James Meeks retiring as pastor of Salem Baptist Church

Meeks will step down next year as head of the South Side megachurch he founded 38 years ago.

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The Rev. James Meeks and his wife, Jemell, leave the South Shore Cultural Center on Monday.

The Rev. James Meeks and his wife, Jemell, leave the South Shore Cultural Center on Monday.

Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

The Rev. James Meeks will step down next year as head of one of the city’s largest congregations, ending a 38-year run at the South Side church he founded.

In his sermon Sunday at Salem Baptist Church, Meeks said he would officially step down in January and pastor Charlie Dates would become head of the 10,000-member South Side congregation. Meeks said he will continue to work with Salem’s philanthropic organization, Hope House.

Meeks, who was elected to three terms as a state senator and served as chairman of the state Board of Education, founded the church in 1985 and built the Black congregation from 200 members, moving through a series of ever-larger buildings before building a $50 million megachurch that regularly filled its 10,000-seat auditorium for services.

As he left the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Convention at the South Shore Cultural Center on Monday, Meeks said he was stepping down from the job to make room for a new generation of leaders.

Now 65, Meeks said he intends to counsel that younger generation of pastors and politicians but had no intention of returning to politics or the pulpit.

“You see many people who are guilty of holding onto positions too long, all the old leaders stay in place and don’t open up and make room for new leadership,” he said. “Everybody loves our old, respected leaders … but I want to set an example that it’s OK to give the next generation an opportunity.”

Meeks led a drive to “dry out” the Roseland community by collecting signatures to close 26 liquor stores in the neighborhood in 1998 and in 2008 led an abortive “boycott” of Chicago Public Schools to draw attention to disparities in school funding.

The pastor was at times a controversial figure, at least outside the walls of Salem Baptist. The day Chicago native R&B star R. Kelly posted bond on child pornography charges in 2002, Kelly sang with children during an event at Salem with Meeks, who was then serving as the musician’s spiritual adviser.

Meeks led a group of Black pastors in opposition to 2010 legislation that legalized gay marriage in Illinois and once said that the city policy of giving favorable treatment to women- and minority-owned contractors should only apply to Black-owned businesses.

Dates, 41, is a graduate of Salem’s church school, the now closed Salem Christian Academy, and is pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago.

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