrooms, a bookstore, a recording studio, a broadcast booth, a computer lab, a chapel and the sanctuary. Eventually Carson is hoping to add shops, banking and a gas station, drawing on business principles such as "economic synergy." Across the street, another building contains the beginnings of a full-service entertainment center replete with basketball courts, pool and air hockey tables, video games, a weight room, a racquetball court, and restaurant tables. In other parts of the country, sprawling churches of this sort have come under fire for threatening low-density communities with their traffic and pollution. Carson defended the entertainment center as part of his philosophy for touching young people through their hearts and, thus, bringing them closer to God.
"You can't start up with a bunch of rules and regulations," he says. "You gotta show them you care first. Meet them where they are." Neo-Pentecostal by nature, Carson's congregation shuns the rules of traditional Pentecostalism which include codes against lipstick, card playing, and jewelry.
Although Carson is leading an extensive facelift in updating the Alvin facilities, he sees it as a starter home for his ministry here. "We plan to touch this entire region," he says. Plans include athletic programs for young people, English language training for the Hispanic community, food pantry service and prayer and crisis counseling. "I can see us being in this area for three to five years until we outgrow this area and this church and then we'll have to purchase land to be more accessible to the region." In that sense, Carson frames the transition less as a move to Alvin, as much as a move to the Houston area. Still, the little town holds special meaning to the pastor.
About 100 years ago, when Pentecostalism was in its infancy, William J. Seymour, a black Holiness preacher who had gone blind in one eye, passed through the Alvin area and discovered the teachings of Charles Parham, a chief figure in the early Pentecostalist movement. Jim Crow laws prevented Seymour from sitting in the classroom with whites, so he had to listen to lectures from outside the door. Soon after, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles, launching the Azusa Street revival and becoming "catalyst of the worldwide Pentecostal movement," as one expert wrote in Christianity Today.
"When you look back in the year 1903, 1904, you had a city that because of racism cancelled out Pentecostalism and it was sent to California," Carson says. "And now, here it is, in the year 2003, 2004 -- what a tremendous opportunity for that spirit to rise." He continued on, gripping at the air with his fingers: "Now, to what degree, I'm not saying that I'm the next William J. Seymour. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I represent a piece of what God is doing in a big puzzle."
Alvin appears to be welcoming, if a bit puzzled. An earlier newspaper report pegged Carson as coming to heal the "racial issues" of Alvin, which confused many people. Carson says he was speaking more to those old wounds, buried deep in the past -- tragedies and attitudes no different in Alvin than anywhere else. Many locals say that Alvin doesn't have a racism problem -- and even those in the tiny 2 percent black community speak only of a "subtle racism."
Of course Alvin shares the same threads of history with other small Southern towns. The north-south streets are named after Confederate leaders. The schools remained segregated until the 1960s. A Confederate cemetery sits on the edge of town. And some of the older generation in Alvin can still recall when a sign near the train station warded off blacks with a message: "Don't be caught out past dark." But most locals speak to an Alvin in transition, far removed from those days. Four years ago, a black student won homecoming queen at the town's only high school.
Yet when it comes to segregation on Sunday mornings, Alvin remains no different from the rest of America. Carson plans to break those boundaries. Many in Alvin's religious community say they hope he can pull it off. "Churches under white leadership have no problem drawing non-white people. You can take a Joel Osteen or some of the other people and they got tons of non-whites there," he says. "But when it comes to churches under black leadership, no matter how trained and sharp the leader is, whites in particular don't feel comfortable going to those churches."
Carson says the Lord told him He was going to overturn all that.
It's a Sunday night service and there's no one new to the ROCK. After leading the crowd in song, Elder Lockett gives the crowd a gentle nudge to get in gear and proselytize, scolding folks to "feel uncomfortable" if they don't bring someone new to the service next time. When Carson takes the stage, he quickly cracks down on their sluggish evangelism.
"I did not come to Alvin, Texas, to lose," he shouts into the microphone. "I did not come to Alvin to talk to folks I had in Austin."
"I came to this area -- God called there to be a revival and said let it be a black man; He summoned me -- I came to turn this region upside down!" He's climbed from a hoarse whisper to a shrill yelling that stings. The crowd responds with energetic amens. He continues on, softly, tenderly.
"I can't make it in this region without the power." The electrifying coach has morphed into the disappointed parent, telling them that the devil is telling locals "that's the black people's church" and yet his troops refuse to fight that label.
"I brought thousands of people to Christ, but God didn't call me to bring thousands, he called me to bring millions! So I'm an underachiever," he says.
At the end of his sermon, he crumples to the stairs of the altar, clutching his head with a grimace that looks plagued by either a toothache or a migraine. He invites the crowd to come forward and pray with him around the altar -- a wounded plea, wet with heavy breathing and smeared mascara as the group of 100 bows down alongside him underneath the cross.
Sometime later their service concludes -- as it does on other occasions -- with a gospel version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" rising from the choir. Folks join hands. Bodies sway to the beat. And they exit the church, having made a long journey to this new place, knowing how much farther they still have to go.
You can reach Michael Serazio at email@example.com