Lou Della Evans-Reid takes the stage at First Church of Deliverance. When she directs a choir, she says, her chronic back pain falls away: "I feel like God is guiding my hands." Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

This past Easter Sunday, Lou Della Evans-Reid walked across the stage at First Church of Deliverance, where the 89-year-old serves as a music adviser. Though she’s not quite four foot 11, when she leads that choir she transforms into a monumental presence. Dressed in a white robe, she stood underneath an illuminated cross and opened her arms wide like Moses parting the Red Sea, summoning a hundred singers to follow her.

Evans-Reid is known for directing not just the choir but the congregation as well. As she yelled out the next line, she spun around to bring the audience in, then turned back to herd her vocalists, shepherding a call-and-response exchange. The choir and congregation met in unison at the chorus, with piano and drums marching behind, ready to deliver God’s message. The harmonies of the crowd and the choir’s four sections collided, swallowing Evans-Reid whole—until that moment, you might not have realized that the microphones onstage were live, but the PA speakers suddenly seemed to blare with overwhelming massed voices. Evans-Reid raised her right hand, tossed her head, and let out one last roar to close the song.

To watch Evans-Reid perform is to witness Black history. “I just ask the Lord to direct me,” she says. “You direct me, Lord, and I’ll direct the choir. Some days, I don’t know what I’m going to do until the spirit hits me.”

  • Lou Della Evans-Reid and her choir released this live album in 2015.

In Chicago’s gospel scene, she’s a living legend, responsible for inspiring a fleet of musicians, producers, and choir directors across the city, the state, the nation, and even the world. A flock of fans—most of them loyal churchgoers from multigenerational families—often crowds around Evans-Reid after a Sunday service.

In 1950 Evans-Reid was one of five charter members of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, led by her older brother, the Reverend Clay Evans. “The Ship,” as it’s often called, has become a beloved south-side institution and a powerhouse in the world of gospel music, and it’s well remembered for its support of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Evans-Reid served as its music director from 1963 till her retirement in 2000.

Mama Lou catches up with church members before the 10 AM service at Fellowship Missionary Baptist.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

Retiring hasn’t taken Evans-Reid out of the church, though. She still works with three choirs: she’s a music adviser for the one at First Deliverance, of course; she’s an executive board member and music coordinator for the advocacy group Gospel Music According to Chicago (GMAC), for which she also directs a choir; and she leads a traditional community choir of her own, which rehearses at Fellowship.

“She’s gospel. She’s good news,” says Pam Morris-Walton, 69, formerly an event coordinator for the city of Chicago and lead producer for the Chicago Gospel Music Festival. Now host of a gospel radio program on iconic Black news and talk station WVON 1690 AM, Morris-Walton says Evans-Reid’s rendition of the hymn “A New Name in Glory” is still a favorite on her weekend broadcast.

In this community, Evans-Reid—in fact the whole Evans family—is a household name. Lou Della, her brother Clay, and Fellowship Missionary Baptist are usually mentioned in the same breath.

Chicago is the birthplace of gospel music, and in the 1950s Fellowship became the epicenter for traveling gospel singers, musicians, and preachers. Bishop Walter Hawkins, a 1981 Grammy winner from the Oakland-based Love Center Choir, passed through the church, and in the 1950s so did the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his young daughter Aretha, who later became the Queen of Soul. Frequent visitors from the city itself included Sam Cooke and James Cleveland.

In fact, before Evans heard his calling to the ministry, he was a bright-eyed young singer from Brownsville, Tennessee, who’d come to Chicago in search of a better life and landed a chance to perform alongside Cleveland in famed gospel group the Lux Singers.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson has been a member of Fellowship Missionary Baptist for more than five decades. Evans ordained him as an associate minister in the summer of 1965 and cofounded Jackson’s Operation PUSH in 1971. And last month Kanye West helped celebrate Fellowship’s 69th anniversary by performing at the church, following his morning gospel service on Northerly Island.

Like gospel music itself, the Evanses’ legacy is rooted in oral tradition. People love to tell stories about how Clay became a momentous figure during the civil rights movement, how Lou Della used to run up and down the church aisles, how a thousand people would gather for a live broadcast at Fellowship at 11 PM on a Sunday. This is history that’s not often spoken outside of the Black community, and it can easily be lost as soon as the song ends, the service comes to a close, and Evans-Reid picks up her purse and walks out the door.

Even the story of the construction of Fellowship’s current home (at 4543 S. Princeton) sounds like a parable from the Bible. In 1966 Evans defied Mayor Richard J. Daley to welcome Martin Luther King Jr. to the city. His decision to stand with Dr. King jeopardized his plans to give his church, then located in a converted garage on South State Street, a new building.

Jesse Jackson had cosigned the mortgage loan to finance the new church’s construction, but Evans-Reid says the city of Chicago put a stop to the project by interfering with building permits. For seven years—until it was finally completed in 1973—what’s now Fellowship was just a steel skeleton waiting for its body. While the city and the nation remained divided, Fellowship’s bare bones became a beacon of hope.

Mama Lou checks herself in the mirror before taking the stage at First Church of Deliverance on Easter Sunday.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

“Reverend wasn’t afraid,” Evans-Reid says. “He wasn’t afraid. He says, ‘You can’t! You have to be courageous! You can’t be afraid as a leader. I stand for my folks.'”

“I found myself praying so much for him,” she says. “I prayed for the Lord to keep him on a straight and narrow path, and that he would be able to go head-on and become the pastor and the preacher, the man of God that God wanted him to be.”

Pastor DeAndre Patterson, 53, who serves at Destiny Worship Center on the west side and Miracle Revival Cathedral in Maywood, remembers those trials. “God be to glory that none of that steel rotted during that time, that the church is still standing here years later,” he says. He grew up in Christian Tabernacle Church at Prairie and 47th, a mile from Fellowship.

“I was a kid, but I do remember, because we had family on 53rd and Morgan, and we would drive past and I’d say, ‘Mom! Grandma! What is going on with the building?'” he says. “And they would tell us stories about the mayor, because Reverend Evans stood with Reverend King.”

During that time, Evans advised his followers to fast and pray, just as Jesus, his apostles, and countless other biblical figures had done as a way to seek God’s comfort, guidance, and protection. “When we fast and pray, we fast and pray to God,” Evans-Reid says. “We asked him to answer our prayers, if it’s his will and his way.”

Hundreds of Black Chicagoans sought refuge at Fellowship in those years, swelling its congregation. With their freedom and future at stake, they turned to Clay and Lou Della for strength. She believed that singing together could bring salvation. Gospel music had descended from African African spirituals, grown from slavery and carved out of struggle. Backed by her traditional choir, Evans-Reid used the power of praise to uplift.

“Sometimes, it’s just the words of the song,” she says, and recites the first hymn that comes to her mind. “What a friend we have in Jesus / All our sins and our griefs to bear / What a privilege, a privilege it is to carry.'”

“It just gives them hope,” she says. “It’s hope for you. That’s it. The church is hope. The songs are hope for the people.”

A stylized painting of Mama Lou hangs above the fireplace in her living room in southwest-side Wrightwood. Her niece bought it at a garage sale while on vacation in New Orleans 25 years ago.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

In the family room of Evans-Reid’s home in southwest-side Wrightwood, a large portrait of her hangs above the fireplace. The gold frame forms a halo around her angelic figure, and she appears to be singing in a long, white robe before a congregation. It’s like a scene from the transfiguration: she basks in the light of the Lord.

Evans-Reid has a story that goes along with that painting. She laughs as she explains that her niece found it at a garage sale in Louisiana. Her niece paid $40 for it—Evans-Reid kept the receipt as proof.

Dozens of awards honoring her work as Fellowship’s most beloved music director hang on the walls, cover the tables in the living room, and rest on the lid of her piano near the front door. In her dining room, she’s hung a letter from former Illinois governor George Ryan congratulating her upon her retirement from Fellowship almost 20 years ago. And though she’s never met Barack and Michelle Obama, she got a letter from them in 2010 wishing her a happy 80th birthday.

Mama Lou laughs in embarrassment during her 89th birthday party this past July at the Greater Cathedral Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. Her birthday celebration brings together churches and choirs from around the city.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

Evans-Reid loves to talk about her birthdays, because she believes that’s where her story starts. She was born on the seventh day of July, the seventh month, and she’s the seventh of ten children. In the Book of Genesis, God created the world in seven days. The number seven symbolizes completeness.

“This has been an enjoyable life,” she says. “I’m so glad that God decided—he decided this before I was born, that this is the way that he wanted me to go. I didn’t know about it, but I haven’t rebelled against it. Not at all.”

Although 14 years have passed since her 75th birthday, Evans-Reid likes to revisit it. She still has extra copies of the booklet and DVDs made for the party Fellowship threw for her in 2005. It’s not about bragging rights with Evans-Reid. It’s that she’s still overwhelmed by the hundreds of people who packed the church that night to be with “little old me.”

Mama Lou rests in her living room to give her aching back a break. “These last few days have been hard,” she says. Despite her age, she stays active, going out for Chinese food with choir friends and taking daily walks on a treadmill.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader
Mama Lou belts out the hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” on the piano in her home. “These old fingers don’t play so well anymore,” she says.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

In the eyes of many of those people, Evans-Reid is a trailblazer: she’s a Black woman who’s held leadership roles in the church. Of the five charter members of Fellowship, two of whom were Evans-Reid’s brothers Pharis and Joseph, she was the only woman.

Evans-Reid served as the church’s first pianist, and when she became its minister of music in 1963 (a more formal way to say “music director”), she oversaw the senior, young adult, and youth choirs, which performed together on Sundays. By 1980, total membership in those groups had swelled to 200.

“A lot of people, especially the younger generation, don’t really know her,” says Fred Nelson III, 59, a family friend who’s musical director at New Faith Baptist Church International in Matteson. He’s also spent many years as a music executive, and served as conductor and musical director for Aretha Franklin from 2011 until her passing in 2018. “What’s more important probably at the end of the day is not Mama Lou, but what she brought to the platform, whether people ever know who she really was,” Nelson says. “What she brought to the movement is bigger than her little four-foot self. I mean, really, it’s what she brought, and they may never know.”

Evans-Reid was 20 years old when she followed in Clay’s footsteps and moved to Chicago from Brownsville, a small town an hour away from Memphis. With Pharis by her side, she arrived here on Labor Day weekend in 1950. She was newly divorced with a baby and in search of a new beginning. Her mother had encouraged her to leave Brownsville and their cotton farm behind and to make something of herself. Evans-Reid even changed her name: born Ludella Evans, she chose to split her first name in two. “I changed it to a capital L-o-u,” she says, laughing. “That’s a man’s name, but I didn’t know no different.”

To this day, Evans-Reid looks up to her mother, who taught her strength and the value of hard work. While her father managed the cotton farm, her mother grew an acre of vegetables to sell. Evans-Reid likes to tell a story that illustrates her mother’s independence: she traded in her horse and buggy for a car, so she could get to the city faster with those vegetables.

“I’m like my mom,” Evans-Reid says. They both had that “go-getter” attitude, she explains.

Between Lou Della and Clay, he was recognized as the great orator, towering over his podium, delivering sermons so powerful that Jesse Jackson still repeats the tale of the first time he heard Clay on the radio. It was July 5, 1965, and he was driving to church when he heard the reverend say “I must tell Jesus” in what he describes as the most “profound and spiritual way.” Jackson turned his car right around and headed for Fellowship. Lou Della, on the other hand, became known as an animated choir director with a knack for composing, handpicking talent, and putting on a show.

“Lou Della is an icon,” says Pastor DeAndre Patterson. “People went to see her. They didn’t only go to see her brother. They went to see her. They wanted to hear the music.”

A congregant lies on the floor after feeling the spirit during a Mama Lou choir performance at Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader
At Greater Harvest Baptist Church, Mama Lou jokes with her protege Malcolm Williams, who directs a choir for Gospel Music According to Chicago.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

Patterson, Nelson, and Malcolm Williams, a 12-year choir director for the Gospel Music According to Chicago, all remember a time when Fellowship’s weekly radio broadcast and one-hour TV special dominated gospel media. The church took to the radio in 1952 and stayed there for five decades; its first TV series, What a Fellowship Hour, launched in 1977 and ran till 1991. Both programs laid important groundwork for how gospel music should sound, look, and feel.

“Every Saturday night, my grandparents would watch Fellowship,” says Williams, 49. “I used to watch her as a choir director on the church broadcast, and as she would direct at church, as she ran across the stage, I used to run across the living room trying to be her.”

Williams says Evans-Reid’s “natural spirit” caught his attention. “She had such a way of just commanding the choir, and at the time they had a humongous choir, probably the biggest choir I ain’t ever seen. To be able to lift your hands and you have 200 people who will do exactly what you want them to do at the same time, it was just amazing to me.”

There’s something else about Evans-Reid that Patterson, Williams, and many others have found endearing: She clearly cared about her choir. If she found out that one of her own was sick, she’d pray for them, call to check up on them, send cards with donations, and visit them in the hospital—and she encouraged other members of the choir to do the same.

Mama Lou is famous in the church community not just for her talent as a music director but also for her sweet potato pie. “I don’t measure,” she says, scooping sugar in her kitchen.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

Evans-Reid also has a silly side, which tends to show up during the quietest moments of a church service. “You could be sitting there, and she’ll lean over and say stuff that take you,” Williams says. “And it’s so bad! I’ll be laughing and tears are rolling down my face, and she’ll be sitting there with a straight face like she didn’t say anything.”

And it’d be an oversight not to mention her homemade sweet potato pie. The simple southern comfort dish is a coveted dessert at church gatherings.

“That’s why they call her ‘Mama Lou,'” Nelson says. “Everywhere she goes, she makes you feel like you in her family.”

That nickname, “Mama Lou,” didn’t come from her choristers but instead from her coworkers outside the church. Evans-Reid was a surgical nurse for almost 50 years, securing her license in 1960 and retiring in 2007. Among the places she worked were Saint Anne’s Hospital on the west side and Saint Luke’s Hospital downtown, both now closed. She was used to being on call and on her feet for long shifts, and she loved taking care of people. She had a gift for healing.

“You live for other people,” Evans-Reid says. “That’s what our lives was about. What can I do to help somebody to get to where they’re trying to go? We got a song that we sing, ‘If I can help somebody, then my living shall not be in vain.’ And that’s true.”

Mama Lou visits her 94-year-old brother, the Reverend Clay Evans, at his home in Roseland. “Half of him is me, and half of me is him,” she says. “I know we’re grown, but I still look up to him as my big brother. I can talk to him about my problems and ask for advice.”Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader
Behind Clay’s head is a photo of him with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Muhammad Ali.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

On Wednesdays, Lou Della visits Clay at his home in Roseland. She’s usually heading to or coming from a noon prayer meeting at Fellowship when she stops by. These days Clay, 94, can often be found resting in his shaded bedroom, tucked under burgundy sheets with his companion dog, Angel, napping beside him.

During these visits, the two often talk about family, friends, or people from their past, some of whom might have celebrated new milestones or have moved on to the next life. Other times, they just talk about their days.

“How did you sleep last night?” Lou Della asks, reaching for his hand.
”Pretty good,” says Clay.
”I prayed. I said, ‘Lord! Let him sleep like a baby,'” she says.

For the most part, Lou Della says, she and Clay have been blessed with good health in their old age. Though they’ve both had serious scares since retirement (Clay in 2000 with pancreatic cancer, Lou Della in 2007 with thyroid cancer), they were both fortunate to catch the disease early. They had surgery and have been cancer free ever since.

But at their age, Lou Della says, they don’t move or even speak the same way they used to. There’s a softness in Clay’s voice now; he follows every word he utters with a pause. His caregiver is on standby to offer help with everyday tasks. As for Lou Della, she relies on hearing aids and sometimes a walker.

For them, these weekly visits are sacred. “We are so close. We look alike,” Lou Della says. “Tell you the truth, he and I have been together longer than anybody in the world that’s living.”

“My brothers in between us and above me, they all gone,” she continues. “He and I are now closer to each other. We five years apart, but we’ve been together all these years.”

Even when Clay and Lou Della retired from Fellowship, they did it together. The running joke is that Lou Della did it reluctantly—or that she didn’t really retire at all. “Didn’t happen,” Patterson says bluntly. “He’s retired, living life. She’s still taking care of a choir.”

Nelson offers a story to illustrate what separates Clay and Lou Della. A few years ago, he invited them to a gathering at his church in Matteson. “He sat up there,” Nelson says, pointing to the first pew at New Faith Baptist. “He didn’t even want to talk. He was just here in his white suit. They brought him in his Rolls Royce, and he was this grandpapa. She directed a song with the choir, ‘It Is Well,’ and lit up the place. And they came here to do what they did, and they just left.”

Mama Lou was recently invited to Greater Grace Church in Merrillville, Indiana, to direct the choir and teach its members new songs.Credit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader

“Keep-a-livin'” is Evans-Reid’s motto. Her mornings are split between walking on the treadmill in her basement and reading devotional books. Some nights, she might be over at Greater Harvest Baptist Church, where her GMAC choir rehearses, or working with the choir at First Church of Deliverance. Other days are reserved for Bible class, faith workshops, Sunday school, or church hopping with close friends. Recently Evans-Reid spent a weekend at Greater Grace Church in Merrillville, Indiana, answering the call of a pastor who’d asked for her help. She worked with the church’s small choir and taught them a couple songs.

At choir practice or on Sundays, Evans-Reid still makes it a point to sit in the first seat in the front row. When a song starts, she tilts her head and lifts her right hand on cue, following the movement of the melody; she sings a verse or two before turning around to see if everyone else has joined in.

“Every night, it’s in my prayer,” she says. “I say, ‘Lord, I want to be pleasing and acceptable in your sight.’ That’s my prayer every night. . . . This has been a life. I’m always grateful to God and the people that helped me, that influenced me.”

For all her accomplishments, Evans-Reid hasn’t been canonized the way her most famous brother has. Photographs on shelves behind Clay’s bed tell the story of his decades of service. A black-and-white print directly above him looks like a page ripped from a history book: he’s joined by a young Reverend Jesse Jackson and by Muhammad Ali, a poignant reminder of Fellowship’s influence and the roles all three men played as political leaders.

This iconic image is woven into Fellowship’s history, but Lou Della’s contributions are mentioned in marginal notes if at all. Her story remains alive through song and praise on any given Sunday.

Lou Della can always tell when her visits with Clay have come to an end. She can see it in the way he nestles his head against his pillow. Before she leaves, she asks him if there’s anything else she can do. With a nod and a simple gesture, he gives her leave to move around his room quietly. She adjusts his pillow once more and straightens out his blanket.

Drawing the curtain to close the day, Lou Della lets Clay sleep. She picks up her things and walks out the door, ready to tend to her work still left undone.  v

Lou Della Evans-Reid in her homeCredit: Geoff Stellfox for Chicago Reader