If you spend any time with the Rev. Christopher Alan Bullock, you’ll hear him say that ministry must be done “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
As if demonstrating this, last November, a week and a half before announcing he would challenge incumbent John H. Stroger for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Bullock took a walk through Wentworth Gardens. The low-rise Chicago Housing Authority development sits across the street from Progressive Baptist Church, 3658 S. Wentworth Ave., where Bullock is the pastor.
He had obviously done it before. Women promised they’d be in church Sunday, men offered him handshakes, and children ran up to him for hugs and high fives on their way home from the nearby Robert S. Abbott Elementary School.
Like a politician stumping for votes as much as an evangelist trying to save souls, Bullock, 40, seemed to relish it all. A sturdy man with a thin, neat mustache and a fade haircut, he boomed, “How you doing?” to everyone he saw. He encouraged mothers to “hang in there” and kids to do their homework. And he talked about transforming the community through what he calls self-help: “helping those who can’t help themselves now, but eventually will be self-sufficient.”
“These people want to work,” he said. “These are good folks here. But some of them have been trapped into cycles. With my method, they can break this cycle if they want to.”
Over the past year, as Bullock allowed The Chicago Reporter to shadow him, he made it clear that he doesn’t draw a clean line between his pastoral and political work.
For Bullock, Christianity has to be about more than coming to church on Sunday: It must respond to people’s needs. He said he learned this from Kenneth Smith, a teacher he had in seminary, who was also a mentor and friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s.
King remains one of his role models. But Bullock sees himself as a new kind of African American leader–”a pastor, prophet and Republican politician all in one.
His candidacy is breaking a list of taboos. He’s the first black Republican to top the ticket in the staunchly Democratic county. And he’s taking on a political icon in the November election. Stroger, the first African American to lead Cook County, remains one of the most powerful figures in local politics.
As a result, Bullock hasn’t been popular among some other black ministers and public officials. They’re puzzled by his alliance with the mostly white Cook County Republican Party, and they’re angry he’s targeting Stroger.
“Bullock’s not going to win. He’s just in the race because they don’t have anybody else to put in there,” said William Beavers, alderman of the South Side’s 7th Ward and Chicago chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. “He’s not a leader. He’s a minister somewhere. I’ve never heard of him, and I don’t know how many have.”
Bullock is “a very bright guy, a very able minister,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Bullock has joined in protests against racial profiling. Jackson, a Democrat and president of the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization, said he wasn’t concerned about Bullock’s party affiliation. “In the end, it’s about direction, priorities and values. And I think that he has a sense of social justice.”
History suggests Bullock’s chances are slim. Four years ago, Stroger trounced his Republican opponent, former Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia Pucinski, with 63 percent of the vote.
Even some members of Bullock’s church aren’t sure they’ll vote for him. “To be totally honest, I don’t think I will be,” said Delores Seals, 33, a member her entire life. “It’s not a reflection on his abilities. It’s just that I’m a Democrat.”
But Bullock argues that Democrats have taken black voters for granted. The Republican Party has been too white for too long, he said, but now he and others should step in and give African American voters another option.
“In order to get a good sound from the piano, you’ve got to play both the black and the white keys,” he said. “The Democratic Party was playing one key, the Republican Party was playing the other key, and being a former Democrat and now a Republican, I understand both sides of the aisle. So I can play the piano.”
On his walk through Wentworth Gardens, Bullock pointed at a group of young men sitting on the hoods of cars and passing around bottles. “Now look at all these black men here. Drinking and all kinds of things,” he said. “Let’s be honest–”some of them we won’t save. But if we can get 8- to 16-year-olds –¦ to think about their future, get them into church, Sunday school, but also on the computer–”that’s a long-term plan we have to invest in now.”
In fact, Bullock explained, Progressive is already moving on this plan. In 2000 and 2001, the church received a total of $92,000 in state grants to build a computer-training center, which is slated to open in June.
He noted that Progressive has also formed a community development corporation to offer training and education for “the underserved and ill-equipped” as the CHA spends at least $23 million fixing up Wentworth over the next two years. “The church must move from being happy and holy to holistic,” he said.
Bullock opened the door to one of the squat buildings and stepped into Hallie Amey’s office. Amey, a small woman wearing a T-shirt and White Sox cap, is president of the resident company that manages Wentworth Gardens. She’s lived there 51 years.
Bullock gave her a hug. She told him about a recent gathering of the residents’ Bible study group that members of Progressive started.
“We got into the word, and I mean we had a discussion. We had church. Everybody was just overjoyed,” she said. “We’re really proud to have a good relationship with the church. … I’ve been through other pastors, but this is the most reach-out we’ve had.”
Amey mentioned that the development needed more trash pickup and chairs for its nearby field house. Bullock borrowed a pen and piece of paper, and began taking notes. He said he would discuss the matter with county and city officials later that week.
On the way back to the church, Bullock touted this approach. “The key to having success as an urban pastor is doing what we’re doing now–”talking to people,” he said. “I haven’t quoted one scripture out here, have I? But this is ministry.”
When Bullock was 12 years old, his parents divorced, leaving his mother with seven children to raise on her income as a clothing store clerk in Wichita, Kan. The family briefly went on welfare to make ends meet. “We went from eating steak to eating beans and cornbread,” said Bullock.
At the same time, the neighborhood around them seemed to get tougher. Young people began experimenting with drugs and getting involved in petty crime. Bullock’s older brother was one of them, eventually dropping out of school and serving time in jail. Bullock decided to be a role model for his four younger siblings and put most of his energy into basketball and church.
He was one of the leaders in his neighborhood, said his mother, Celeste Bullock. “They played basketball with a wire hanger on the garage door. Sometimes I’d have 20 or more young men in our front yard with him.”
But he still almost got pulled into the neighborhood’s problems. On the way home from playing basketball one afternoon when he was 14, Bullock found two of his buddies gambling and drinking. When they got into an argument, Bullock initially tried to break it up. He left, but the dispute turned violent, and one of the friends stabbed the other to death.
The friend was arrested and charged with murder, and later told police Bullock had given him the knife. Bullock was questioned for potentially being an accessory to murder. Though he was never charged, Bullock wasn’t sure what his friend would testify during the murder trial.
“The defendant got up and took the witness stand. Throughout the whole process of cross-examination, the question was raised: –˜Who gave you the knife?'” Bullock recalled. “And I’ll never forget this. It was like my whole world stopped, paused, and he said it was somebody else. He didn’t finger me.”
Celeste Bullock noticed a change after that. “He was awful quiet. He’d go off to be by himself,” she said. “I knew something was happening to him.”
Bullock felt God used the incident to teach him a lesson. “That triggered my call to obedience. It eventually turned out to be a call to preach,” said Bullock. Three years later, at age 17, he delivered his first sermon.
Bullock got serious about basketball, too. He played point guard on a Wichita South High School basketball team that won three straight state titles. He eventually won a junior college scholarship and then was recruited to play college ball at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“The coach there did an interesting thing. When I went to see the campus, he took me to the local black church and introduced me to the minister,” Bullock said. “Before I worked out, we went to the church.”
It was a great tactic for getting Bullock to play for Alaska Anchorage, and it drew him even deeper into ministry. In four years in Alaska, Bullock earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, set several assists records for the basketball team, was ordained and served as the church’s youth minister and assistant pastor.
Bullock was asked to preach at the San Francisco church his uncle attended one weekend while he was in town for a basketball tournament. Debbie Strickling, the daughter of the church’s pastor, played the piano, sang during the service–”and caught Bullock’s attention.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he remembered.
Debbie, now 37, admits she initially “kind of dodged him.” After growing up in the home of a minister, she didn’t want to get involved with one herself. But she was impressed after talking with Bullock.
“He was very profound. He talked to me like no other guy had before. He talked about the future,” she said. “It wasn’t his preaching that attracted me. It was his personality outside the pulpit. He was real, down to earth. What you see is what you get.”
The couple were married in 1987, the year after Bullock moved to Rochester, N.Y., to attend Colgate-Rochester-Crozer Divinity School.
In 1990, a few weeks before graduating, Bullock was appointed pastor of the Eighth Street Baptist Church in Wilmington, Del. The prominent 97-year-old congregation had 350 members when he arrived.
“That church had a silk stocking, status quo, come-to-church-for-one-hour-on-Sunday, put-your-money-in-and-take-off understanding,” he said. “My vantage point was, –˜Let’s go to the next level. We’ve got drugs on the street and children who can’t read.'”
The church began offering counseling to substance abusers, and clothing and food to impoverished neighborhood residents. Some members tutored children.
In 1992, Tyrone C. Johnson Sr., a former drug and alcohol abuser, was working with some of his neighbors to get drug dealers off their block. One of his neighbors introduced him to Bullock, her pastor.
“After meeting him, I was overtaken by his authenticity and his passion to extend the pulpit,” said Johnson, now 46. “He wasn’t talking right and walking left.”
Bullock asked Johnson to become an outreach minister. The two gathered church members for a new ministry called Churches Take A Corner.
The group would preach and clean up at some of Wilmington’s toughest corners until the dealers moved on. “And when they went to that corner,” Bullock said, “we’d follow.”
With Bullock’s assistance, Johnson expanded the ministry’s reach to substance abuse counseling, prison ministries and transitional housing programs. Today, the ministry is an independent, nonprofit organization that works in four states and the west African nation of Togo. Johnson, its founding director, said he remains indebted to Bullock.
“He’s been a beacon of light. He has enabled others to see their way, to move from less than to leadership.” Johnson added: “He’s still my pastor.”
Bullock also attracted the attention of some of Delaware’s top political leaders on both sides of the aisle. He served on the state’s Commission on Minority Health under Republican Gov. Michael N. Castle, and the Commission on Public Integrity under Democrat Thomas R. Carper, who became governor in 1993.
In 1995, officials from both parties urged him to run for the state legislature. Bullock declined, not wanting to take on a campaign while his boys, Benjamin and Daniel, then 7 and 4, were so young.
Despite bipartisan connections, Bullock gradually shifted his allegiance to the Republicans. “I believe in the basic core values and principles of that party–”I’m pro-faith, pro-family, pro-business, pro-smaller government,” he said.
Democratic entitlement programs, he concluded, accomplished little in the long run. He argued that blacks needed to pool their resources and build schools, banks and businesses in their own communities.
“I felt that I could make more of a difference as a Republican, raising some of these issues of inclusion, fairness and justice from a conservative base,” he said. “In other words, here’s a black man in the Republican Party that is lily white talking about issues that are neither Democratic nor Republican, but human values.”
In 1996, after commuting for two years to take classes, Bullock received a doctorate in ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
Two years later, when Progressive invited him to serve as its pastor, Bullock was convinced that he had hit his “apex” in Wilmington. Eighth Street’s membership had swelled to 1,400, and the congregation offered more than 40 different ministries out of a new $2.5 million sanctuary.
Besides, Bullock said, as a minister interested in social and political issues, “what better place to be than in Chicago?”
Bullock stepped to the pulpit at Progressive one Sunday in April and encouraged worshippers to greet their neighbors with handshakes and hugs. “How many are glad to be here this morning?” said Bullock. “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit at work here.”
Bullock offered a prayer for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and peace in the Middle East. Then he preached a sermon about listening for God’s voice. As he hit his peak, he wiped off his forehead, then unzipped his robe and peeled it off, finishing in his shirt and tie.
“God, speak loud to Progressive,” he said. “Speak loud to hell-raisers, to gamblers, to whoremongers. Speak, and we’ll have peace. Do you want him to speak? Say –˜Yeah’! Do you want him? Say –˜Yeah’! Say –˜Yeah’! Say –˜Yeah’!” The congregation shouted back each time.
Bullock arrived at Progressive in December 1998. After an initial period of transition, the close-knit church has rallied behind him, Debbie Bullock said.
Bullock inspires others, said Roosevelt Simmons, a deacon. “He’s not anti-anything, but he’s pro-African American. –¦ We can’t expect other people to help us unless we help ourselves spiritually, economically and socially.”
In the last three and a half years, the church has grown by a third, to 2,500 members, and started several new social service ministries, including tutoring for kids, counseling for Cook County jail inmates and meals for Wentworth Gardens residents.
And Bullock has continued his social and political activism. Gov. George H. Ryan named him to the state’s Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes in 1999. In June 2000, Bullock hosted the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Martin Luther King III, both nationally known civil rights activists, at a rally at Progressive calling for an end to racial profiling by police.
The event raised Bullock’s local profile considerably. The Rev. Dorris Roberts, a board member of the NAACP’s Chicago Southside Branch, came away from the event convinced that Bullock was the most thoughtful speaker he had heard. He asked Bullock to join the branch’s board, and, shortly afterward, backed him for its presidency.
“It was his willingness to be out front as a leader,” Roberts said. “Bullock stood out as a person who would be a great leader for the NAACP.”
The branch, founded in 1910, is the NAACP’s oldest, but suffered in the 1990s from political infighting and administrative chaos, including court battles over elections and accounting problems that prompted the national NAACP to dispatch an auditor. In 2000, the branch had about 5,000 members; 40 years earlier, it had 50,000.
Bullock was elected branch president in November 2000, aided by a high turnout from members of his congregation. In his acceptance speech, he promised that he was “not going to tolerate any of the shenanigans and foolishness that have plagued the [chapter’s] recent history.”
By the end of 2001, the branch had opened a computer technology center and registered 1,200 new members.
Bullock left the post in January. Under national bylaws, NAACP board members are prohibited from running for or holding political office.
He received mixed reviews from branch board members. Even before hearing of Bullock’s political plans, board member Josephine Fulton was disappointed in his leadership. “I think there might have been a preoccupation with other things that may have prevented him from being as active as we expected. … His presence, in terms of conducting meetings, has been irregular.”
Roberts, on the other hand, said Bullock successfully recruited young members, spoke out against racial profiling and worked well with public officials. “I feel he’s one of the people who have stepped in to fill [Chicago’s] leadership void.”
Manny Hoffman, then the Cook County Republican Central Committee chairman, met Bullock two years ago at a GOP event in the south suburbs. “When I [first] talked to him, I felt that, –˜Hey, here is someone who loves the political process,'” Hoffman said. “He knows the political climate. He knows how to run, how the game is played.”
Bullock told Hoffman he’d “like to get involved and stay involved,” and the two had breakfast.
Unlike the last time Bullock was wooed to run for office, he felt his boys were old enough for him to commit to a campaign.
His sons are avid basketball players, so he goes to their league games or challenges them to showdowns in the driveway of their home in south suburban Olympia Fields. But he also insists that they read the newspaper with him. Social activism “is all a family thing–”not just Dad out there doing something on his own,” he said.
No matter how busy things get, Bullock and his wife meet for lunch at least once a week.
“We have a partnership and support each other in what we want to do,” said Debbie Bullock, who runs her own diversity and career development training company, Executive Suites Consulting.
Last year, Hoffman decided Bullock was the right person to take on Stroger. Hoffman said Bullock is articulate and smart, and could help the Republicans make some inroads in Chicago, where Stroger got 78 percent of the votes in 1998.
“Being a minister enables me to see the needs of people,” said Bullock, who wants to lower property taxes and implement more public health programs to prevent HIV and syphilis.
Bullock also said he would “restore ethics, standards, integrity” to the county board. He noted that, in January, FBI agents re-opened an investigation into county employees who did no work, and mentioned an April Reporter article that found one of the county’s highest paid public health workers can show little proof of doing his job.
“The citizens of Cook County need to be treated as customers, not as voters,” he said. “We need to bring them a product they’re proud of.”
John Gibson, Stroger’s deputy press secretary, countered that the county’s $2.7 billion budget was balanced, with about two-thirds of it devoted to public safety, the correctional system and the circuit court.
“The president is looking forward to an insightful and spirited debate on the issues. He will run a positive campaign, and welcomes Mr. Bullock to the political arena,” said Gibson.
Neither Bullock nor Stroger have begun lining up official endorsements. But some black leaders say Bullock is in way over his head.
Bullock is “a capable man” but won’t rally much support from South Side ministers or voters, said the Rev. Charles M. Ford, pastor of St. Paul Church of God in Christ, 4528 S. Wabash Ave. “He’s got a tough road to hoe with the political party he’s chosen. The support here is for John Stroger. We’re pushing him as hard as we can.”
Others have suggested that Bullock hooked up with the Republicans to make a name for himself. Bullock showed good instincts by quickly learning to navigate Chicago politics, but “being a Republican, there has not been a whole lot of competition to his ambitions,” said Charles Bowen, executive assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Bowen is City Hall’s liaison to African American churches.
“He didn’t have to come through the system where there are 200 to 300 folks vying for the same things. He’s the only game in town.”
Roberts dismisses the criticism. Bullock is “a genuine Republican, not a flip,” he said. But, if you’re a member of the GOP in Chicago, Democrats “make you feel like you’re a traitor.”
The Rev. Larry Greenfield, Bullock’s friend and former professor, said Bullock simply likes to “shake things up.”
“I think there’s a way in which Bullock is restless–”with the status quo, with his own leadership getting stale,” said Greenfield, a Democrat, Chicago activist and part-time faculty member at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. “There’s a certain kind of impatience, and some of it can be dangerous. Sometimes to get things done you have to have a little patience.”
Even Bullock’s supporters worry that he won’t have the resources to seriously challenge Stroger. While the incumbent has nearly $1.5 million in his campaign war chest, according to records with the Cook County Board of Election Commissioners, Bullock held his first fundraiser in late May, at the Plaza Club in downtown Chicago.
But Hoffman and Bullock say Stroger can be beat. Bullock has already been trying to get his name out by meeting with Republican committeemen, donors and ministers. Hoffman said Bullock will also sit down and map a strategy with Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, and other party leaders. Hoffman believes Bullock will poll well in the suburbs and do better than expected in Chicago.
“I’m concerned–”not worried, but concerned–”about Stroger’s name recognition,” Bullock said. “But he’s part of the Machine. There are those who view that as a problem.”
Roberts, while supporting Bullock, remains wary of the motives of Republican Party officials. “It has been my conclusion, after 30-plus years of working with the Republican Party in Chicago, that they don’t want black involvement unless they can control it.”
He said Bullock should make sure the party is not slating him “as another sacrificial lamb, so they can say, –˜We have a black Republican.'”
Hoffman and Maureen Murphy, Cook County’s new GOP chair, concede that the party needs more diversity, and they’re hoping Bullock can help them get it.
“We want people who are in leadership positions because of merit,” said Murphy, a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review. “But we want to add to our numbers in a county that’s been dominated by one party, and the way to do that is with diversity.” For example, Hoffman expects Bullock to help Jim Ryan campaign in Chicago.
Last November, about 100 Republican Party leaders and activists gathered at the Donald E. Stephens Ballroom in northwest suburban Rosemont to announce the party’s slate of candidates for the 2002 elections. The crowd included Hoffman, Gov. Ryan and state House Republican Leader Lee Daniels. Almost everyone there was white.
A band played, and a children’s choir sang. People milled and hit the doughnut table as candidates for county offices gave short, often halting, speeches.
But the room went silent when Bullock stepped to the podium and thanked Daniels and Ryan. His campaign message, he said, would be that “people are important, regardless of their social or economic status, religious affiliation or racial background.” He asked for prayers “as the first African American Republican to seek the office of Cook County Board president.”
The place erupted in applause. Afterward, as candidates hustled to shake hands and line up for photos with one another, Ryan said he was excited Bullock was on board. “I think it’s an indication of a changing time, that the Republican Party is able to bring [in] and is appealing to African Americans.”
Bullock stepped away from the fray for a moment and lowered his voice. “I’m going to be criticized for being a black Republican, but there are a lot of closet Republicans in Cook County who are black. I say, –˜Listen to the message.'”
Asked once more if he could win, Bullock reiterated that he was making history just by running. “Part of what I’m doing is to continue to expand the Republican Party, to continue to open doors for those who will come behind me,” he said. He then gathered his family and moved slowly for the exit.
Contributing: Cyril Mychalejko and Jocelyn Prince. Concethia D. Campbell, Chloe Mister and Rupa Shenoy helped research this article.