photography by Brandon Dill
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.”
“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.