The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell clutched his wife's hand in the cavernous gymnasium that houses the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., preparing to introduce the newest member of his pastoral team.
Leading a Bible study class is one way the Rev. Kimberly Orr connects with members, like Noah Overton, away from the pulpit.
Dressed in an open suit jacket and a shirt the color of ripe peaches, Caldwell appeared relaxed as he started describing Pastor Kimberly Orr's credentials at a Sunday service in June. Caldwell had personally petitioned the United Methodist Church's bishop to appoint Orr as an associate pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church.
Orr, he told parishioners, is an ordained elder in the Methodist Church. He and his wife, Suzette, still clutching his hand on stage, have known her eight years.
"She's smart," he said of Orr. "She has great relational skills."
What he didn't say, what he didn't have to say that Sunday, since it was plainly obvious to the congregation, was that Orr's was not a routine assignment.
Orr is white. Windsor's congregation is 97 percent black.
That makes her appointment to associate pastor extremely rare, said Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist and director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University. While some white churches have for years tried to diversify, Emerson said, he knows of only three other appointments like Orr's at predominantly black churches nationally.
A 'grand experiment'
Caldwell asked his congregation to give Orr, the church's first white pastor, "a warm, Windsor welcome." The congregation and choir quickly obliged with a standing ovation as Orr took the pulpit for the first time.
"It is my privilege, my joy and my blessing to be here in the house with you," Orr said, beaming and raising her hands.
Orr said recently that since she started working at the church full time in June, parishioners have extended that warm welcome. No one has made her feel like an outsider.
Still, the significance of the appointment is not lost on Orr, who was raised in rural East Texas. She describes it frankly as a "grand experiment" -- and one that is still in its infancy.
Her appointment is not only rare; it is exceptionally high profile. Windsor UMC is headed by Caldwell, who has become a celebrity in his own right.
Since 1982, Caldwell has expanded his fellowship at Windsor Village from just 25 members to more than 17,000. The church bought 234 acres of pastureland on the city's southwest side and built a development often called the "Power Center." It includes low-income housing, a medical clinic, a new YMCA and an elementary school named after Caldwell's mother.
As his flock has grown over the years, so has Caldwell's profile. A spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, he delivered the official benediction when Bush took his oaths of office in 2001 and 2005 and officiated at the wedding of Jenna Bush and her husband on the family's Crawford ranch in 2008.
Caldwell also endorsed President Barack Obama, for whom he has served as a spiritual adviser and occasional spokesman.