Nearly a decade ago, pastor Charles Lyons of Armitage Baptist Church was preparing for a siege. Members of Armitage Baptist, a multiracial congregation in Chicago's multiethnic Logan Square neighborhood, had played a leading role in nonviolent protests at local abortion clinics. Now abortion-rights groups and activists from Queer Nation were planning a noisy reverse Operation Rescue-style protest to shut down the church's Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

Then Lyons received a call from James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, a congregation on Chicago's far South Side. Lyons, who is white, and Meeks, who is black, met about five years earlier during a Sunday school conference and quickly become friends. They pray together regularly.

Meeks asked Lyons, "Why didn't you ask me to come over and help?" That night, Meeks canceled a Bible study for 800 people at his church, loaded seven buses with members of his congregation, including a youth choir, and drove to Armitage.

Outnumbered 10 to 1, the 100 or so protesters didn't stand a chance. Once the Salem choir started singing, "the demonstrators were done for," wrote a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. "The kids were too good and too loud."

This quick action on behalf of a friend and a good cause is one reason James Meeks has risen from being a relatively unknown South Side preacher to one of the most recognizable and powerful pastors in the city.

Other reasons? Well, he has made Salem Baptist one of the largest African American churches in Chicago. It has grown from around 3,000 members in 1997 to more than 17,000 today.

Meeks is also an Illinois state senator, representing five of the poorest communities in Illinois.

He ...

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