A Pastor With a Drive to Convert
Call it big-box evangelism. As a former church staff member put it: "McLean Bible Church is the Wal-Mart of churches."
Solomon doesn't disagree. "The fact that we are large and have the resources that a large church generates enables us to launch into these ministries and do them, in my opinion, the way they should be done," he said. "I mean, how many churches could start a new ministry and throw $175,000 at it?"
His critics, including those from other faiths, said his agenda is divisive. Several church members complained of being constantly asked for more donations, while former staff members called him controlling, saying he drove them to work 90-hour weeks.
But many who attend McLean Bible praised Solomon for filling his followers with a sense of purpose and for his ability to connect with parishioners.
Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, a close friend of President Bush's, said he feels a personal bond to the McLean Bible pastor: They both have disabled daughters. Solomon's 12-year-old, Jill, who suffered severe brain damage before mitochondrial disease could be detected and treated, is the inspiration for the church's planned $18.5 million center for disabled children.
Evans said the initiative is typical of Solomon, who has developed "a tremendous outreach program that is continually looking for ways to serve other people and lift people up and help other people across the whole spectrum of spiritual and social needs in our society."
Solomon is so central to the church that when it was seeking a construction loan for its new sanctuary, the bank took out what is known as "key man's insurance." The policy protects the lender in case Solomon dies and the congregation dwindles, leaving the church without enough income to pay its mortgage.
Solomon said he works hard to avoid turning McLean Bible into "a cult of personality," but he added that the church would not be where it is today without him.
"I didn't plan that Washington was going to be the sandbox that God was going to give me to try to reach," he said. "This is the only city that we believe that you can honestly say, 'Change this city and you can change the world.' "
A Personal Quest
Solomon gives every newcomer to his church a CD recording of his life story and asks that it be passed along to someone Jewish -- "your doctor, your lawyer, your dentist, you know what I mean?" he joked.
The recording tells of his being raised by Conservative Jewish parents who ran a jewelry store in Portsmouth, Va. But it focuses on his years in Chapel Hill, where he delved deeply into drugs.
His former fraternity brothers at Pi Lambda Phi described Solomon as "a ringleader" of campus drug dealers -- a characterization he does not dispute.
In 1970, Solomon said, he grew disillusioned with life; it became a burden just to get up in the morning. So he started a spiritual quest by looking into his Jewish roots and Buddhism. Then he came across a street evangelist named Bob Eckhart.
Many students considered Eckhart crazy, but Solomon was drawn to the man, and the two began talking. Solomon said it was the first time anyone told him that Jesus was Jewish and that God wanted the Jews to believe in Him as the messiah. He took a Bible from the man and began to read.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company