Last Thursday, a jubilant audience filled the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop for a screening of It is No Secret: The Life and Inspiration of Rev. Clay Evans. The short documentary follows the life and activism of Evans, cofounder of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Fuller Park.
The documentary, filmed over a five-year span, is part of a larger exhibit titled “The Fellowship of Rev. Clay Evans,” currently on display on the library’s ninth floor. The exhibition, sourced from the library’s recently opened Rev. Clay Evans Archive, invites the knowing and the curious to rediscover and study the extensive influence and history of Evans.
Upon arriving at the theater, glowing smiles could be seen throughout the space, greeting one another as audience members took their seats. Though the reverend was ill and unable to attend the screening, it was clear early on that this night was going to be special. The event was a celebration and a fine example of celebrating a person’s legacy while they are still around to enjoy it. The energy of the evening mirrored Evans’s charismatic personality.
Born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1925, Evans left the Jim Crow South and traveled to Chicago in 1945. By 1950, he was ordained as a Baptist minister and in 1952, cofounded the Fellowship Baptist Church.
Showcasing conversations with Chicago public figures including Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and former mayor Richard M. Daley, the documentary illustrates the impact of a man who is known for fighting for social justice and equality outside the walls of the church, pioneering broadcast ministries, and leading the Fellowship Choir to international acclaim.
“Rev. Evans, the shepherd, stood in the gap when parents were not there for children and people went to prison because the system was so oppressive,” Patty Nolan-Fitzgerald, the film’s producer, said in an interview with the Weekly. “He was there with Mother [Consuella] York ministering to the incarcerated [at Cook County Jail]. He got [ostracized from] the Baptist Conference for doing that. Yet, he kept going.”
As a civil rights activist, Evans was no stranger to being punished for his actions. When he opened the doors of his church to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, then-mayor Richard J. Daley punished him by hampering his work to expand the church. Evans reflected on his life’s work in the documentary: “When you know you’re standing for something right, you don’t mind being attacked.”
A natural leader and fearless in the face of adversity, Evans’s advocacy for social justice shifted the mindsets of the African-American congregation by encouraging parishioners to deviate from their concerns of personal salvation and motivating them to become active agents of change in their communities. His alliance with Richard M. Daley reshaped the way white Chicago politicians viewed the Black church by bridging the gap between City Hall and clergy, encouraging both parties to find ways to work together.
“He’s such a trailblazer in many aspects,” It Is No Secret director Ines Sommer said in an interview. “Between the civil rights-era stories and broadcast ministries, there was tension, people really had to fight and risk their lives and a lot of things. I had no idea what the repercussions were for standing up to power. It’s incredibly impressive.”
Following the screening, local clergy members—including Dr. Lou Della Evans-Reid, Evans’s sister and Fellowship Baptist’s former Minister of Music; Father Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Auburn Gresham; and pastor and gospel star Elder DeAndre Patterson—took part in a lively panel discussion.
Pfleger passionately praised Evans’s dedication to always doing what God called him to do. “He was always a pastor—whether he was meeting with politicians, other ministers, people of the church—he had a pastor’s heart. He was going to do the right thing, no matter what people thought. And that doing the right thing broke him out of the traditional stereotypes of what [ministry] ought to be.”
Touching on his musical impact, Patterson emphasized, “Before there was praise and worship, there was devotion. Praise and worship ministered to the Lord; Rev. Evans and Fellowship [Baptist] ministered to the people. The people need to know that God can work it out. And that’s what I think Evans, [Evans-Reid], and the music ministry of Fellowship gave, not just Chicago, but all over. [He] loved the hymn so much, he’d always put a little spin on it to make sure it stayed applicable to the church.”
An energetic and fiery Evans-Reid added, “His voice was his voice. Scratchy. Passable. It’s what you got in the voice, and what you can produce that makes the songs. People are drawn to good singing and good preaching.”
The panelists’ love, respect, and admiration of Evans shows the lasting impact of his ministry.
“It’s the honor of my life to do this work,” said Nolan-Fitzgerald. “Reverend [Evans] has been very clear about this from the beginning: His story for God’s glory. He stared down the hopelessness of the Jim Crow South and became an internationally known evangelist, pastor, incredible singer, musician, and producer. We want to shine a light on his story. Young people should know that story and hopefully, it will give them hope.”
Fittingly, the event concluded with prayer and a rendition of Evans’s mantra and one of his biggest hits, “It’s No Secret What God Can Do.”
An edited version of It Is No Secret will air on WTTW this spring. “The Fellowship of Rev. Clay Evans” exhibit will run at the Harold Washington Library Center through March 5; the archives the exhibit is sourced from are available to the public at the library’s special collections by appointment.