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Personal Development
January 9, 2024

Offering Hope In The Valleys

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Great leaders don’t just know when to step up and step out; they also know when to step aside. Rev. James Meeks has done all three in his long ministry, most recently in announcing his retirement as senior pastor of Chicago’s famed Salem Baptist Church.
Having built a 9,000-plus-member congregation known for its impact in the city over the past 37 years, he is handing the leadership baton to Rev. Charlie Dates. A product of the South Side church’s elementary school who served as Meeks’ preaching assistant for several years, Dates is “one of the greatest young preachers, if not the greatest young preacher, in our nation today,” says Meeks.
The transition acknowledges Meeks’ selfless ability to see his successor’s strengths and his own weaknesses. “I think that now is the right time because I’ve been doing this now for 43 years—it’s been about three or four generations,” he says, “and I don’t communicate as well with the younger generation like I used to when I was younger and that’s the generation that we’re gonna have to count on to build our churches.”
But Meeks has refocusing in mind, not retirement. He wants to serve Dates (who takes over at Salem in the New Year) and other young pastors like him as a coach and mentor, sharing some of the things he has learned along the way. It’s the next stage in what he sees as the three acts of life: there’s learning up to age 25, then working and building until you are around 60, followed by offering your wisdom and encouragement to the next generation. “I’m going to become a professional waymaker.”
In some ways, Meeks hopes to be the influence Jesse Jackson was on him (see sidebar). Getting to travel with the civil rights icon he had idolized as a child was not just an honor but an education, he says, recalling as an example of Jackson’s impact the occasion they got off a private plane to be greeted by the media.
As they waited for the news conference to start, Jackson gently took from Meeks’ hand the packet of popcorn he was eating and asked, “Why are you walking into a thousand people’s living room eating popcorn?”
Meeks answered that the event hadn’t yet begun, to which Jackson replied that “the moment you stepped off the plane, you were at the press conference, because they were filming.”
Meeks remembers the nuance appreciatively. “I didn’t even know if you’re on, you’ve got to be on as soon as you step off the plane,” he says. “I’ve learned how to speak publicly, or in the public square. It’s different when you’re speaking in church, when nobody is asking you questions, and I learned to be prepared… I learned all of that from him.”
“Black people are leaving too much money on the table because we elect politicians and then we don’t have a demand of them.”
Poking the powers
Now Meeks has plenty of his own wisdom to pass on. In addition to building a widely respected church with a broad range of helping programs, Meeks also emphasized the importance of getting involved in the com- munity beyond the church walls. He served as an Illinois State Senator for 13 years to 2011, first as an Independent and then as a Democrat.
He saw that political involvement as an extension of his ministry, seeking to help those living in some of Chicago’s most hard-pressed communities. “One group of people you’re serving them with tithes and offerings,” he says of his days as a pastor. “Another group of people, you’re serving them with a state budget,” he says of his days as a politician, “but as long as it’s meeting the needs of others.”
Churches make a mistake when they try to fix all the problems around them on their own because they just don’t have the resources, he says. “We need to learn how to force the powers that be to take care of the community and to force the elected officials to tap into the city and state budget. I think that Black people are leaving too much money on the table because we elect politicians and then we don’t have a demand of them.”
You can’t fix high crime just by having praise and worship, he says. “We have to stand in front of the police station, and we have to meet with the police commander and we have to demand more. The church should be involved in poking the powers that be by making sure that they do what they’re elected to do.”
Despite all his experiences, Meeks doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, acknowledging “layers of problems on top of problems.” But he does express concern about how things have changed over his lifetime. When he was growing up, 75% of Black households were two-parent families and he finished high school “out of fear of my father; it had nothing to do with my love for academics.” Today, he notes, 75% of households are headed by a single parent, with all the challenges that brings.
At the same time, Meeks also observes the waning centrality of the church in people’s lives. When he was young, men took off their hats as a sign of respect when they walked past a church, he says. Now, “people are starting to believe that the church is an obsolete institution.”
Part of that may have to do with the progress in civil rights. “I grew up in the Jim Crow era where Blacks couldn’t go into certain restaurants and couldn’t eat at certain cafeterias,” he says. “So, we used the church as a rallying place, as a place to go. The church was the only place that we were free.
“That’s the only place that we could raise money and we could galvanize, and we could fight against some of the injustices… the church became the strongest institution in our society and in our community.”
“We tend to think that everybody has this perfect life… everybody’s showing their highlight reels.”
Room to be real
What has sustained Meeks through the years has been a distinct sense of calling to ministry. From a small boy, he always wanted to be a preacher (“never anything else; not a policeman, a fireman, not a doctor”), conducting funerals for his pets when they died.
In his teens he tried to wriggle out of that sense of destiny, applying to the Air Force. He failed the test by one question “and I heard God saying, clear as day, ‘It doesn’t make a difference how many times you take it. You are going to have to accept my calling.’” He started preaching at 17, then studied at seminary and pastored another church in Chicago before starting Salem on January 13, 1985, with 193 people.
If he has learned one thing in his many years of pastoring, it’s the need to give each other a bit more grace. “We tend to think that everybody has this perfect life… you look at Facebook and everybody’s showing their highlight reels, and it’s all the glitz and the glamor,” he says.
“Nobody shows themselves sitting in a room with the curtains closed and the room dark and they’ve still got their pajamas on at 5 o’clock in the afternoon because depression won’t let them get up out of the bed. And we are painting an unfair picture of life… there are some shadows of valleys of death.
“I have learned that it is so incumbent upon each of us to not put so much pressure on other people, to catch and find people where they are, to love them where they are, to allow them to go through the ups and downs and pendulums of life and to allow people to be alright where you find them.”
You know how people have poster boards of blues singers or baseball players? When I was a kid in seventh grade, all the pictures that I had on my wall were of Jesse Jackson. I loved the fact that he was a person following in Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr.’s foot-steps. He was the person who was out freedom-fighting and trying to make life better for Black people and I wanted to walk in that pathway… He’s been a personal hero of mine.
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.