A conversation with Rev. James S. Hall Pastor of Triumph Baptist Church and a celebration of 60 years of ministry and service
Following is an extended excerpt of an interview conducted this week by SUN Editor/Publisher J. Whyatt Mondesire with Rev. James S. Hall. The interview is scheduled to be broadcast 7-8 AM, Sunday, Nov. 20. 2011 on WDAS/FM (105.3) during the station's weekly public service segment, "Freedom QUEST," hosted by Mr. Mondesire.
Q. One of my heroes, the Rev. James Hall is sitting across the table from me. This Sunday he will be celebrating 60 years in the ministry and 42 years in the pulpit of the great Triumph Baptist Church. He is a true civil rights pioneer, great clergyman, great teacher, father and husband and one of the significant leaders of Philadelphia for the last half century.
A. I want to thank you for this invitation. It's going to be a great Sunday and I'm really looking forward to sharing it with so many friends.
Q. When you first came to Philadelphia, it was a very different city than it is today. What was it like for you then?
A. I was called to the Morris Chapel Baptist Church, 12th & Lehigh Streets. I guess it had a membership of about 800 to one thousand members. And six years later Triumph came into being with 63 members.
Q. What prompted you to leave the first church to start Triumph?
A. Well, I ran into a little difficulty. My vision was a little greater than they could comprehend at that time. And I was getting ready to go back to South Carolina to be Vice President of Development of Morris College. I was approached by several members and I was asked not to go back but to stay and give them leadership. That meant I had to decide about the security of my family whether to go where I was assured of the security of my four children or stay and take a risk about their security. But I was lead by the Lord to stay. I was convinced by one lady. She's with the Lord now. Her name was Lucy Boyd. She said to me; she told us to trust God. Now where is the God you've been recommending to us if you can't believe what you preach? It was like a cold glass of water right in your face. So with that I had a wake-up call about my faith. I decided to stay. Now 43 years later, I'm glad I decided to stay.
Q. Where was the original Triumph Baptist Church located?
A. We started in the basement of Mt. Sinai Tabernacle, 28th and Lehigh Street. We stayed there about a month until we found a building at 16th and Wingohocking Streets. The congregation at that church at that time had moved out in December 1969. We organized in November of that year and we moved to that site the first Sunday in December. That building burned down in 1978 and we had to worship in the Boys and Girls Club on Pulaski Avenue for three years until we rebuilt that church until we moved to where we are located right now.
Q. Was the city welcoming to you in 1963?
A. Yes, it was warm and welcoming to me in the beginning. I knew several ministers here. Many of the members at Morris Chapel were from South Carolina, so it felt like home in many ways. I'm originally from Marian, South Carolina; about 22 miles from Florence, in the Myrtle Beach area. My father and grandfather were both pastors and I grew up on my father's knee hearing Old Testament stories talking about the civil rights movement. My father was a World War I veteran. And I was his only son. He would always remind us of some of the things they encountered as a black man even after they returned from World War I. So I was motivated, aggravated and stimulated by those stories of some the treatment my father received.
Q. What were the early days of Triumph like when you had just a few dozen members, not anything close to the nearly 3,000 members you have today?
A. It was challenging and it granted me an opportunity at the same time. I wanted to cast a vision that would not have the church just do the same ho-hum thing over and over again. I wanted a church that would be involved in community development at the same time. We operate Triumph now on the three "E's;" evangelism, education and economic development. We believe a person ought to be saved. But when we first got organized we started something we call "block blasting evangelism." We would go on individual blocks on Saturdays. And I would preach from the steps of row houses and offer hope for people to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior. We believe people should be educated. Even now, a lot of my emphasis is on the training of young people. And we believe in economic development. We believe people should be good stewards of their money and that they should be organized building something that will around for generations to follow. As a result in our church we have credit union; we have a scholarship fund for young people; and as you know we built a supermarket that is still operating today. And now we are planning to build a senior citizen's home on some property that we own right near the church. I hope we can break ground next year.
Q. When did the current church first open?
A. Just under six years ago. We had outgrown the 16th and Wingohocking site. So we had to build here at Hunting Park and Germantown Avenue in order to accommodate the nearly 2,000 worshippers who faithfully come on Sunday mornings today. And we plan to reopen a school on another nearby site. This school will go from kindergarten to high school. This should begin shortly after the senior center is open.
Q. Why is the economic development part of your ministry so important to you?
A. It's important because we believe our people should do more than just have a job. They should be owners as well. We ought to be the boss. It's not enough to tell a child to go to school and get a job. You ought to tell a child to go to school and own something. Our money does not turn over in our communities more than once or twice. We are consumers and we need to be more than just consumers.
Q. The Christian Church in the 21st century; are we at the point where you think we would have achieved when you first started in the ministry? Are young people heeding the Christian message?
A. I think our young people are enthusiastic about church and about their faith. I'm not sure we're giving them the kind of leadership to where our young people would want to be more involved. I think we need to be put our heads together to give our young people ideas about how to tackle the problem of the killing in our communities; too much drugs in our communities; too much economic waster in our communities. I kind of want to hold us older leaders responsible for much of that. I think we've become individualistic in our approach among leadership to the point where we are losing some of our young people. But those who are still coming to church are still rallying with the hope that things will be better. I have not given up. In our church, the second Sunday the young people are totally in charge of the service. They will allow me to preach. But they are totally in charge. And now some of these young people are working with the families whose parents are in prison. I can see the benefit these young people are receiving from involvement in these kinds of ministries in the church.
Q. The history of Triumph and your own history of civil rights are synonymous. Where does that come from?
A. From my father. Growing up in a small town in South Carolina it sometimes was dangerous to be aggressive in civil rights. But I didn't know I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. There was man at home by the name of J.C. Kelly. He was the president of the local NAACP. And he took me under his arms along with some others and made me president of the youth NAACP there in Marian. And I just started speaking out. One classic example was a black woman who rang a little store in our town. One day she was slapped by a deliveryman for a white company that baked and sold bread in our town. So, I heard about what had happened to this woman and I decided to get up in church and start telling people they should stop buying bread from someone who treated out people in such a way. I told the church people should started baking their own bread. The company sent people from Atlanta to track what happened to their sales in our town. Later, after college when I got called to a church in Greenville, South Carolina I was able to fill my prophetic role. I got involved. Jackie Robinson had come to our town to speak at an NAACP meeting. He stayed in our home. Later, we took him to the airport and a white man threatened to lock up his wife because she refused to be seated in the "colored" waiting area. But just when they were coming to lock us up, about hundred black children came into the airport to see their baseball hero Jackie Robinson. When the police saw all those children crowding the terminal they decided against locking up anybody on that day. Then we decided to march on the airport in January 1961 and integrated it.
Q. Some have said it was from that early demonstration in Greenville that you first convinced Jesse Jackson to get arrested for civil rights, is that story true?
A. Jesse was playing football at Sterling High School and I was about 25 when I first when to preach in Greenville. We lived about a block from the "black" library and Jesse and about eight of the other children needed to get books to finish their school projects. But the "black" library did not have what they needed. Well, the students went to the library to get the books and they were told "no." The students came back to the church and told me how they had been treated. In fact when they did come back I asked Jesse and the others whey had they come back. And they told me that the authorities had threatened to "lock us up." So, I told them right then, "That was the reason I sent you. You ought to be locked up. Then we would have a good case."
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