Deveraux Hubbard had other dreams, but he’s devoted his life to building a church and transforming lives
The Rev. Deveraux Hubbard didn’t plan to become a pastor.
The East St. Louis native had other plans when he arrived at Bradley University.
“I went to college wanting to make a lot of money,” the 52-year-old said with a sly smile in his office at St. Paul Baptist Church, 114 W. Forrest Hill Ave.
Instead of chasing dollars, he became lead pastor at St. Paul — his first and only pastorship — in 1997. At the time, he promised to stay 25 years to foster his vision for the church. He is now in his 26th year.
“The work,” he said, his smile widening, “is not done.”
Still, the work has been impressive, said Peoria Mayor Rita Ali.
“Over the years, I’ve watched Deveraux continue to grow and thrive in his ministry and within the Peoria community,” she said. “Because of his integrity, his leadership by example and his faithfulness, people followed him in large numbers. He grew the largest predominantly Black church in Peoria.”
Not that he wanted to, not at first.
“The last thing I wanted to be was a minister,” Hubbard said with a laugh.
A wakeup call
As a lad in East St. Louis, Hubbard attended Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, where his father served as a third-generation pastor. The teenage Hubbard respected his family and served in youth leadership roles at the church. But he didn’t plan on preaching for a career.
“I was young, and I saw first-hand the sacrifices … in ministry,” he said. “I didn’t want to be constantly available to people. I did not want to be a community leader.”
So, in the footsteps of a friend who had attended and lauded Bradley, he came to Peoria in 1988 to study psychology.
“I enjoyed learning about human behavior,” Hubbard said.
He got many such lessons outside the classroom. For one, arriving on campus was a culture shock: East St. Louis was 99% black, while BU was just 7% minority.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be a minority,” he said. “But it was a great experience in that I was able to develop community.”
Humble yet gregarious, Hubbard made friends easily. But his most life-changing moment came with the arrival of Matt Hale on campus in 1989.
Until then, Hubbard had encountered no abject racism in Peoria. That changed with Hale, an East Peoria native who tried to form a White Student Union at Bradley and founded the American White Supremacist Party. Though boasting few followers, Hale would post racist fliers on campus and otherwise try to foment division.
Hubbard felt the need to push back. He and other students met with university leaders and held peaceful demonstrations. In that way, Hale — now in prison following his 2004 conviction for attempting to solicit the murder of a federal judge — helped influence Hubbard’s future trajectory as a catalyst for racial harmony and social justice.
“I saw the importance of not just complaining about the problem but being part of the solution,” he said.
‘I think God wants me to go this way’
After graduating from Bradley, Hubbard took a job in Peoria as a social worker. Not long afterward, he married his college sweetheart, Kristie Moore, a Chicagoan who had parlayed a BU education degree into a teaching job at Peoria Public Schools. They would have three children together.
The pair got heavily involved in volunteering at Zion Baptist Church in Peoria. Hubbard would share his biblical insights with others, and in time found himself enjoying it. He even began to preach on the occasional Sunday.
“I started having a sense of, ‘Yeah, I think God wants me to go this way,’” Hubbard said. “And I didn’t want to do that.”
However, in 1995, he met the Rev. Amos Abbott of St. Paul Baptist Church, then at 603 W. Nebraska Ave. Abbott, head pastor for nearly half of the church’s 81 years, became a mentor to Hubbard, encouraging him to take divinity classes.
One Sunday in August 1996, the church burned its mortgage. The next morning, Abbott died.
As St. Paul began searching for a new lead pastor, Hubbard confided in his wife, “I don’t want to be a pastor, but I want to pastor this church. I can’t explain it.”
In June 1997, the Rev. Devereaux Hubbard, though still seeking his divinity degree, took over the reins at St. Paul. (He would earn a master’s degree in 2004 and doctorate in 2022.) The church had about 130 members, with an average age in the 60s. Hubbard was 27 years old.
“We experienced all the tension of change you experience in any enterprise,” he said.
Religious and pragmatic
One of the first new thrusts involved connecting with the community: residents, businesses, organizations and other churches. Hubbard wanted to create a network that would serve people spiritually and otherwise.
“I told (St. Paul’s elders) that they’d have me for at least 25 years,” he said. “I thought it would take that long to become invested in the community.”
Hubbard, his wife and others from St. Paul would routinely take to the streets — to barber shops, the plasma center, wherever — to chat with faces new and familiar. They’d also host special events, such as horse rides and tent revivals in the St. Paul parking lot. Hubbard began to learn what services had been established in the neighborhood and what holes St. Paul could fill.
“If there’s an organization that gives out Christmas baskets, we don’t want to give out Christmas baskets,” he said.
Further, he and his wife often would serve at their three children’s school functions. Soon, his boundless energy began drawing more and more people to St. Paul.
“He’s fun to be around,” said Ali. “He’s practical and real.”
Those attributes have spread Hubbard’s influence.
“Pastor Hubbard’s work goes beyond the church,” Ali said. “He’s very much into community development in its many facets, including crime reduction, eliminating poverty, advancing educational opportunities.”
How? Via what Hubbard calls a “holistic” approach to spirituality.
“We teach people how to practically apply the word of God,” Hubbard said.
For instance, before a recent sermon on mental health, St. Paul’s leaders contacted local experts in the field. That way, Hubbard could offer referrals for people needing help in addition to sharing the Bible’s teachings on the subject.
“We make the connection as to what it means to follow Jesus and His word, and how to live in a real world,” he said.
‘Investing in our children’
Hubbard sees Peoria’s challenges as St. Paul’s challenges. The church aims to address big-picture issues, like those affecting youths and schools, at their roots.
For instance, the church has its own Boy Scout troop, along with a girl’s group called Esther’s Circle. The Grownish class prepares teens for adulthood, with lessons on how to change a flat tire and balance a budget. Many kids from other churches come to St. Paul’s for youth programs.
“We value investing in our children,” Hubbard said.
He also values cooperation and consultation with other pastors, who in turn appreciate his outstretched hand.
“Deveraux’s impact has been increasing over many years,” said John King, the retired founding pastor of Riverside Community Church. “He’s been a forerunner in seeking unity in the city.”
Cal Rychener, Northwoods Community Church’s founding and senior pastor, calls Hubbard “a man of integrity, modeling the heart of a father to his flock.”
Grieving and growing
As Hubbard’s congregation continued to grow, St. Paul needed more room. At Easter 2011, the church debuted at the Forrest Hill Avenue site left empty when Grace Presbyterian Church moved to Far North Peoria. St. Paul now has more than 1,000 members, nearly 10 times the number Hubbard inherited on his first day.
But not everything has been smooth. In 2013, the Hubbards were stunned when son Deveraux Hubbard II, a sophomore at Southern Illinois University, died unexpectedly of a blood clot. He was 19.
Hubbard said he has been soothed by his growing faith: “This doesn’t make sense, yet I trust You.”
The pastor, who sometimes sings with the St. Paul worship team, wrote and produced a CD — A Worshipper’s Lament — chronicling his mournful journey. He said it has made him a better pastor.
“I hadn’t realized how horrible I was at providing comfort until I experienced the loss of my son,” he said. “I’d studied grief, but I didn’t understand grief. I learned the greatest gift you can give sometimes is presence. You don’t always have to give answers. You can just be there.”
He later shared that message in sermons.
Said Riverside’s King: “He’s shown how to lead even through deeply personal grief. He was a terrific example for the church in the city.”
In honor of their son, the Hubbards formed the Deveraux Hubbard II Foundation to raise awareness regarding clotting disorders. Meantime, he has served on the boards of multiple civic groups.
His next goal: uplifting his third generation at St. Paul in order to create a better future for both the church and Peoria.
“I do think we’ve gotten to the place where we’ve earned the trust of the community,” Hubbard said. “Now we’ve got to maximize it in terms of raising up the next generation.”