While Jessie Wilson’s late father, Rev. Jesse James Evans, worked tirelessly to build a new church for his congregation, he worked fulltime and helped to raise more than his own family.
“He was a father, not just to his own children, but to the entire community,” said Wilson, who still worships the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church that he built in the North Park neighborhood of Long Beach. “People of all colors came to him with problems and he helped them.”
Evans was the pastor at Christian Light for fifty years when he died in April 2000 at age 87. Echoing words from her father’s obituary, Wilson called him an ecclesiastical pioneer. “When he came here, there was really a void religiously,” she said.
Born to wealthy farmers in Eatonton, Georgia, on Aug. 29, 1912, Evans served as a chaplain in the Army during World War II, after which he travelled each Sunday from Jackson Heights to work as a deacon and then an ordained minister at the First Baptist Church in North Park. Later he replaced the retiring Rev. J.E. Hall, reorganized the congregation into Christian Light and held services at City Hall starting in 1950.
Two years later, a woman donated a garage to him on Riverside Boulevard that he converted into a serviceable church. But it wasn’t until 1966 that Evans was able to open a church at 620 Park Place (a street the was officially renamed J.J. Evans Boulevard in 2003). Through those years, though, he was struck by tragedy. He raised four daughters, Mary, Catherine (from his first marriage), Gloria and Jessie; and three sons, Andrew, Jonathan and Charles, the latter two of whom perished in a house fire in 1962.
Larry Elovich, who would become the Democratic leader in Long Beach in 1967, was a volunteer firefighter who helped battle that deadly blaze. “Life was not easy for him but he overcame that tragedy,” Elovich said of Evans.
Meanwhile, Evans earned his keep working at bedding companies in Island Park and Manhattan, first as a mattress maker and then a manager. He also found time to teach history, hold Biblical studies and pen articles for religious periodicals. “It’s fantastic how he did all this stuff and he worked every day and had children to raise,” Wilson said.
She recalled that one night a man showed up at their home after he and his family lost their own in a fire. “And my father let them live down in our basement,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of person he was.”
Kathy Williams, who has worshiped at Christian Light since she got married there in 1959, remembers Evans as a very generous and wise man who reinforced her beliefs, including that all men are created equal.
“He opened his home and congregation to people who migrated from the South looking for a better life,” said Williams, who moved north from her native South Carolina. “... He made my mother feel that he would be my father here in the north and he looked out for me.”
Evans was deeply involved in religious organizations on the local, state and national levels, as moderator of the Long Island Progressive Baptist Church District Association, president of the Progressive Baptist State Convention of New York, and a member of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention of America. Evans would lean on these and similar organizations to help build the church he envisioned. After Evans lost his sons, the local community united to help the man that some described as a low-keyed, non-confrontational and well-respected gentelman.
“He came to the community and asked for help to build his church, and the community went all out to help him,” Elovich remembered. “Donations came in from every segment of community.”
Wilson said her father’s membership in the Long Beach Interracial Committee played a significant role in getting the church built. Evans — who had garnered the type of respect and influence that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, to his congregation during the 1960s — recruited Roy Wilkins, then executive director of the NAACP, to speak at a fundraiser at a boardwalk hotel.
“Everyone had to put yarmulkes on their heads and eat lox and bagels,” Wilson laughed about that event that drew many from Long Beach's Jewish community. “It was a really ecumenical effort. My father worked with all the rabbis, priests, pastors and ministers in town. Everybody.”
When the church opened its doors in March 1966, the congregation marched from the original church to the new house of worship. That same year, though, Evans lost his second wife, Margret, to cancer, and later he built a community center in her name adjoining the church.
In the following years, during violent times in Long Beach in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Evans helped stabilize “militant groups that were looking to make trouble,” Elovich said, and he was elected to the first residents' Board of Directors of the city-run Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, which he served on alongside Wilson and her husband, Pearlie.
“The Rev. Jesse Evans was a fine man who was like a Mahatma Gandhi who preached non-violence,” said . “He’s really the father of the North Park section of Long Beach.”