The Maverick Minister
In the 1980s Reverend Jimmy Latimer put Central Church on the map in Hickory Hill. Now the pastor of a small evangelical church in Germantown, he shares the highs and lows of his years as a clergyman, and his spiritual metamorphosis.
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“Why do you think somebody who commits suicide would automatically go to hell?”
Latimer has often said he sees the church as an emergency squad, “not a nursing home for saints.” And he tries to touch people who have had bad church experiences, or no exposure to church at all.
Once he conducted a funeral for a man named “Buddy” who committed suicide. People lined the walls of the room where his service was held, and at least 10 people spoke of how they loved the man. Yet Latimer knew many mourners considered what Buddy had done was unforgivable in the eyes of God.
“Finally I stood up and said, ‘We’ve got a situation here,’” recalls Latimer. “‘We have a friend who killed himself.’ And people gasped. What did they think we were gonna talk about, Donald Duck? So I said, ‘Now look.
Why do you think somebody who commits suicide would automatically go to hell?’ More gasping. I said, ‘We’re saved by faith and therefore if Christ died for Buddy and he became a new person in Christ, why would killing himself sever that relationship any more than anything else?’ That belief is an old wives’ tale; it’s what I call ‘cultural theology’ and it’s not what the Bible teaches.”
Apparently Latimer touched a few receptive hearts at that service: “Some started calling me and coming to worship.”
“He figured most white ministers needed their asses stomped . . .”
One thing the Bible does teach is that we should love everyone regardless of race. Though Latimer admits he’s “probably” told a racial joke or two, he’s made an effort to “build genuine relationships” with black pastors. As a result, “some of our church members got mad and left,” he recalls. “But several black pastors are now my good friends.”
Among these is Reverend James L. Netters, senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, who met Latimer some 20 years ago in discussions about Memphis’ crime and racial division. “I was critical of white ministers who only go so far in working for change,” says Netters. “Reverend Latimer took me up on some points I made because he wanted to show we could work together. Since then we have had joint programs at our churches and our relationship has grown from that. He is one white minister who is very sincere about improving race relations.”
In 1995, when Willie Herenton was running for his second term of office as city mayor, Latimer was the only white pastor to attend a Ministers for Herenton prayer breakfast. Later Herenton told Latimer’s congregation, “One man stood taller than anyone else in the building that day . . . your pastor.”
This change of heart for Latimer came in part through his attending the Leadership Memphis class of 1985, when he became the first evangelical minister invited to participate in that group. He especially learned a lot from an African-American seminar leader from Atlanta who explained the difference between preference and prejudice. “Say you’re in a snow storm and you’ve got a car on one side with black people and on the other with white people,” says Latimer. “Who would you choose to join? The black would probably go with the black, and the white with white. That’s preference. We felt guilty for things we didn’t need to feel guilty for.”
He laughs remembering that the same seminar leader announced at the beginning of the session that “‘there’s a [white] minister in this group and I will find you and stomp your ass,’” recalls Latimer. “He figured most white ministers needed their asses stomped, and he would flush me out. He didn’t. At the very end he learned who I was and said he never would have guessed. That whole Leadership Memphis session on race helped me tremendously in getting my heart right.”
As for Herenton, Latimer recalls when the former mayor reached out to him on a dark day in his life. “The day I left Central and had adverse publicity, do you know who called me first and prayed for me on the phone? Willie Herenton. He and I got along fine.”
“It did not become serious immoral conduct.”
That “adverse publicity” Latimer speaks of came in May 2003. By then, Central had sold its Hickory Hill headquarters to the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church and had moved to a new building in Collierville. The hectic pace he’d maintained for two decades had taken its toll on Latimer and not long after the relocation, he told the elders he’d work one more year. “I was tired and ready to go,” he says. “I was 62 by then. They never mentioned that resignation when this other thing came up.”
That “thing” was an alleged “unsavory relationship” that prompted church elders to ask Latimer “to take an unspecified amount of time off from the daily pressures of pastoral duties to expedite his healing.” In a statement to church members delivered at both services that Sunday in May, Latimer addressed rumors that “threatened to cast a shadow over my character and over our church. I would like to respond by saying that for a brief period I found myself working too closely with a female church member. While the situation was improper it did not become serious immoral conduct.” Latimer said he had repented and asked forgiveness from God, his family, and the church staff. The following Sunday he announced, “Our elders have thoroughly investigated the matter and they support me completely.”
For this interview when asked about the relationship, Latimer says, “She was up in the office all the time. I didn’t touch her. I didn’t suspect anything. She had other ideas.”
So why did he apologize if he was guilty of nothing? “I was burned out and wanted to leave and didn’t want to fight it. I didn’t write the speech,” he says. “One of the elders wrote it and I read it. I was required to. But I didn’t sign it. I really left because I didn’t want to stay.
“I loved Central," he continues. “I enjoyed everything but the last two or three years. But I was tired. So this was exactly what I wanted. If I had taken retirement, I would have had to sign a noncompete clause. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to start a new church.”
“I want to face difficulties. That’s where God is.”
On a Sunday morning in July, Reverend Jimmy Latimer stands before about 150 worshipers, most middle-aged and older, in a simple, traditional sanctuary at Redeemer Evangelical Church in Germantown. Wearing a dark blue-and-cream-striped jacket and bow tie, his silver hair neatly combed, his beard trimmed, he invites the congregation to pray. A day earlier, the George Zimmerman jury had just found the defendant not guilty.
Latimer asks God to help each person, no matter what he or she may think about the trial or its outcome, to heal the wound of racism. “We as Christians of all people should rise above this. It needs to stop. We need to stop it.”
Though he claims his delivery style hasn’t changed, Latimer's demeanor lacks the flamboyance of the Central era. But his voice is clear and sonorous, and his manner is earnest.
In his message, Latimer reminds his listeners that sometimes life is rough, that it hurts, that God doesn’t guarantee that things will be easy, but that he’ll be with us all the way. “Some people like to skate through life,” declares Latimer. “I don’t. I want to face difficulties. That’s where God is.”
Redeemer Evangelical Church, at 3100 South Houston Levee, was formed in September 2003 at the request of people who wanted Latimer to continue the ministry after he left Central Church. Asked to define evangelical — which comes from the word “messenger” — Latimer calls it “a word for Bible-believing Christians who are not in a denomination. It’s a catch-all, an alternative.” He adds that he and Redeemer’s charter members “kicked around the idea of not using ‘evangelical’ in the name because it’s identified with the Republican right, which I am not. I’m a Republican and evangelical, but not one because of the other. I didn’t buy those two things at the same time.”
“God will always bring you down to earth . . .”
Looking back over his career in the church, in one way Latimer has come full circle. His split with the Cumberland denomination was public and painful, and he says that for years, when driving around the corner and seeing the sign for Central Church, one thing was missing: the word Cumberland. Today Central remains independent, but Cumberland officials voted in 1993 to reinstate its defiant pastor. “When I tell some people what happened in 1974,” smiles Latimer, “they’ll say, ‘That was before I was born.’ They don’t care.”
Like most of us, Latimer has regrets about his life. He grieves over a daughter with addiction problems and a history of making bad decisions. “I’m about mercy and grace,” he says. “Grace means you don’t judge people, you give them slack, but you have to be careful or you end up being an enabler. That happened to me. I like to turn the light on for people. So it breaks my heart that I can’t do that for her.”
His pride in accomplishments helps ease his hurt and regret. “I’m proud that I spend 25 hours a week on my sermon, no matter what else I have to do. I’m proud of being committed to racial unity, and I don’t think we’d have this ongoing trouble if enough people would make the effort to stop it. I’m proud of founding Kirby Pines Retirement Community 30 years ago. It offers continuous care and helps people remain independent,” says Latimer who serves as its chairman of the board.
And he’s proud of his years at that mammoth round landmark on Winchester, and still has the pulpit from his mega-church days. Asked if being a celebrity ever went to his head, Latimer responds, “I tried for it not to, but it probably did. In that kind of arena you gotta be about half-bogus, you gotta entertain. The world sort of forces that on you. You can accept it or not. Some call it a heady experience. To me it was more of a headache. It was a heady time, but God will always bring you down to earth, so you don’t have to worry about it a lot. And at the end of every week is Sunday.”
Looking back at the turns his life has taken, the decisions he’s made for better or worse, this man of the cloth has known high and low moments, but he’s at peace with where he is now. “Those days at Central went by fast,” he says almost wistfully. “But today it’s a relief to be Jimmy Latimer, my own person. Not Jimmy Latimer of Central Church. I’m really good with that.”
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.