‘Blood, sweat, tears, prayers’: Salem Baptist Church’s first and only pastor for nearly 40 years, Rev. James Meeks, announces retirement

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The Rev. James Meeks sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of the controversial Chuck’s Gun Store at a “die-in” protest Wednesday, taking up space in front of the doorway just like the police said not to do.

His hands rested on his stomach. His elbows touched the white, hot concrete. As fellow faith leaders prayed for an end to gun violence, he responded, “Yes. Yes,” with eyes closed under his polarized shades.

The Rev. James Meeks, far right in brown, along with dozens of clergy and community members, stage a die-in outside of Chuck’s Gun Shop on June 22, 2022, in Riverdale. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Meeks might be retiring in January as senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church, but he said he has no plans to stop lending his voice to fight “any kind of injustice” that needs it.

“This is a national conversation that we must have as it relates to guns, and the conversation is going to have to be held over and over again until we get it right,” he said.

Meeks, 65, announced his retirement from ministry during last Sunday’s service at Salem Baptist nearly 38 years after starting the Pullman church, one of the largest African American churches in the state with nearly 10,000 members.

A video he posted on Facebook announcing his retirement currently has almost 60,000 views, thousands of likes and hundreds of comments, and he said reading some of the comments made him realize he was given the opportunity for more than 40 years in ministry to “connect people with God.”

“All of the people who said they did not know God prior to being introduced to our ministry, and now they have a relationship with God that has been life-forming and transforming to them, and the very fact that God uses some of us to connect other people to him,” he said. “That’s been the most rewarding thing ever.”

The Rev. James Meeks prays with fellow religious leaders and anti-violence advocates at Pioneer Square before holding a prayer walk along Michigan Avenue to bring awareness to gun violence problems on May 28, 2022, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Along with the news of his retirement came the announcement of his successor, the Rev. Charlie Dates, 41, who has known Meeks since before he started fifth grade at the church’s now-closed Salem Christian Academy. Dates has served under Meeks’ leadership for decades.

Dates said he and other children at the school had a “reverential fear” of Meeks, knowing he was someone “remarkably special who was doing something big for the city and for us.”

“My relationship began and remains with him on those terms, just with a great deal of admiration and respect,” Dates said.

Dates was primary preaching assistant, pastor of adult ministries and director of church operations at Salem Baptist for five years before moving to Progressive Baptist Church to be the senior pastor there in 2011.

He said Meeks is a “uniquely gifted, charismatic leader” who has helped build Black churches “worth joining, that transform culture and society,” something he hopes to emulate while carrying on in Meeks’ footsteps.

Meeks said Dates “was the only choice” to take his place, and he hopes the church gives Dates “the same kind of dedication that they gave to me.”

The Rev. James Meeks jumps on top of a table during his exuberant Easter morning sermon at Salem Baptist Church on April 4, 1999, in Chicago. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune)

“One of worst things that we do in society from politics to ministry is to hold on to leadership positions and not give the younger generation that we asked to go and become educated, they come back to society and there’s no room for them because people hold onto positions,” Meeks said. “I’m trying to be an example to people of my generation to say it’s OK to trust the next generations with leadership.”

Meeks first thought about retiring two years ago, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he said “it was not even a question” that he needed to stay and keep the church going with strong leadership.

He founded the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago in 1985 after five years of serving as the pastor at Beth Eden Baptist Church in East Wilken Park. Salem Baptist started out with 193 members before growing to the monolith it’s known as today.

Meeks won a state Senate seat as an independent in 2002. He later switched to Democrat and held onto the seat before retiring in 2012. He also ran for mayor twice, in 2003 and 2011, but dropped out of both races. He was chairman of the Illinois Board of Education in 2017.

When asked if he sees himself getting back into politics, Meeks was quick to say no, but said he does see himself “helping a lot of young politicians make good choices.”

“To run for an office takes a pound of flesh that I don’t have to give,” he said. “I just don’t think that I’m cut out for that anymore.”

Throughout his 40-plus years in ministry, Meeks has traveled the world with his messages of hope and change, including Africa, China, Argentina and Australia.

A friend of Meeks for some 40 years, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said Meeks has “always been a driver with a vision.”

In front of a live video projection, the Rev. James Meeks, left, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson join hands during Jackson’s remarks at Salem Baptist Church service on March 19, 2000. Meeks and Jackson Jr. discussed the Chicago Police Board’s ruling to fire three officers involved in the LaTanya Haggerty shooting and call for federal charges against the officers. (Jose More/Chicago Tribune)

Jackson said Meeks always insisted on being involved with the church from the ground up, from washing dishes to attending church meetings and leading worship.

“He was always dedicated to making people better off,” he said. “He’s been with me since he was a child. Now he’s a grown man, and he’s stayed very humble.”

Thomas Henderson and his wife, Patricia, have been members of Salem Baptist’s congregation since the start and have been led by Meeks since before that. They work in the church’s marriage ministry, having counseled married couples for 37 years. When they first got to know Meeks in the early 1980s, the couple themselves were newly married with a small child.

They said Meeks’ education-style, theologically based leadership in the church all while always infusing humor into his messages were the elements that brought and kept them with Meeks at Salem Baptist.

Henderson said he and his wife were “shocked” at Meeks’ retirement announcement but had a feeling it was coming. He said he feels mostly excited for Meeks to walk whatever path is next while also feeling a slight sense of loss.

“Our families have grown together,” Henderson said. “Just knowing the fact that he’s had such an impact personally, professionally, spiritually on our lives, you don’t get all that wrapped up in one person.”

Meeks plans to officially step down on Jan. 15, which will be almost 38 years to the day he began Salem Baptist. After that, he said he has decided to “stay away” from Salem Baptist for the rest of 2023 to give Dates “room to become the new leader.”

“I think that the only way to give the new pastor an opportunity to come in and lead is to not be in his shadow or to be in the way,” Meeks said.

He said he’ll stay in Chicago and attend other churches around the city in the meantime but other than that, he is not “100% sure what’s next.” He said he is looking forward to spending time with his family and working with The Hope Center Foundation, the philanthropic branch of Salem Baptist.

About seven months ahead of his retirement, Meeks said he is least looking forward to the last day he’ll stand in front of the congregation at the church as “Salem’s first and only pastor.” But he is most looking forward to taking the time until then to properly say goodbye to all those he has served and served with.

“Blood, sweat, tears, prayers, it’s difficult to give up,” Meeks said. “But it was not difficult to give up in that I want to see the church continue to grow. I feel that at this time in life, it’s also time for new leadership. I pastored the church through my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and now I’m halfway into my 60s. In order for the church to grow and reach younger families, they will need a younger leader.”

Tribune reporter Jake Sheridan contributed.

sahmad@chicagotribune.com

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June 25, 2022 at 05:13AM

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