A FEW DAYS AFTER CHRIS CONLEE’S FIRST BIRTHDAY, his mother squirted lighter fluid on a stubborn fire and sucked back flames into her lap. When her dress caught fire, she suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body.
In order to focus on his wife and two older children, Chris’ father asked Janey, the family maid, to care for his infant son.
“She had become family, a friend, someone we truly loved and adored,” Conlee says. “So, when my mom was in the hospital for six months, I lived under her care.”
In Memphis, three years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the first woman Conlee called mom was a black maid. From a very early age, a person of color meant someone who loved him.
AS THE SENIOR PASTOR OF HIGHPOINT CHURCH since 2002, Conlee has prayed for revival in the race-haunted city of Memphis.
“You can’t have revival if hatred and divisions are prominent in your city,” he says. “From the start, I saw Highpoint’s greatest calling was in helping answer the question: What does it mean to unify this city and prove that love works?”
By revival, he doesn’t mean a circus show or a new crusade, but a return of God’s people to the obligation to love.
“Revival happens when God stirs an all-consuming love for him and others,” Conlee says. “Once God’s people are revived inside the church, the spiritual awakening moves out in our communities as well.”
As the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approaches, Conlee has seen progress in his church and city. In partnership with likeminded people, Conlee helped form the Memphis Christian Pastors Network and LeadershipWorks, organizations designed to attract leaders and problem-solve the healing of the city’s deep racial wounds.
Over Valentine’s Day 2017, Highpoint Church hosted a Healing Wounded History retreat. For three days, 125 Memphis pastors—black and white—gathered to experience the city’s history together.
“Revival is about setting our sails and letting the Spirit—the wind of God—empower, equip and edify us,” Conlee says. “I believe the heart of every major problem in the world is broken love. We have to let the Spirit move us from love not working to love working.”
Only then, he says, will revival come.
CONLEE KNOWS A THING OR TWO ABOUT LOVE NOT WORKING.
Long before his mom was burned next to the family fireplace, she had suffered great wounds. Her own mother died when she was 5. Her father remarried and died when she was 13, abandoning her to an alcoholic, abusive stepmom.
And then there was Chris’ father. For those who knew and loved him—and there were many—his name was Bready, not because he drove a bread truck so much as he owned the company.
Turning a million dollars a year wasn’t bad for a graduate of the foster-care system and a high school dropout.
Through a volatile mix of will, street smarts and charm, Bready cast an image of success: warm and generous and handsome, perpetual golf club champ, citizen of the year, born salesman, friend to all in the suburbs of Memphis.
In his mind’s eye, Conlee can still see his father behind the wheel of that blue-collar bread truck darting defiantly between waxed-up Porsches, BMWs and Corvettes occupying the country club parking lot.
“If you were to look at him,” Conlee says, “you would swear that love was working in his life.”
But Conlee knew it was not.
On Bready’s flipside: a temper like a roadside bomb. On three occasions, Conlee wrestled a gun—aimed at his mother—from the adrenaline grip of his father. Bullets of profanity, spears of words, his father’s finger quivering on the trigger: It added up to a lot of stress for a teenager.
“My father’s life was such a juxtaposition,” he says. On the one hand, he was everybody’s smiling friend, the guy who sold you bread. On the other hand, he was an incredible mess, an orphan’s rage against the weight of the pain.
Put them together, father and mother, and all you can imagine is love not working.
ON APRIL 20, 1981, WHEN CONLEE WAS 10, his brother Bubba shot an 8-under-par 64 to win a Memphis golf tournament. One month from his high school graduation everyone understood he was already shooting like a pro. Even for Bubba’s own high standards, the achievement was not lost on him. He ran to his car so that he could meet with his dad and brother to share in the celebration.
Conlee can imagine Bubbs on that warm spring afternoon: window down, hair flying, music blaring, on the cusp of achieving the Golf Dream.
Conlee and his father heard the crash of metal on metal as they gassed up the bread truck just 150 yards away from the point of impact. Conlee wanted to investigate—obviously someone had suffered a major accident—but his father stopped him. “Get in the truck,” his father said. “I don’t want you to see.”
Later, when they returned home, they saw three police cars parked in the driveway. Even before anyone said anything, Conlee knew it had been his brother, and he was dead.
Five years after his brother’s death, Conlee answered a call from the pastor of the church Bubba had attended. In the church’s move to another location, they found Bubba’s Bible. The pastor was calling to see if someone might want to pick it up.
Conlee sat in the back pew of the church and flipped through the pages of his brother’s Bible. A Christmas-or-Easter Christian, Chris had no idea what he was looking for, but in the margin next to Colossians 3:2 were the handwritten words: My Life Verse—“Set your mind on things above, not on things of this earth.”
The student pastor called a few days later and invited Conlee to a youth retreat in Destin, Florida. There, in the beauty of emerald beaches, he placed his faith in Christ.
THE SAME YEAR OF BUBBA’S DEATH, the city of Memphis was honored to hold the first annual Bubba Conlee Golf Tournament. The younger Conlee entered, but says it’s hard to imagine the pressure he felt to win.
“Through his death, Bubba had become this larger-than-life figure, and I was somehow expected to carry on his legacy,” Conlee says. “I was a good golfer, but I couldn’t win with an 8-under 64 like he did. Only he could do that.”
After Bubba’s death, the family was shattered and separated.
“We lost far more than Bubba; we lost one another. We didn’t grieve together as a family. We isolated ourselves. We self-medicated. We compartmentalized our feelings. We tried to survive as individuals,” he says.
That reflected his family’s experience with love: two horribly broken parents. A sister on drugs who was missing. A shining-star brother who was killed one month before graduation day. And Chris, a guy caught in the middle of all the pain.
In the wake of Bubba’s death, his parents divorced after 34 difficult years, and his father, somewhat inexplicably, compensated by holding even tighter to the Golf Dream. From the time of Bubba’s death until his junior year in college, Conlee doggedly pursued that dream in the face of declining results.
He remembers the back nine at a tournament in Florida: “I finished the round with only my 3-wood, sand wedge and putter. The rest of them I broke.”
The Golf Dream was not just about achievement, but also redemption and the unfinished grief over a brother and a son, all weighing on Conlee. “Part of what made it so difficult was that dying to the dream of golf was like dying to what my dad loved about me. Our family’s identity was wrapped up in golf.”
At the same time, during the second semester of his junior year in college, he was left alone with his loss and the intertwined grief over his brother and his dream.
“The first real loss in my life was my brother,” Conlee says. “That was a serious time of grieving. The second grieving was when the dream of golf died. There were a lot of tears, anger and embarrassment. You feel like you’re letting everybody down.”
At the same time, a chance encounter with a friend from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes led Chris to investigate more deeply the claims of Christianity. Leading a group of athletes through Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, he began to live out what he now claimed as his life verse: “Set your mind on things above, not on things of this earth.” Against the death of the Golf Dream, he began to catch a glimpse of a dream far grander.
FROM 1995 TO 1998, DRAWN BY A VISION OF KINGDOM LIFE, Conlee decided to attend seminary. Near the end of his studies, he received a phone call from his father.
“Chris, would you mind officiating your parents’ wedding ceremony?”
Three years after their divorce, his parents wanted to remarry.
“They missed each other,” Conlee says. “Or at least, they missed the idea of each other.”
Two years later, his dad and mom divorced a second time and Bready married the woman of his affair. Chris remembers the temptation to end the relationship with his father. Instead, his entire family continued to love on him.
“We tried to create an environment where he felt accepted not rejected,” Conlee says.
Bready’s new marriage lasted eight years.
IN OCTOBER OF 2000, CONLEE WAS WORKING AT A CHURCH in Dayton, Ohio, but he felt a calling to plant a new church. While reading through Exodus 3—the calling of Moses—he noticed the sign from God came after an act of obedience. A few days later in his prayer journal he recorded his commitment to start a church. But where?
Just 15 minutes later, he received a call.
“Listen,” a man on the other end of the line said, “you don’t know me, but I’ve been praying that God would raise up a church in Memphis that would reach the next generation. What do you think?”
Conlee read the man his recent prayer journal entry and told him he wasn’t the smartest guy in the world, but he still knew 2 + 2 = 4.
On Oct. 1, 2001, Conlee returned to his hometown of Memphis and began to pray for a revival. In September 2002, the first service was held at Highpoint Church with its tagline, A Perfect Place for Imperfect People.
Conlee’s early strategy to create diversity in Highpoint Church—hire black pastors and staff—largely failed to materialize but yielded a defining truth.
“People go to church where they have friends,” he says. “In order to have a church of diversity, you have to have friends of diversity.”
In 2004, Highpoint began to partner with Overton High School, an urban school known for the arts, intentionally building diverse relationships within the football team and the theater and music departments. The church also started a ministry to single moms.
“We committed ourselves to meeting needs and building relationships for the long term,” Conlee says. “We didn’t want to be people who showed up a couple times a year, took pictures of us being heroes, but never really accomplished much.”
It took many years, he says, but eventually the church acquired a critical mass of diversity through the cultivation of loving relationships.
IN 2010, CONLEE RECEIVED A CALL FROM HIS FATHER.
“Chris, would you mind officiating your parents’ wedding ceremony?”
“My father hadn’t changed much, but my mom was following Jesus and wanted to love others,” says Conlee. “I remember her telling me that marrying my father again might be the only chance he had of meeting Jesus.”
He believes he may be the only pastor to officiate his parents’ wedding twice.
SHORTLY AFTER A PROTEST OF 1,000 PEOPLE shut down the Hernando de Soto Bridge carrying Interstate 40 over the Mississippi River in July 2016, Rufus Smith, senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, extended an invitation to Memphis pastors to come together for conversation, confession and prayer.
Conlee was one of the more than 300 people who attended. He heard the story of Smith, a black pastor who left a thriving multiethnic church in Houston in 2010 to assume leadership at Hope Presbyterian Church, the city’s largest with more than 7,000 people.
Smith was groomed by Senior Pastor Craig Strickland to be his successor and lead the church to better reflect the demographics of Memphis. In his role as senior pastor, Smith has seen the percentage of black attendees jump from 1 percent to 20 percent since 2013.
As he talked with Smith, Conlee discovered they both felt an urgent need to build more partnerships of trust within the city. With the 50th anniversary of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. less than a year away, they shared the same fears: superficial event, reconciliation platitudes and no real change.
The meeting following the bridge protest opened up windows for empathy and doors to conversation.
“When you share stories, you begin to listen to each other. You begin to see the need to understand someone before you can be understood,” Conlee says. “When we listen to one another, you can see it from another perspective but, even more, feel it from another perspective.”
After sharing time together, Smith felt led to start the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. On the agenda were three questions: How do we bridge a trust gap between races? How do we bridge the education gap? How do we bridge the economic gap?
In a city with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates—nearly 27 percent—and incomes among blacks less than half of their white counterparts, they understood change would not come quickly.
Smith told the pastors, “If we can bridge the trust gap between ourselves, it will have a ripple effect in our congregations.”
ON SATURDAY EVENING, NOV. 26, 2016, Conlee was praying over every seat in Highpoint’s auditorium. Suddenly, Daniel 9 jumped into his mind.
Verse 18 struck him first: “Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.”
“I had been praying for revival and I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t about our goodness or ability but because of his great mercy,” Conlee says.
As Daniel prayed, a word went out and the angel Gabriel appears in response. Daniel 9:23 reads: “I have come to tell it to you. And here’s the word: You are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.”
“It struck me how universal God’s response is,” Conlee says. “The Great Commission is to go into all the world, so this is his statement for everyone—you are greatly loved.”
Daniel 9:24: “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression to put an end to sin.”
As he considered “to finish the transgression,” Conlee was prompted by the Spirit to ask, “What is the greatest transgression that’s ever been committed in Memphis?” The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. immediately came to mind. At the same time, he wondered how many weeks remained before the 50th anniversary of the shooting. </>
Scribbling on a card, he wrote:
5 Sundays left in 2016.
2017: 52 Sundays.
2018: 13 Sundays before April 4.
5 + 52 + 13 = 70.
“It was exactly 70 weeks to the 50th anniversary,” Conlee says. “I literally fell on my knees and began praying. I was overwhelmed about what God was doing.”
OVER THREE DAYS IN FEBRUARY 2017, 125 pastors, both black and white, gathered for a retreat. A few months earlier, Conlee had met Russ Parker, author of Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places, at an event in Atlanta. With great clarity, Parker explored the power of wounded group stories and revealed how they affect the people and places where they first occurred.
After Conlee’s vision from Daniel, he decided that Highpoint Church would also host a healing event, which would encourage people to visit historical sites together. The pastors that participated experienced together the worst and best of Memphis.
One evening, a worship service was held at Clayborn Temple, the now-dilapidated church where sanitation workers went on strike against the city of Memphis on Feb. 11, 1968.
“This is the church where they handed out the ‘I Am a Man’ signs,” Conlee says. “It had been boarded up for 20 years and part of the ceiling was falling down. So we go into this makeshift church with makeshift sound and shared powerful worship together.”
One day, they visited the site where Ell Persons, an African-American man, was lynched and burned alive while 3,000 spectators laughed, snacked and cheered.
The next day, the pastors visited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“Here’s a hospital where children are treated for cancer from all over the world and no one ever gets a bill,” Conlee says. “The experience provided an incredible contrast of what happens when we choose love over hate.”
EIGHTEEN MONTHS AFTER HIS DECISION TO FOLLOW CHRIST, Bready had just shot a round of 69—a 3-under par, at the age of 73. At a high school graduation party for a young lady headed off for college, Bready said a few words, handed her a slice of cake and fell over from a massive heart attack.
It was the ending he had always hoped for—doing what he loved and loving others well.
WHEN CONLEE PRAYS FOR REVIVAL he doesn’t specify a location. He understands transformation as a process. It’s a reversal of the curse of man: broken love from damaged souls. When people begin to understand the perfect love of God, it spreads out from heart to church to city, patiently healing. All the great biblical commandments can be summed up like this:
Receive his love.
Return his love.
Give his love.
In this same spirit, LeadershipWorks held its first event in Memphis on Nov. 3, 2017, focused on civil rights. By catalyzing community, church and marketplace leaders to problem solve together, the organization seeks the revival of the community.
“There are problems that exist in every city that are bigger than the parts,” says Conlee, who serves as vice president of the LeadershipWorks board. “What would happen if we could get all the leaders together to say, ‘This is my town, my time, my turn’? Every vision should ultimately be a solution to a problem. So we need to define the problem, offer solutions and present compelling reasons why we need to do something right now.”
Featured speakers included Dr. Bernice A. King, youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Shannon Brown, senior HR executive for FedEx Express; John O’Leary, international speaker, author and consultant; and Tim Irwin, a bestselling author and leadership psychologist. A video was also created to explore the history of the civil rights movement through the perspective of Dr. James L. Netters, the 90-year-old senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Memphis and long-time associate of Dr. King.
The event attracted more than 1,600 people, including 600 college and high school students—and rave reviews.
“People were blown away,” says Conlee. “The event positioned us to have the credibility to be a change agent for the future in the world of leadership development.”
AFTER 700 OF MEMPHIS’ 1,300 BLACK SANITATION WORKERS went on strike against the city because of poor pay and dangerous working conditions, Dr. King visited Memphis three times to speak encouragement for the strikers.
His last speech—on April 3, 1968—ended with the words: “I’m not worried about anything. I do not fear any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was assassinated.
With a focus on the concept of Jubilee, the Memphis Christian Pastors Network plans a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Sanitation Workers Strike on Feb. 11, 2018.
“The biblical word Jubilee means to release, set free or liberate. What we are trying to do is gather community, church and marketplace leaders to verbalize the wrongs of the last 50 years but also to voice the aspirations of the next 50 years,” Conlee says. “We want to honor Dr. King by raising up more Dr. Kings. We want to be people who speak life into these matters.”
When love works, Conlee knows, revival springs.
For more, visit HighpointMemphis.com or explore the LeadershipWorks podcast on iTunes or the annual LeadershipWorks Conference. Connect with Chris Conlee through ChrisConlee.net. His new book, Love Works: The Key to Making Life Work releases Feb. 2018 by Baker Books.
Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.
PERSPECTIVE FROM MEMPHIS:
Politician-led legislation has taken our country as far as it can to equalize opportunity. Church-led regeneration of the heart will have to take us the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, Jesus-followers have put more money and muscle into the voting booth rather than the prayer closet. For America to regain its spiritual equilibrium, the church, not the world, must lead in word and deed. We do not need the majority—we simply need a critical mass of churches living a loud lifestyle of grace and truth.
There will never be true equality on Earth. There is only true equality in the spiritual life. No matter my education, ethnicity or economic status, no person or condition can stop me from pursuing God the Father’s plan and purpose for my life.
Regarding Memphis: After 50 years of stewing in the guilt of Dr. MLK’s assassination, I envision Memphis now writing a new narrative and grasping a new resurrection.
Rufus Smith is senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and founder of Memphis Christian Pastors Network.