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.
photography by Brandon Dill
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He drives a 2012 chevy impala, a step-down from the BMW of an earlier era. He likes to travel by Amtrak, and rides his Trek bike three miles a day. He’s a Bible scholar with a wealth of books to prove it, but he relaxes with crime and intrigue novels by W.E.B. Griffin and Greg Iles. He loves history, opera, and classical music.
He believes animals go to heaven and says it’s not his job to say what people are going to hell. He’s a Republican who nonetheless votes for U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen. He’s been a minister for 51 years, yet when “properly motivated” he can use some choice words in Memphis traffic.
In short, for a man who some call “a redneck Bible thumper,” Reverend Jimmy Latimer is quite a complex character. He’s made headlines more than once, the first in 1974 when the church he pastored — Central Cumberland Presbyterian, located for years on Linden near downtown — split from the mother denomination and became the independent Central Church. While some within the Cumberland ranks hoped that Central would crash and burn, they instead saw membership soar. And in 1981, when the congregation of 1,800 moved to their gigantic new headquarters in the Hickory Hill area of southeast Memphis, that monument to the Bible as the inerrant word of God made “mega-church” a household word.
Two decades later, when Central relocated to Collierville, Latimer again drew notoriety, this time for what church elders called “an unsavory relationship” with a female staff member. Though their pastor stood before the congregation and asked forgiveness, today he claims no wrongdoing and adds, “I was tired. I didn’t want to fight it.”
The father of two grown children, and a husband who recently celebrated 50 years of marriage to his wife, Catherine, the 73-year-old minister now leads worship on a smaller, quieter scale. Ten years ago this month he founded Redeemer Evangelical Church, located (ironically) just a mile or so from Central.
Latimer is more subdued than when he held forth in that vast arena. But he’s just as fervent about his message. At the same time he acknowledges a metamorphosis — one that has led to new understanding about everything from race relations and homosexuality to how Satan manifests himself and what makes God laugh. Older, somewhat mellowed, still intense about the saving grace of Jesus Christ, Latimer looks back on five decades as an evangelical minister. Some of his thoughts might surprise you.
“We expected you to flash, crash, and die.”
Growing up in Union City, Tennessee, Latimer has roots going back to 1810 in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a denomination that broke away from Presbyterians because of theological differences. (For one thing, Cumberlands opposed the doctrine of predestination, which held that certain people are destined from birth for heaven or hell.) Though his father was a car salesman, Latimer had a couple of preachers in his family tree. An uncle by marriage was a missionary to China and knew Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth. Centuries earlier, around 1555, Bishop Hugh Latimer was burned at the stake in England for his Protestant leanings.
Jimmy Latimer knew he wanted to be a preacher by the time he was 15. He studied at Bethel College, a Cumberland-based school in McKenzie,Tennessee, and received his Master of Divinity from the Cumberland-founded Memphis Theological Seminary. In 1965 he was named pastor of the 180-member church on Linden at Dudley, Central Cumberland Presbyterian.
The next decade was marked by turbulent racial conflicts and huge cultural shifts, and Latimer saw changes he didn’t like taking hold within his denomination. The World Council of Churches, which stressed cooperation and understanding between religious institutions and which opponents considered Communist-inspired, was a powerful influence of that era. In Latimer’s opinion, as well as those of other fundamentalist preachers, that influence was pushing Christians away from their commitment to “saving souls” toward what they considered a watered-down social gospel.
After nine years of butting heads with Cumberland authorities and seeing a growing schism within his congregation, Latimer led his flock out of the denomination in 1974 and was ultimately “defrocked” as a Cumberland minister. By then, Central had moved from Linden to 6311 Poplar in East Memphis, and before long was breaking ground on the Hickory Hill facility. In late March 1981, worshipers gathered in droves at the colossal complex on Winchester Road. As a Cumberland leader told Latimer years later, “We expected you to flash, crash, and die, and we’d pick up the pieces. Instead you grew like crazy.”
Worshipers — up to 7,000 strong at one time — filled the 4,200-seat worship center designed like a coliseum. In fact when an old friend of Latimer’s first laid eyes on the church, he remarked, “This looks like where the early Christians were thrown to the lions!”
But these twentieth-century Christians came not to be eaten but to be fed the gospel by a literalist preacher who then and now believes not just that the Bible contains the word of God, but that “the Bible is the word of God.” His style was described with these words in a 1984 article in the Commercial Appeal’s Mid-South Magazine: “Louder the preacher’s voice echoes as he stands before his people. His arms slice the air like a cop’s regulating traffic to heaven. Faster, he paces the stage as he warns and woos his congregation.”
Asked what he thinks drew such a large and eager flock, Latimer says, “I didn’t have a visitation program. I didn’t write books. I wasn’t on TV. But I think people were hungry for Bible teaching. [One member] told me, ‘I don’t go to church to hear about politics or philosophy, but how Jesus helped Paul make it through the storm. If he could help Paul, he could help me.’”
“A remarkably inspiring and passionate pastor . . .”
Latimer believes every facet of good ministry can be found in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John. The passage relates the story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well asking for water — and he tells her he can give her living water. “Need-centered ministry is at the core of what Jesus did,” says Latimer. “When he fed the 5,000 he didn’t just feed, he used the bread as a platform to talk about eternal things. That’s what I want to do.” Inside that huge facility, Central offered countless “need-centered” programs for members. “We had something for divorced and singles, for single parents both male and female, for battered wives and people addicted to gambling.”
Gradually benevolence programs extended beyond church walls. Central began supporting the Memphis Union Mission and the Calvary Rescue Mission, both of which help the homeless and those with drug addictions.
In 1987, under Latimer’s leadership, Central stepped forward to co-found the Church Health Center, now a national model for providing healthcare to the working poor. Explaining Central’s commitment to the CHC, Latimer says, “I had a member named Frank Flautt who had $100,000 he wanted to give to an inner-city ministry. So I called Frank McRae, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist. Now, Frank and I are as opposite theologically as you can get,” says the fundamentalist Latimer of the liberal McRae, “but he knows the inner city, he preached right there in the heart of it, and I knew he could direct me. He told me to put that money in the bank, that he was working on an idea and he’d get back to me.”
The next year McRae called Latimer and said, “I’ve got a young man here from Atlanta I want you to meet.” That man was Dr. Scott Morris, who brought his dream for this ministry to Memphis; he still serves as the CHC’s executive director, and has overseen its phenomenal growth. “We met at Leonard’s Barbecue and Frank and Scott tried to eat health food — they didn’t do too well with that,” laughs Latimer. “Anyway, Scott told me we need $125,000, and I said I’d give $25,000 in addition to [Flautt’s] $100,000, and that helped provide the first building for the Center.”
Today Morris describes Latimer as a “remarkably inspiring and passionate pastor who has had a vision that has affected thousands of lives. Jimmy helped the deacons of Central Church understand what the healing ministry of the [CHC] would be about. He has from time to time continued with financial support and also sent a number of people to us that we have been able to help.”
“We didn’t go to bars and drag gay people out and put pink T-shirts on them.”
To the surprise of some Latimer detractors and the dismay of some church members, the pastor also welcomed into his home gay people who had expressed an interest in talking to him about their lifestyle. “For about 10 years on Sunday nights, we had an average of 18 people, in their 20s, who’d come to the house. We didn’t go to the bars and drag them out and put a pink T-shirt on them. We gave them a point to be loved.”
This outreach started when Latimer helped bring Love in Action to Memphis, when the group wanted to leave its base in San Francisco. But he broke with the ex-gay Christian ministry because “I never believed or liked the idea that you could [force change] on someone. We divested ourselves of the program.
“The kids I worked with,” Latimer continues, “didn’t want to be gay. They didn’t think they were born that way. They had situations in their lives, molestations, that they believed caused them to be homosexual or lesbian. So I told the congregation one Sunday that we didn’t want to make a big splash about this but if there were people who wanted to talk to me or counselors about their lifestyle, they could come to us. We wanted the church to know in case there were rumors about it.”
Not long after that, Latimer received a visitor to his office who had been in church that Sunday the announcement was made. The young man told the pastor that his first reaction was “my church is going to met my need!” Then he got in the car where his father furiously declared, “That’s the last time we go to that church!”
Today Latimer says, “I don’t have all the answers, but we tried to help where we could.” Though he still believes homosexuality is wrong, he adds, “So is adultery. So is divorce. But Christ is the Savior and Christ is the judge.”