The Rev. James Meeks conducts final service at Salem Baptist Church: ‘A bittersweet day’

The Rev. James Meeks stepped down as senior pastor of the Roseland-area church Sunday on its 38th anniversary. His next mission: building 1,000 homes in Roseland.

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Rev. James Meeks, left, hands the torch to incoming Pastor Charlie Dates on Sunday at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Ald. Anthony Beale were among the dignitaries on hand.

The Rev. James Meeks, left, hands the torch to incoming Pastor Charlie Dates on Sunday at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Ald. Anthony Beale were among the dignitaries on hand.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Rev. James Meeks passed the torch to his successor Sunday at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which he founded nearly four decades ago.

“I’m almost afraid to pass you this because I know the burden,” Meeks told incoming Pastor Charlie Dates, handing him a torch made of glass. “All I can tell you, Charlie, is that God’s word will hold you.”

Meeks stepped down as senior pastor of the Roseland-area church Sunday on its 38th anniversary. In his final sermon, titled “I Can Never Say Goodbye,” Meeks explored the parallels between St. Paul’s and his own departure from their congregations.

“Nobody could ever make me stop loving you,” Meeks said. “You have followed every crazy vision ... and look where it brought us.”

A tearful Rev. James Meeks holds a glass torch that he handed to his successor, Pastor Charlie Dates. Meeks, 66, says he decided to step down to usher in a new generation of leaders.

A tearful Rev. James Meeks holds a glass torch that he handed to his successor, Pastor Charlie Dates. Meeks, 66, says he decided to step down to usher in a new generation of leaders.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Dates thanked Meeks for his service as ushers carried boxes of tissues down the aisles of the 10,000-seat megachurch at 752 E. 114th St.

“You turned the tide. You made Chicago a better place to be, and you’ve turned darkness to light,” Dates said.

Seated in the front row were dignitaries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former Ald. Bob Fioretti and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who spoke from the pulpit.

“Pastor Meeks has done untold good not only here, but also in this community, our city, our state and our nation,” Lightfoot said.

“From my personal heart,” Lightfoot said, “James Meeks has been there for me in my toughest times, in my darkest moments. He has reached out and personally lifted me up.”

Lightfoot handed Meeks a city proclamation for his service.

In a series of video messages, Meeks received thank yous from other evangelists, including Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston and Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House in Dallas.

Congregant April Bobo-Shaw has been attending Meeks’ services every Sunday for 10 years. She travels from Hammond, Indiana, with her 9-year-old daughter to hear Meeks preach.

“It connects with me. He’s been a blessing,” Bobo-Shaw said before the service. “Today is a somber yet joyful day because Pastor Meeks is going to be able to rest. It’s a blessing to be able to celebrate him while he’s here.”

April Bobo-Shaw and her 9-year-old daughter pose in front of the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

April Bobo-Shaw and her 9-year-old daughter pose in front of the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. For 10 years, the family has traveled from Hammond, Indiana, to the Pullman mega-church for services.

David Struett/Sun-Times

In an interview before the service, Meeks, 66, said it was “a bittersweet day” to end his 38-year run at the congregation he created.

“I’ve had a chance to walk with people through life. So it’s difficult to say goodbye to those individuals. This is a bittersweet moment filled with all kinds of emotions and anxiety,” he said.

Meeks announced his plan for retirement in June and told the church that Dates would succeed him in leading the congregation.

At the time, Meeks said he was stepping down to usher in a new generation of leaders. Meeks — who was elected to three terms as a state senator, served as chairman of the state Board of Education, and briefly ran for mayor of Chicago in 2010 — said he had no plans to return to politics.

Reflecting on his legacy, Meeks said he wanted people to understand the mission of the institution “is not bound by four walls of the church.”

He used the pulpit to transform the surrounding community. In 1998, Meeks championed a drive to “dry out” the Roseland area by collecting signatures to close 26 liquor stores. In 2008, he led a boycott of Chicago Public Schools to draw attention to disparities in school funding.

“I’m proud of the track record,” he said Sunday.

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Cutouts of the Rev. James Meeks throughout the years are displayed in the foyer at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago as Meeks, who founded the 10,000-seat church in 1985, said farewell to the congregation.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Meeks founded the church in 1985 and built the congregation from 200 members, moving through a series of ever-larger buildings before building the current $50 million megachurch.

Meeks will remain active in the church’s charity, Hope House. He said he has planned to build 1,000 homes in Roseland and to address a literacy gap among children.

Meeks has been a controversial figure. 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. He once said that the city policy of giving favorable treatment to women- and minority-owned contractors should only apply to Black-owned businesses.

On Sunday, Meeks said it was important for him to retire while there was still time for him to mentor the upcoming generation and to allow younger folks a chance to lead.

Dates, in his early 40s, is a graduate of Salem’s church school, the now-closed Salem Christian Academy. He was pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago.

“For 43 years, I have been doing this every Sunday of my life. And I feel that it’s time to give somebody else a chance,” Meeks said.

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The Rev. James Meeks and his wife, Jamell Meeks, wave goodbye to congregants at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. Meeks built the church from 200 members to 10,000 and also served in the state Senate and as chairman of the state Board of Education.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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