About 48 hours before he is set to deliver his last Sunday sermon as Salem Baptist Church’s first and only senior pastor, the Rev. James Meeks pointed at his “favorite picture” hung in his office at House of Hope, the church’s worship grounds.
The picture shows a full House of Hope, which holds 10,000 people, from the stage to the congregation with practically everyone wearing white, as is custom on membership Sundays, Meeks said.
“Every first Sunday in August, all of our members come to membership Sunday, and everybody registers again to become members of the church and state their desire to be a member for the coming year,” Meeks explained. “This will be the last thing I take down Sunday when I leave.”
The picture will go from his church office to his home office, he said.
Meeks, 66, is retiring as senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church after almost half a century in ministry, baptizing 20,000 people, and 38 years with the church he started from the ground up.
He announced his retirement from ministry during a Sunday service at Salem Baptist in June nearly 38 years after starting the Pullman church, one of the largest African American churches in the state.
He said now retirement feels “really real” as opposed to months ago when he first made the announcement.
“When you say something months ahead of time, you still have time,” he said. “You don’t really process it. Now the time is here, and it’s awfully emotional. It’s really a good time, but it’s bittersweet.”
Along with the news of his retirement came the announcement of his successor, the Rev. Charlie Dates, 42, 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’ first sermon as senior pastor of the church will be Sunday, Jan. 15. He said he didn’t want to give too much of a sneak peek into his first sermon but said he would use the words “stability and security” to describe it.
As far as stepping into Meeks’ shoes, Dates said he feels “prepared” and is “full of great anticipation.”
He said that although there is a sense of loss over Meeks’ retirement, the church has still been “very loving and affirming” of him, and he hopes he can help the church reach even higher under his wing.
“I have always thought of Salem as a mother church, as a ‘glocal’ church, a church with global influence with a particularly local emphasis,” Dates said. “Part of my hope is to see Salem strengthen other churches, revitalize other churches, build a pipeline of future pastors who can do in their neighborhoods what Salem has done in this neighborhood. I think one way that will get done is we will leverage his (Meeks’) wisdom and experience combined with what God has given me.”
Meeks founded the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago in 1985 after five years of serving as the pastor at Beth Eden Baptist Church. Salem Baptist started out with 193 members before growing to the monolith it’s known as today.
He 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 chair of the Illinois Board of Education in 2017.
Throughout his nearly 50 years in ministry, Meeks has traveled the world with his messages of hope and reform, including around Africa, China, Argentina and Australia.
He authored two books, “How to Get Out of Debt and Into Praise,” and “Life-Changing Relationships,” which have both received critical acclaim.
During the church’s New Year’s Day Sunday service, he baptized his 20,000th person, who also happened to be his 6-year-old granddaughter. Meeks has five grandchildren and four children with his wife, Jamell Meeks. He’ll also be christening his fifth grandchild, who’s 2 years old, during his celebratory retirement service on Sunday.
Meeks plans to stay in Chicago and visit other churches around the city while also giving Salem Baptist time to adjust and “not be in the way of its new leader.” He said he is looking forward to many things post-retirement, like spending more time with his family, playing golf and serving as chairman of the Hope Center Foundation, the philanthropic branch of Salem Baptist.
His last sermon will be part of a retirement service celebration at House of Hope, 752 E. 114th St., on Sunday. Doors open at 10 a.m., and the program will begin at 11 a.m. Meeks said included in the celebration will be a “torch-passing ceremony,” where he will physically pass a torch off to Dates and say a prayer for him and his family.
As for his last sermon, Meeks said he just finished writing it on Tuesday, and although he didn’t want to give any sneak peeks, he said it has “a lot to do with saying goodbye.”
He said he plans to be the last person to leave the building on Sunday and to “shake every hand” of the person who came to his final service.
“I love people,” he said. “I love connecting with people. People have life and issues they have to deal with, and they come to the church for help. They come to the pastor for help, and I’ll miss helping and being available to all the people who need help and who need to be pointed in the right direction. That’s hard to give up.”
He said he still plans to “be somewhere helping people” in his next chapter, whether that be through other churches or his work with the Hope Center Foundation.
He said what he’ll miss most is looking out at full house from the pulpit, a scene depicted in his favorite picture, but he hopes to leave the church with the understanding that the message does not change with the messenger.
“God’s word is not going to change,” Meeks said. “The preacher is different, but the word is the same. It is the word that I’ve been preaching to them, that they have applied to their lives, and it has caused their lives to change. It has caused them to grow and to nurture their families. That same word will continue from the pulpit regardless of if I’m here or not.”