At a Juneteenth celebration Monday at the Park Community Church, Rev. James Meeks still mixes the fire of a pastor with the diplomacy of a politician.
But on Sunday he surprised the faithful at the 10,000-seat House of Hope in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood by telling them that after 42 years in ministry, most of which were spent as pastor of Salem Baptist Church, he would be stepping aside in January of next year.
Meeks said the decision was "quite easy."
"It’s time for those of us in our generation to also train young people of the next generation to step up," he said.
"I think that's what's happening with too many of our politicians and local leaders," Meeks said. "We hold on to offices too long. We encourage young people to go to school and make something of themselves. When they come home, they have to sit and wait until some old person dies. I think that's unfair."
Pastor Charlie Dates, who attended Salem Baptist's school as a child, will be taking over pastoral duties. Meeks will spend more time with Salem's philanthropic arm, the Hope Center Foundation.
"I want to be around a few years to kind of push him … guide him … keep him in the right direction," Meeks said.
Meeks admitted some of his fondest memories were working with his longtime friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, helping to bring back hostages being held in other nations. He said that is something he would be willing to do again.
"Sometimes," he said, "all it takes is to give an international leader a nudge to see that it is the right thing to open up negotiations and start with the good will of freeing a hostage."
Meeks didn't hesitate to say he would be willing to help win the freedom of basketball star Brittney Griner, who is currently being held in Russia.
The pastor, who started Salem Baptist in 1985 in the Roseland neighborhood with 193 members, also served for a decade as an Illinois state senator. Meeks said his new role will be to inspire the leaders of the future as he makes room for them to lead.
"As it relates to our politics," he said, "I think people are apathetic. They don't want to vote. I think people do not trust our political officials today, and I think it's time for us to raise a new crop of young people and get them involved and get them inspired."
Meeks said more of today’s leaders must do as he is doing and step aside to give tomorrow's leaders a chance.