Growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 6-year-old James Bass would play at conducting church services for his friends.
“He would funeralize the cow, anything that died,” said his son, Vincent.
When he was a few years older, ministers would turn over their pulpits to him.
“He’d walk into the service and the preacher would say, ‘Young man, what do you have to say?’” said Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church. “The spirit would be upon him, and he would lead people to Christ.”
The Rev. Bass helped found Chicago’s Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church at 1532 S. Pulaski Road, a wellspring for other clergy and churches.
“There’s more than 15 churches that were birthed out of Mount Olive,” said his son, “and more than 30 preachers, ministers and pastors who’ve come from his tutelage.”
The Rev. Bass, 98, died of prostate cancer Nov. 27 at his West Pullman home. He’d been preaching more than 90 years and was an early champion of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“When Dr. King came to Chicago in 1966, Rev. Bass was one of the first ministers to join our rallies and our marches,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson of Rainbow PUSH. “Rev. Bass was a great and courageous supporter of the freedom movement.”
He assisted in picking up King from O’Hare Airport and helped pay “for a trailer with a speaker system, which allowed (King) to speak on (the) West Side from the back of a truck in a lot located at Pulaski Road and Arthington Street,” according to his pastor emeritus biography at Second Mount Olive Baptist Church, now at 5729-43 W. Chicago Ave.
“He was one of the first preachers on the West Side to give hot meals to people on Skid Row on Madison Street,” Trotter said.
“He dedicated his life to serving people, and he served us, his children, as well,” said his daughter, Vikkeda Bass. “What he was out in the street, he was the same at home.”
“Pastor Bass had a relationship with the community as well as the church,” said Trotter. “He didn’t have any fear of walking the South Side of Chicago during the Black Panther era, nor up until now, with thousands of kids being killed on the streets. He would preach right on the street with a microphone.”
With his resonant, gravelly voice, he’d say, “I love you, I love you, I love you” and “Bless ya, bless ya.”
His son said he was born in Florence, Mississippi, and grew up throwing horseshoes and playing marbles on the Dockery Farms plantation. It’s considered a cradle of the Delta blues. He was baptized in the Sunflower River. He and his parents, Hattie and Frank Bass, used to travel to church by mule-drawn wagon, according to his biography.
In those days in rural Mississippi, school schedules were dictated by capricious weather and demanding farm work. It could take years to finish one grade. To get an education, he decided to attend Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis.
His son said he served three years in the Army in World War II in India and New Guinea, where he ministered to other soldiers and delivered mail. In 1948 he enrolled at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, a historically black institution. Later he studied at a seminary in Jackson. In 1951, he became pastor of Mt. Israel Baptist Church near Drew, Mississippi, according to an honorary resolution from the Illinois legislature.
After a 1955 religious revival in Detroit, he helped found his first church on Pulaski Road. The Rev. Bass also preached on WVON radio.
In 1967, he married his wife Helyn Maxcine Julius.
When he turned 80, gospel legend Albertina Walker sang at his birthday, his son said. As recently as September, the 98-year-old spoke at Trotter’s church. “He promised the Lord he would wear out, not rust out,” his son said.
He kept up with technology and used Google to help craft sermons, though he’d joke that it might have diluted Bible memorization. “In my day, you had to know where to look up the Scriptures and passages,” he’d say. “They’ve got it easier nowadays.”
He was the oldest living patriarch at the Bass family reunions, now in their 58th year.
In addition to his wife, Helyn, and children Vikkeda and Vincent, he is survived by his grandson James. A viewing will be from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at Gatling’s Chapel, 10133 S. Halsted. Ministers he helped mentor will pay tribute from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday. On Monday, another viewing is planned from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at the House of Hope, 752 E. 114th St., with a funeral program from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.