By Javacia Harris Bowser
For the Birmingham Times
The COVID-19 crisis may have slowed down many people, but not the Rev. Mike McClure Jr., senior pastor of Birmingham’s Rock City Church. Even amid the pandemic, he remains as busy as ever.
Thanks to the success of his debut album “Live Free” and his hit single “Big,” McClure, 36, is not only a pastor but also a chart-topping recording artist—and he is slated to perform at Freedom Fest, the City of Birmingham’s music and empowerment celebration, on Saturday, July 25.
Because of the pandemic, this year’s event will be held virtually instead of in person, as it was in 2019, the inaugural year, but that hasn’t dampened McClure’s excitement about this weekend’s showcase.
“I am extremely humbled and thankful that the city of Birmingham thought enough of me to include me in [Freedom Fest],” McClure said. “In the midst of a global pandemic, systematic oppression, protests, and civil unrest, what better year to declare freedom?”
In January, McClure was nominated for five Stellar Awards, a recognition of achievements in the gospel music industry, and was set to be a featured performer at the 35th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards program. The event, which was originally scheduled for March 27 in Las Vegas, Nevada, was postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis and has been rescheduled for later this year.
Nonetheless, McClure found another way to celebrate his success—by giving back. He partnered with the medical debt collection agency, RIP Medical Debt, and used profits from album sales to pay off nearly $1 million of medical debt for Birmingham-area residents.
“I made a promise to God at a young age: … ‘If you bless me, I will never forget where I come from, and I will always be a blessing,’” McClure said.
During the pandemic Rock City Church, one of the first congregations to cancel in-person worship services, on March 15, has organized several grocery deliveries across the Greater Birmingham and Tuscaloosa areas and offered financial assistance to families facing job losses and other hardships due to COVID-19. Also, in cooperation with the City of Birmingham, the church gave away several thousand masks.
McClure has been active in the fight against social injustice, as well. When George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who died after a Minneapolis police office knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in May, sparking protests across the country, the pastor participated in several peaceful protests for equity and inclusion.
“I believe it’s our responsibility to play a part and let our voices be heard,” McClure said, adding that he and Rock City Church also sponsored voter registration drives and helped finance Black Lives Matter murals on the campus of Miles College.
“It was not our goal to just pound the pavement, but to also get behind them and provide some kind of financial support in this time of need,” he said.
Just seven months into 2020, this has been a pivotal year for McClure, as it has for most. Several months ago, the Birmingham Times spent time getting a behind-the-scenes look at McClure as a pastor, performer, father, and—above all—servant.
A Big and Busy Life
It’s a cool and rainy Tuesday afternoon in February, and McClure is tired. Very tired.
The pastor just traveled from Los Angeles, California, to Atlanta, Georgia, on a late-night flight. After a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Atlanta to Birmingham, he got home around 3 a.m. Now he’s at the Rock City Church business offices preparing for meetings and Tuesday-night service.
Late nights and early mornings are common for McClure now that he’s often asked to perform at events across the country. McClure’s “Live Free” hit No. 1 on the Billboard gospel album chart in late October, just a month after its release; the album features the hit single “Big,” which would spend 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel charts.
Next came the Stellar Awards nominations.
“It was surreal,” McClure said of the moment he learned of his nominations in categories that included Best Urban/Inspirational Single or Performance of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year. “It was one of those moments where you sit back, and you’re like, ‘God, what are you doing?’”
McClure said seeing his name alongside legendary gospel artists like Kirk Franklin gave him enough reason to celebrate.
“I might be the first person in history to celebrate losing,” McClure said with a laugh. “For me, just to be in the conversation with those people, that’s a win.”
On this afternoon, McClure gets another reason to celebrate—he learns that his single “Big” just hit No. 1. But he’s not quite sure what to do with this news.
“Do I turn up? Do I get lit? What’s my version of lit? Communion for everybody! Throw it back!” McClure said jokingly.
“But, seriously, I don’t think it’s hit me yet because I’m still at work,” he said.
And there is always plenty of work to be done.
Before the pandemic, McClure’s days were filled with meetings and ministry—meetings with the Rock City staff; meetings with the staff of Central Park Christian School, which Rock City took over in 2018; trips to hospitals to visit sick parishioners; and impromptu meetings with members who need prayer for problems or want promotion for projects. His days would often begin as early as 6 a.m., and some nights he didn’t get home until 10 p.m. or later.
McClure said some of his critics have stated on social media that he needs to decide whether he’s going to be a pastor or an artist. Meanwhile, McClure proves he can be both.
“To win the Stellar, that’s just bait,” McClure said during a series of interviews with the Birmingham Times.
He wants his music to lead people to his message—and, so far, it’s working. His Stellar nominations are for Best Urban/Inspirational Single or Performance of the Year for “Big,” New Artist of the Year for the “Live Free” album, Song of the Year for “Big,” Music Video of the Year for “Big,” and Rap Hip Hop Gospel Album of the Year for “Live Free.”
After the success of “Big” and “Live Free,” McClure, who personally has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, saw a significant increase in the number of views of his sermons on the Rock City YouTube channel. Livestreams of his sermons increased, too. Online broadcasts and recordings of Rock City services became crucial after the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to cancel in-person services.
Meanwhile, McClure wants people to see his success as evidence of what God can do their in lives.
“It’s just proof that if you stay faithful God will bless you,” McClure said. “It tells the person who wants to start a business: If you’re faithful, God can bless it.”
Tiffany Samuels has been a member of Rock City Church since 2010. She first visited when services were held at L.R. Hall Auditorium in downtown Birmingham. She said McClure spent so much time chatting with the congregation before service began that she thought he was an usher or greeter. Samuels brought her son and nephew with her to the service, and McClure had a talk with them about school and the importance of getting good grades. She had no idea he was the pastor until he started to preach. This warm welcome won Samuels over. She joined the church and soon started to volunteer, too. In 2011, she quit her job in corporate America and started working for the church full-time—for free.
“My faith just went to another level,” she said.
In 2012, she became a salaried employee of the church and today serves as Executive Director of Rock City Inc. Seeing the growth of Rock City Church and the success of McClure’s music career has only made her faith stronger, Samuels said.
“It’s reminding me that God is able to fulfill every promise He gave me,” she said. “My dreams aren’t too big.”
Rock City Church holds its midweek service on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays, like most churches. This gives people who are curious about the church a chance to check out Rock City without missing their home-church services, McClure explained.
This Tuesday-night service in February is different, though. McClure calls it “Freedom Night,” and there will be no sermon—just praise and worship.
“What God wants to do is bigger than my message. It’s arrogant to think God can move only when I talk,” said McClure, who eventually wants to have these special Tuesday-night services once each quarter.
This first Freedom Night is also a live recording of an album for Curtiss Glenn and Freedom Movement. Glenn is the worship pastor at Rock City.
It’s still raining, but that hasn’t kept people away. The sanctuary is packed. Glenn and the Freedom Movement singers on stage are dressed in jeans and T-shirts that display the Bible verse Romans 8:28. In the New International Version (NIV), that verse reads, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All the songs being sung seem centered on this idea.
Most of the singers have towels hanging from their back pockets, and they’re going to need them. Go all in at a Rock City worship service, and your Fitbit (wearable fitness tracker) will think you were at the gym. The singers and most of the congregation are stepping and swaying from side to side, jumping up and down, and waving their hands in the air as they sing songs about praising God through any circumstance.
Through much of the night, McClure stands in the crowd, seemingly in awe of it all. At one point he pulls out his phone and records like a proud dad at a recital.
Later, Glenn invites McClure on stage and thanks him for being one of his biggest supporters.
“The greatest joy I have is watching you become what God called you to be,” McClure says to Glenn and the congregation. “I still can’t figure out what we did as a church to get this.”
You could say that ministry is in McClure’s blood. The drive to serve others seems to run in his family. McClure, a 2001 graduate of Minor High School, is the son of the Rev. Michael D. McClure Sr., pastor of Revelation Church Ministries in Irondale and a former police officer. His grandfather is Civil Rights leader Bishop Calvin Woods. Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard is named for McClure’s great uncle, also a local legend for his work during the Civil Rights Movement.
McClure, who performs under the name Pastor Mike Jr., started a campus ministry at Miles College before launching the Rock Church in 2009. The church met at Fairfield Civic Center, then L.R. Hall. In 2010, the congregation bought a 12-acre former school campus at 1120 Apricot Avenue in Forestdale. For four years, Rock City held services at the Boutwell Auditorium, drawing thousands each Sunday. Today, with 10,605 members, the church has a branch campus in the Central Park area of Birmingham and a campus in Tuscaloosa.
McClure said he almost titled his album “Therapy” because that’s what music has been for the self-taught singer and musician. Years ago, a mentor asked him, “How do you rinse?” He wanted to know what McClure did to wash away the sorrow and the stress after spending the day listening to and trying to help with other people’s problems. Music became his way of doing just that. He set up a makeshift studio in the basement of his home and began writing and recording songs just as a way to relax and release the tensions of the job. McClure never thought “Big” would be this big.
In a church service in late 2018, McClure, backed by Rock City’s praise team, began to tell the congregation, “Next time you’re getting down on yourself, I just want you to do this,” as he waved his arms. “’Cause your bank account may not look like it. Your circle may not believe it. Folks may be walking out your life. But it’s gonna be big!”
With the help of church leaders and producers Curtiss Glenn and Rod Turner, who serves as the church’s musical director, “Big” eventually became a complete song. Still, McClure was just planning to perform the song at church and perhaps try to get it played on local gospel radio, but nationally acclaimed music promoter Kerry Douglas urged McClure to think bigger. He knew “Big” would be a big hit.
McClure says nothing that he does—from his ministry to his music—would be possible without the support of his wife JaQuetta, affectionally called “Lady J” by McClure and Rock City.
“She can shut all of this down real quick,” McClure said.
The high school sweethearts married in 2006 and have five children: Xander, 13; Michael III, 12; Mason, 10; Makinley, 5; and Myles, 3.
McClure said a Stellar Award means nothing if he’s not also a stellar dad. In the fall, McClure takes a semi-sabbatical from church so he can coach his sons’ football teams. The time he dedicates to his sons has inspired other members to spend more time with their children, as well.
“My boys are not going to remember how many sermons I preached,” McClure said. “They are going to remember if I was standing on the sidelines.”
It’s a crisp, cool, Sunday morning earlier this year and the Rock City Church staff members and volunteers are busy preparing for the day’s services, which are being held at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 12:30 p.m. at the Forestdale campus. The praise-and-worship team members are doing a sound check with the band. Others on staff are in the control room going through the slides that showcase the lyrics for today’s songs and the scripture for today’s sermon on the big screens in the sanctuary. Volunteers are rearranging chairs in the sanctuary trying to make room for as many people as possible. For today’s sermon, McClure examines Philippians 3:13–14 (NIV) “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
“[The Apostle] Paul was a specialist,” McClure tells his congregation, reminding the crowd that they’re most likely to excel if they specialize. “If you’re so busy chasing all the things you want to do, you’ll never be special at what God wants you to do.”
“We should all focus on pleasing God,” he goes on to say.
A Cheerful Giver
McClure has wanted to be a preacher since he was a child growing up in the Central Park neighborhood of Birmingham with his parents and his siblings, Darius and Angelique. As a kid he’d put on his bathrobe and strut around the house delivering sermons.
“The only thing that ever excited me was God and helping people,” McClure said.
As a kid he would collect change from deacons at church only to give away the money to people in need. That same generosity led him to acquire Central Park Christian School when it was on the verge of closing.
“This is the only Black-owned, fully accredited K-12 Christian school in Alabama,” McClure said.
Managing this school has cost him a huge chunk of his family’s personal savings. And when he’s paid for musical performances, he pours that money back into Central Park Christian, buying books and offering scholarships to students who need them. But finding a way to give back to the neighborhood he once called home has always been his dream.
McClure and Rock City Church often help members and other Birmingham residents pay utility bills, rent, mortgage payments, and more. The church has done gas giveaways. He’s used profits from album sales to pay off nearly $1 million of medical debt for Birmingham-area residents. Nonetheless, McClure has been criticized for his success and even for wearing expensive athletic shoes.
“I’m in the only profession where I can be extremely great, and it’s wrong for me to take any of the credit,” McClure said. “People attack, and the ones I’ve helped remain silent.”
McClure said his profession is a lonely one because he’s under constant scrutiny.
“Pastor Mike Jr. isn’t a character. I’m a person,” he said. “I think a lot of people put this front on saying, ‘I don’t care what nobody says. I’m winning!’ But I do care. I want to be beloved.”
Next in the sermon, McClure turns the congregation’s attention to this phrase: “Forgetting what is behind,” from Philippians 3:13.
“Your past,” he says in the sermon, “should be a school, not a prison. Learn from it.”
In an interview, McClure admitted he has regrets.
“Some of the hate, I deserve,” McClure said of his detractors. “I look back over the years, and I probably shouldn’t have put that billboard over the strip club.”
In 2013, McClure and the church placed a billboard just behind The Palace Gentlemen’s Club sign on Third Avenue West that stated, “Strip for me.” The sign was inspired by a verse in Hebrews (New Living Translation): “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.”
“When you’re young, you’re going to do dumb stuff like that or just be too wild at times,” McClure said.
Nonetheless, the billboard did strike a chord with men who frequented the club and women who worked there; some even joined the church, he said.
Finally, in the sermon, McClure urges his congregation to reach forward and press toward the mark. Then he shows a video clip of Olympic runners preparing for a race. He shows the runners on their marks and pressing off of blocks. Christians should be willing to be those blocks, helping to push others in their race, he says.
Likewise, McClure has said one of the perks of his music success is bringing others along for the ride. He’s been able to introduce Glenn and other emerging artists to big names in the music industry. Before the show was postponed, McClure planned to take his team with him to Las Vegas for the Stellar Awards program. Now, they’ll be in place for McClure’s performance at Saturday’s Freedom Fest.
After the 9 a.m. service earlier this year, McClure heads to the hallway to greet church attendees already lined up for the next service. Then he goes out to the parking lot to help direct traffic. Yes, he has a group of volunteers to do this, but he likes to give them a hand, as it helps him get to know Rock City members better.
“I like that outfit,” he tells one attendee.
“How are those grades?” he asks a young member.
Others stop to share good news about getting a new house or increased income in business.
“If you’re too good to serve, you can’t lead,” McClure said.