The Rev. Dernard Newell of the Logan Street Baptist Church in Batavia became a minister after working as a lawyer.
Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer
Like the president-elect he met through a book club, the Rev. Dernard Newell wants to partner with community leaders to help improve the lives of Fox Valley residents.
The former lawyer is the new pastor of Logan Street Baptist Church in Batavia, a primarily African-American congregation. His first Sunday as pastor was Dec. 21 and he will be installed on March 29.
A longtime political observer, Newell has special reason to watch Tuesday's inauguration events.
Newell crossed paths with President-elect Obama in 1997 when Newell was in a book club with other lawyers and they invited Obama to discuss his first book, "Dreams of My Father." The group of about 12 met with Obama in a coffee shop.
"We had no idea who he was," Newell said. "I'm surprised he went so far in so little time."
Newell, 43, received his law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and his Master of Divinity degree from Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.
He studied political science as an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio, and earned a Master of Public Administration from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He has worked on Capitol Hill on the staffs of Vice President-elect Joe Biden and former Ohio Sen. John Glenn.
Newell enjoyed the work, and wanted to better understand what he calls the "nuts and bolts" of politics. An independent, he has considered running for office and acknowledges that he hasn't given up the idea.
For now, Newell is focused on his new role at Logan Street Baptist Church and serving the congregation of about 135.
"We enter to worship and depart to serve," Newell said, reflecting on his philosophy.
"I'm really concerned about people having a good quality of life," he added. "Sometimes it means more government services, but other times it means making better choices and being more responsible."
One task will be rebuilding church membership, which fell after the Rev. S. Todd Yeary left in July 2007, a consequence to be expected, Newell said.
"Religion is not only about ritual but about relationships," he said. "A friend of mine says, 'People don't care what you know until they know you care.' I want to build relationships. The service should be exciting, relevant, encouraging and challenging."
Newell grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, in a Baptist family with a strong work ethic.
After finishing law school, he came to Chicago in 1996 to work for the Cook County state's attorney's office. He also worked for a small legal firm, but he didn't find law to be fulfilling.
"I always felt comfortable teaching and being in church," Newell said.
He says he has no regrets about law school, however.
"I learned a lot about myself, and the skills are transferrable," he said. "(Law school) has helped me to understand what is going on in (Biblical) texts, and also to articulate it."
Newell worked as a chaplain at DePaul University when he was in the seminary. He served as interim pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago for a year and a half.
Newell and his wife Tyra, who works in business, live in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, but the couple plan to move to the western suburbs.