Ninety-year-old pastor Rev. Shelvin Jerome Hall preached his final service at historic Friendship Baptist Church 5200 W Jackson Blvd. Nov. 11. In doing so, he ended one of the longest tenures ever for a religious figure in the state’s history and brought to a close a career that helped change the role of church in civil rights.
When Rev. Hall first arrived at Friendship Baptist Church in 1955, the church was at its initial location at Ada and State, and suffering from severe financial hardship. The treasury was nearly bankrupt, and there was doubt as to whether the church would remain open. Not only did Hall’s arrival help revitalize the church’s finances (through his keen refinancing strategies), but his work allowed the church to move (to Damen and Washington) a mere three years later.
In the 1960s, he was one of the only pastors to allow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the church despite threats of harsh penalties from City Hall.
Rev. Hall himself recalls, “The work I did with Dr. King was certainly one of the highlights of my career at the church. He was a great friend of mine at the time, and I used to visit him in Alabama regularly during the same period. When he came to Chicago, I was going to let him speak, no matter what the consequence would be.
“We needed to build a new platform for King outside of the church. Over 10,000 attended to hear him speak. It was a watershed moment,” recalled Hall.
In addition to marching alongside Dr. King, Rev. Hall was also involved with the tumultuous racial climate of 1965 when he led a group of clergy through the West Side to defuse race riots and restore peace to the community.
Reverend Hall and his wife, Lucy, a retired school teacher, are the parents of three children and the grandfather of one. Each is equally successful in their own right, exhibiting their father’s desire to help those around them.
His daughter, Shelvin Louise Hall, is an Illinois Appellate Court judge and another daughter, L. Priscilla Hall, sits on the New York State Supreme Court. Their youngest brother, Lewis J. Hall, is a supervisor of higher education for New York State.
Lewis is the only one with a child, Naima Lillian Hall, who is currently studying for her master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Michigan. Naima spent two years in the Peace Corps as a teacher in Africa.
She might have been inspired by her grandfather’s church. Built in the image of a traditional African hut-with various woods for its pews imported from Mozambique and bricks engraved with names of financial contributors-many of whom were part of the congregation, the church was a labor of love that reflects both Rev. Hall’s vision and dedication to the West Side.
“I had seen structures built in the image of Irish and German structures,” said Rev. Hall. “Why shouldn’t the people of the West Side have a church that proudly stands as a representation of their origin?”
Building the church, however, was considered impossible at best, as it was estimated to carry a $1 million price tag. However, Reverend Hall never lost faith and once the money was raised the curtain was raised on the new church.
Now he has reached the curtain call of his amazing 51-year run. He approved of his successor at the church, Rev. Reginald Bachus, who impressed Rev. Hall.
“I know more about preachers than anyone, and I felt very comfortable with him,” said Rev. Hall of Bachus. “He has very successful kids as well, and he comes from a wonderful family.”
Hall still hopes to create a new trade school for the West Side on church-owned property, which runs roughly from Laramie/Jackson to Laramie/Quincy.
Hundreds of community residents and church supporters attended his final Sunday service. The sermon essentially focused on “gratitude,” both for his congregation and his community.
Appropriately, it was titled, “Unfinished Song.”