The Reverend James Meeks sprawled out on the sidewalk outside the controversial Chuck’s Gun Store during a “die-in” protest on Wednesday, taking up space outside the door just as police have been told not to.
His hands rested on his stomach. His elbows touched the warm white concrete. As his fellow religious leaders prayed for an end to gun violence, he replied, “Yes. Yes”, eyes closed under his polarized glasses.
Meeks may retire in January as senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church, but said he has no plans to stop lending his voice to fight “any kind of injustice “Who needs it.
“This is a national conversation we need to have when it comes to guns, and the conversation will have to go on and on until we get it right,” he said. .
Meeks, 65, announced his retirement from the ministry during last Sunday’s service at Salem Baptist nearly 38 years after starting 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 nearly 60,000 views, thousands of likes and hundreds of comments, and he said reading some of the comments made him realize that he had had the opportunity for over 40 years in the ministry of “connecting people with God”.
“All the people who said they didn’t know God before they were introduced to our ministry, and now they have a relationship with God that has been formative and transformative for them, and the very fact that God uses some of between us to connect other people to him,” he said. “It’s been the most rewarding thing ever.
Along with the news of his retirement came the announcement of his successor, the Reverend Charlie Dates, 41, who had known Meeks since before he entered fifth grade at the church’s now closed Salem Christian Academy. has been announced. Dates served under Meeks for decades.
Dates said he and other kids at the school had a “reverential fear” of Meeks, knowing he was someone “remarkably special who was doing something great for the town and for us.”
“My relationship began and remains with him on those terms, just with great admiration and respect,” Dates said.
Dates served as senior preaching assistant, pastor of adult ministries and director of church operations in Salem Baptist for five years before moving to the Progressive Baptist Church to be senior pastor there in 2011.
He said Meeks is a “uniquely gifted charismatic leader” who has helped build black churches “worth joining, transforming culture and society,” something he hopes to emulate while continuing in the footsteps of Meeks.
Meeks said Dates “was the only choice” to take his place, and he hopes the church will give Dates “the same kind of dedication they gave me.”
“One of the worst things we do in society, from politics to ministry, is to keep leadership positions and not give the younger generation that we asked to go and educate themselves, they come back in society and there’s no place for them because people hold onto the positions,” Meeks said. “I try to be an example for people of my generation to tell them that it’s good 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 wasn’t even a question’ that he had to stick around and make it work. church with strong leadership.
He founded Salem Baptist Church of Chicago in 1985 after serving five years as pastor at Beth Eden Baptist Church in East Wilken Park. Salem Baptist started with 193 members before becoming the monolith we call it today.
Meeks won a state senate seat as an independent in 2002. He later switched to Democrat and retained the seat before retiring in 2012. He also ran for mayor twice , in 2003 and 2011, but dropped out of both races. He served as chairman of the Illinois Board of Education in 2017.
When asked if he saw himself returning to politics, Meeks was quick to say no, but said he saw himself “helping a lot of young politicians make good choices.”
“To run for office takes a pound of flesh that I don’t have to give,” he said. “I just don’t think I was cut out for this anymore.”
Throughout his more than 40 years of ministry, Meeks has traveled the world with his messages of hope and change, including Africa, China, Argentina and Australia.
A friend of Meeks for about 40 years, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, said Meeks has “always been a driver with a vision.”
Jackson said Meeks always insisted on being involved in the church from the ground up, from washing dishes to attending church meetings and leading worship.
“He was always committed to improving the lot of people,” he said. “He’s been with me since he was a kid. Now he is an adult and he has remained very humble.
Thomas Henderson and his wife, Patricia, have been members of the Salem Baptist congregation from the beginning and have been led by Meeks since before that. They work in the marriage ministry of the church, having counseled married couples for 37 years. When they first met Meeks in the early 1980s, the couple themselves were newly married and had a small child.
They said Meeks’ style of education, theology-based leadership in the church while always infusing humor into his messages were what brought them and kept them and Meeks at Salem Baptist.
Henderson said he and his wife were “shocked” by the announcement of Meeks’ retirement, but had a feeling it was coming. He said he mostly felt excited for Meeks to walk the next path while feeling a slight sense of loss.
“Our families grew up together,” Henderson said. “Just knowing that he had such a personal, professional and spiritual impact on our lives, you can’t sum it all up in one person.”
Meeks plans to officially step down on Jan. 15, which will make the day he started Salem Baptist almost 38 years old. After that, he said he decided to “stay away” from Salem Baptist for the rest of 2023 to give Dates “the chance to be the new leader.”
“I think the only way to give the new pastor the opportunity to come in and lead is not to be in his shadow or to be in the way,” Meeks said.
He said he’ll stay in Chicago and attend other churches in the city in the meantime, but other than that he’s not “100% sure about what’s next.” He said he looked forward to spending time with his family and working with The Hope Center Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Salem Baptist.
About seven months before his retirement, Meeks said he is least looking forward to the last day he will stand before the congregation at church as Salem’s “first and only pastor.” But he is very much looking forward to taking the time until then to properly say goodbye to everyone he has served and with whom he has served.
“The blood, the sweat, the tears, the prayers, it’s hard to give up,” Meeks said. “But it wasn’t hard to give up as I want to see the church continue to grow. I think this time in life is also the time for new leadership. I pastored the church in my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, and now I’m in my mid-60s. For the church to grow and reach younger families, they will need a younger leader.
Tribune reporter Jake Sheridan contributed.