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Mendez speaks on career and life after the pulpit

Rev. Dr. John Mendez

Mendez speaks on career and life after the pulpit
November 07
00:10 2019

The Rev. Dr. John Mendez, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, will be retiring later this year. His retirement banquet was held this past Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Greek Orthodox Church.

Mendez is known as one of the most well-respected pastors in the city and his absence will leave a void in the religious community. He has been the senior pastor of Emmanuel for 36 years, but feels it’s the right time to step away from the pulpit.

During his time here in the city of Winston-Salem, Mendez has been an outspoken advocate for social justice. He has been out on the forefront of several social justice issues, such as the Darryl Hunt and Kalvin Michael Smith cases. Mendez is retiring from the pulpit, but not from his many passions outside of it.

“I think you spend most of your life building something up, you don’t want to see it die on your watch,” said Mendez. “I’ve gotten older and young people don’t respond to you as they once did. I’m okay, but I just realize I can’t do what I used to do.”

“My health is not the same and there are some other things I want to do before I get too old, so those were some of the reasons I am stepping away.”

Mendez said Emmanuel Baptist is a good situation for a younger person who is “progressive and has their head on right” to come in and “take the church to the next level.” As of now, the church has not settled on a permanent senior pastor to replace Mendez, but will begin the search soon, he said.

As he sat back and thought about his time spent at Emmanuel, Mendez couldn’t help but to recall many of the fond memories that he experienced leading this congregation forward.

“We tried to be a progressive church and we were connected with a lot of other churches, which helped us set our agenda and to know what we should be involved in,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed preaching here and I loved the exchange and learning from others. This has been a labor of love in that I have been able to learn from others, because we had such a broad section of folks involved in so many things, so that has been good. I just love preaching and that has been the pivotal point in my ministry.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev Fred Shuttlesworth were the people who inspired Mendez to enter the ministry initially, he said. “It was through Shuttlesworth’s voice that I felt like I heard the call to preach and I was inspired in such a way that’s what I wanted to be.”

Originally from New York, Mendez made his way to North Carolina by attending Shaw University in Raleigh. While there, he became involved with the Civil Rights Movement through SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the Pan-African Movement. He says his mother made him join the NAACP in the second grade, so he has been a part of the movement essentially since elementary school.

Mendez has inspired many people inside and out of the ministry and his hope was that he became a positive example for others. He said when others tell him he has inspired them, it makes him feel “valued.”

Dr. S.W. Mack Sr. led Emmanuel for 33 years prior to Mendez’s arrival. Mendez credits Mack for building such a solid foundation for him to take over and succeed with. “He did a marvelous job and he left something that somebody else would want,” said Mendez.  

“When I stepped in, they were ready to be pastored,” he said. “I introduced a lot of social justice and a lot of training and exposure as well. I organized a program in such a way that it appealed to our members intellectually, spiritually and culturally.”

Mendez wanted to reiterate the point that no one is making him leave, nor is he feeling pressure from the congregation to do so, but instead just feels it is his time. He has received mixed responses from the congregation ranging from “you deserve the rest” to “don’t go.”

Psychotherapy is Mendez’s other passion and he has a business named Mind Sight and plans on expanding that upon retirement. His goal is to focus on the inferiority complex, internal oppression issues and the pathology of racism, violence and sexism in the community. He also wants to focus on letting African Americans know their contributions to faith, history and American culture.

The legacy Mendez leaves behind will never be forgotten. He hopes he has been an example of how to do the right thing at the right time.

“I hope that I left a good example of what it means to be a pastor, not just a preacher, but a pastor who is sensitive, who cared and did not mind being radical,” he said. “And when I say radical, I mean someone who sees and envisions the change that needs to be.”

Rubbing shoulders with some of the more radical figures of the Civil Rights Movement rubbed off on Mendez, which led to his radical approach to social justice, he said.  

“The good part about rubbing shoulders with them was that I realized that life is a process and the only thing permanent is change, so my attitude was such that when the change did come, I could accept it and support it,” he continued. “I looked for change, I expect change. Some you fight for and some changes just happen, and you support it.”

That radial attitude has opened Mendez’s eyes to many issues over the years, such as the women’s movement, along with the struggle of the LGBTQ community. Mendez readily admits he was homophobic as a youth, but realized over the years that it was wrong for any demographic to be discriminated against.

“I would fight like hell against any discrimination, because I know how I felt and other blacks felt dealing with discrimination, so why would we accept it for somebody else when we wouldn’t accept it for ourselves,” he said. “That’s been my fight and it’s a no-brainer for me now, I just try to do the right thing.  It keeps me in hot water, but I’m prepared for that and if I have to experience some loss, I’m willing to do it. I don’t want to see anyone live with that kind of hurt or discrimination.”

To build upon the legacy Mendez has left, Wake Forest University Divinity School has established a scholarship fund in his name. The Dr. John Mendez Scholarship for Black Church Leadership and Social Justice Ministry will be offered to one Master’s of Divinity student per year at Wake Forest Divinity School.

“We are looking to honor his impact and make sure we have a legacy here and we are hoping to establish a $100,000 endowment in his name that would support one student and we are hoping to raise that to $250,000,” said Marina Cotarelo, assistant director of development at Wake Forest School of Divinity. “It is our hope to honor such a remarkable prophet, preacher and activist, by awarding the scholarship to a student to pursue vocational ministry within churches that presently or historically have ministered to black or African American congregations.”

Darrick Young, member of Emmanuel Baptist and close friend of Mendez, stated the idea for the scholarship originated from Shonda Jones and Jill Crenshaw of Wake Forest School of Divinity. Their goal was to recognize Mendez as an international freedom fighter.

Cotarelo said she is not from a strong faith background, but to walk into a community that has a figure such as Mendez in it, she wished she would have been here longer to experience his impact.

“I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about his impact over the years,” she said. Being able to talk to alumni who have come through the doors of Wingate and have been touched by Mendez’s style, ethos and values, they have a lot to say about him, so I am lucky enough to sit there and receive the stories they share about him.”

Cotarelo said she has “never heard anyone described the way Mendez has” and truly thinks he is “one of a kind.” She communicated quotes from former divinity school students that spoke their fondness for Mendez.

Mendez stated he will deliver his last sermon sometime in December. His impact on the Winston-Salem community will never be forgotten.

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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