The Preacher Councilor
Salvation on Sunday, politics on Monday
By Carolyn Carlson
Hundreds showed up at the Soul Rio Church to rock out in honor of the resurrection of Jesus. The church is tucked in a strip mall in southern Rio Rancho, and the pastor is Dan Lewis, Albuquerque’s Westside city councilor.
Lewis, 40, beat incumbent Michael Cadigan in the Oct. 2009 municipal election.
He’s a charismatic family man with boyish good looks. He preaches salvation from the pulpit on Sundays, then steps into the political arena on Mondays, all while running a couple of businesses during the week— Rio Grande Foam, which distributes upholstery supplies, and Rio Grande Rustics, an online furniture company.
He is the only religious leader to be elected to the Albuquerque City Council in living memory.
Soul Rio had its beginnings in 1997 in the Lewis family living room. He says the idea for his church came about because he, his wife Tracy and a group of people wanted a new kind of church for the "unchurched.” In 2000, his gathering multiplied into what he calls “Rio links,” or small groups with the same values meeting in homes across Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. They moved into the strip mall in November 2008. Lewis says there are about 350 members now.
On Easter Sunday this year, three guys with acoustic and electric guitars, an energetic ponytailed drummer and two female singers took the stage to start the service with Christian rock tunes. The words popped up on two large video screens for those moved to sing along. Most of the service was made up of rock-pop style Christian music illustrated by PowerPoint scripture and a 20-minute film connecting the suffering of Jews in Moses' time with the suffering of Jesus during his crucifixion.
Pastor Lewis wedged his sermon into a high-tech multimedia show. “The Bible is cool. It is full of honest and fascinating stories,” he said before introducing the biblical video, reminiscent in its graphic nature of the controversial Passion of the Christ.
Taking the pulpit to deliver his message, Lewis looked out at the crowd of about 200 wearing their Easter best. “I see the spiff factor is high today,” he said to them. It was his second sermon of the day. “Are you ready for salvation?”
Lewis wove Bible passages into his message of resurrection and said the soul’s only path to salvation was to be reborn through accepting Jesus.
Cut now to the City Council table where Lewis sits representing the northern portion of the city’s Westside. (District 5 is the largest in the state.) Here he has to put aside his preaching and become government, acknowledging the line between church and state. At City Council meetings, a steady stream of citizens with a wide variety of concerns take the secular pulpit. Speakers jockey for a position within the city’s budget and finances.
Lewis does not openly mix his religious views with his duties as a councilor. He represents at least 48,000 registered voters—and thousands more Westside residents—with a variety of spiritual and nonspiritual beliefs. What does he have to say about his dual roles? Lewis answered the Alibi’s questions in-person and through e-mail.
Is there a conflict in being a Christian pastor and a city councilor who represents constituents of many religious paths?
My job as councilor is to serve every person in this city no matter who they are or what they believe. Many people base their view of pastors or Christians from a negative experience they have had or from the media's perspective that is often skewed. I understand how that happens, but I think tolerance should go both ways. It's important for people to know that you can have a very effective city councilor or elected official who is conservative, has a solid Christian faith, is compassionate, respectful of every person, fair, ethical and honest.
Was your role as a pastor part of your campaign pitch?
During the campaign, I explained my background and included the fact that I am a pastor, former high school teacher and athletic coach, small business owner, and have served the community in a variety of ways. I've never tried to push my faith or position as a pastor on anybody, but I've also never tried to hide it—either way would not be authentic.
What was your formal instruction for becoming a pastor?
I have a B.A. from Grand Canyon University with a communications and Christian studies emphasis. I have a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Theological Seminary with extensive emphasis in Hebrew and Greek languages.
Your father was a Baptist pastor. Did that influence your decision to become a pastor yourself?
I have great respect for my father and grew up being a part of several great churches where he was the pastor. My father is a public servant who has given his life to helping people. I rebelled against my church upbringing. If I was going to be a Christian, I was going to have to find it on my own, and I did.
Do you receive a salary from your church?
Our church staff is all bi-vocational. We all have other sources of income to support our families and to be able to give back to the church all that we can. The church employs five staff members, including me, who all receive a salary from the church and all also have other jobs and careers.
What is the best thing about leading your church?
A church is a true family where people accept one another, encourage one another, use their God-given gifts to serve one another, and reach out and help the community around them. Soul Rio is just real authentic, practical, imperfect people interested in following God’s word.
How do you balance running two businesses and raising a family with City Council obligations and your church?
I've always tried to develop a team around me in everything I do. I have wonderful business partners and friends that I team up with. And I have a very supportive family that participates in all that I do and understands how important it is to give our lives to public service, meeting people's needs and making the world better.
What is your stance on abortion?
I believe that life begins at conception. I don't believe that there is such a thing as an "unwanted" pregnancy. If a baby is conceived, then I believe that God wants that baby to live, and God has a special purpose for that baby. Our church has supported many teenage and single moms and many families who have adopted both locally and from other countries.
When did you know you had the calling to be a pastor or a city councilor?
I felt a calling to be a pastor as a teenager. I never sought a particular position; I just wanted to help people and live out the purpose that God has given me.
I considered becoming a city councilor when several other businessmen and leaders in the community asked me to run. I looked around at the need for better roads, quality parks, safer neighborhoods and jobs and felt like I could do something about it.
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