The Rev. John Mendez was late to the first interview, 28 minutes late to be exact. It was a cold November morning, and Mendez arrived to church wearing a heavy green jacket and a driving cap. His movements were labored and his ankles were so swollen they seemed ready to burst out of his shoes.
He is 69 years old — turns 70 in January — and makes no mention of his obvious discomfort.
For the last 36 years, Mendez has pastored at Emmanuel Baptist Church — and around the world — but today, Dec. 15, will be his last day. After more than four decades of raising hell and agitating in the name of social justice and equality, Mendez is leaving the pulpit.
While there are things in his life he would like to do before he is too old to do them, he is retiring more so because he is spent.
“I woke up one morning and just said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Mendez said.
The administrative slog that comes with running a church especially wore on him in recent years, Mendez said.
It’s not that Mendez plans to relax after giving his final sermon, it’s just that he doesn’t plan on working as hard as he has been.
Maybe he’ll go spend a month with the Apache in Arizona — he’s worked with the Apache for more than 20 years in order to help them keep their lands.
Perhaps he’ll visit Harlem, where he grew up listening to famed jazz musicians and hearing the gospel preached by the Rev. O. Clay Maxwell Sr. from the pulpit of Mount Olivet Baptist Church. He will probably visit Africa again and work to spread the gospel and fight for civil rights there, as he has for decades now.
Or maybe he’ll do something less exciting than any of those things. He enjoys taking pictures, and he really wants to spend a week driving up and down the Carolina coast photographing lighthouses and eating good seafood.
Whatever he does, he knows he won’t move away from Winston-Salem because his wife Sarah wants to stay. Their two adult children, Sekou and Jamila, live in the area, and the couple wants to be near their grandchildren.
To be honest, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do because he never planned on getting this far.
“I never thought I’d live this long,” Mendez said. “If I die tomorrow, I’d have no regrets.”
Those who know him best say Winston-Salem doesn’t know what it will be losing after today. For 36 years, John Mendez has been at the forefront of fighting social injustice in this city and beyond, and now someone else will have to take up his mantle, according to those same people.
Those who know him best say they’re going to miss him. He’s going to miss them, too.
Local activist and former Winston-Salem City Council member Larry Little has known Mendez for 50 years and said he doesn’t know anyone — save for the late Rev. Carlton Eversley — who’s impacted social justice in Winston-Salem to the degree Mendez has.
“For 35 years we’ve had that man here in Winston-Salem, and Winston-Salem will never be the same,” Little said. “He’s our champion and he’s our Martin Luther King. We are so blessed to have him to lead us.”
The pair met in 1969, when Mendez was a student at Shaw University in Raleigh and Little was working with a local chapter of the Black Panther Party. It was not until the campaign to prove Darryl Hunt’s innocence in the mid ’80s that the two became directly involved in Winston-Salem issues.
“I was on the city council and I needed to get community support once I was convinced that he was innocent,” Little said. “So I met with Rev. Eversley and Rev. Mendez and told them what my investigation was revealing, and they said, ‘Larry we trust your judgment, you just tell us what we need to do.’”
Mendez, still new in his role as senior pastor at Emmanuel Baptist, went to his congregation and asked them to raise money to help investigate the Hunt case. In 1984, Hunt was wrongfully charged and convicted in the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor at The Sentinel (an afternoon newspaper that closed in 1985), and it wouldn’t be until 2004 when he was released from prison and fully exonerated. In 2016, Hunt killed himself.
There are dozens of pictures in Mendez’s office, portraits of famed civil rights leaders, memories of awards he’s received and photos of him with Native American leaders. But, Mendez’s favorite picture sits on top of his small refrigerator, a circa 2016 picture of him and Hunt.
Decades ago, Mendez compared Hunt’s case in theological terms to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat.
“Darryl’s case broke the complacency hanging over the city,” Mendez told the Journal in 1990. “It exposed all kinds of evils that were in the judicial system, the police system and the legal system.”
Moments of doubt
There was a time when Mendez lost his faith. In 1973, fresh out of Shaw University, Mendez enrolled at Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta. In the process, Mendez said he became disillusioned with the “black church.”
“There was a sense of retreat and negligence on the part of the black church that did not recognize its social responsibility,” Mendez said. “I decided I couldn’t do this anymore.”
So Mendez left school, and took a job as a custodian at Duke University Hospital in Durham. For 60 days, Mendez went to work and did his duties for $2.15 an hour. But, on the 61st day, when his probationary hiring period concluded, he was out front with flyers encouraging his fellow custodial staff coworkers and other low-wage employees to unionize for higher wages and fair treatment.
He was organizing people for their own betterment, which, Mendez said, is exactly what a pastor is supposed to do.
“The church is not just a spiritual institution, but a sociology institution as well,” he said.
It was during the ’70s at Duke Hospital that Mendez heard the Rev. Howard Thurman, a prominent civil rights leader, theologian and philosopher, speak for the first time. Thurman is perhaps best known for his book “Jesus and the Disinherited,” which deeply influenced the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. Describing him as a “black mystic,” Mendez recalled the skill of Thurman as an orator.
“I’d never heard anything like it,” Mendez said. “It seemed like every word that fell from his lips weighed a ton.”
Mendez and Thurman eventually talked, and Thurman convinced Mendez to return to seminary and become a pastor. In 1978, Mendez enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he became the pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Wendell in 1979.
Howard Thurman remains one of the most important influences in Mendez’ life, often drawing on his teachings for his own sermons and messaging. Thurman’s portrait hangs behind his desk, next to that of his boyhood pastor, the Rev. O. Clay Maxwell Sr. There is an entire shelf of Thurman books in his office, too.
Cool, progressive, energetic
The Rev. Sir Walter Mack Jr. has only had two pastors in his life — his father and John Mendez.
In 1983, Mendez arrived in Winston-Salem to pastor at Emmanuel Baptist, taking over for Mack’s father, who died a year earlier.
“One of the first things he did with me when he came was take me to go play basketball with him, and he talked to me about the loss of my father,” Mack said. “We went to go play basketball, and he talked to me about how I felt and how I was doing with that.”
Early on, Mack said, he knew Mendez would make an impact on Winston-Salem. Describing him as cool, progressive and energetic, Mack said Mendez was able to pivot Emmanuel Baptist to become a church engaged in social justice.
“He took it to another level for us to be engaged and see the power our church had to make a change in policy and procedure in areas that affected people’s lives on a daily basis,” Mack said.
For decades, Mendez jetted around the globe, protesting injustice in South Africa, Washington, the Apache reservation in Arizona and wherever else his fight took him. He’s been arrested during his civil demonstrations and has long been considered an outspoken critic of racists and racism. All through it, he’s taken his congregation with him, thrusting them into the struggle.
“I can get up in my church and say I need 100 of us to go out and march and they’re going to come,” said Dot Hill, the president of the Social Active Ministry at Emmanuel Baptist. “We do it because we know deep inside of us, because of his teachings, this is what we’re supposed to be doing. He’s been an extraordinary leader.”
“Have you ever been black?”
It’s a question John Mendez likes to ask white people. He especially enjoys asking it when a white person tries to do some sort of mental gymnastics designed to minimize or write off the struggles of black people in America.
“Well, how can you make a judgment then,” Mendez said. “It’s always crazy to me. How can you make a judgment on something you don’t know anything about?”
He has long been an outspoken advocate for racial equality — and will confront seemingly anyone who disagrees with him. Nearly 30 years ago to the day, Mendez was sitting for an interview with former Journal Reporter Freda Satterwhite at the old Mayflower Seafood Restaurant on Peters Creek Parkway. Between bites of popcorn shrimp and trout, Mendez embarked on a monologue describing the struggles of black people in America and how the United States’ Constitution had failed them.
All the while, an unidentified young white man sat in a nearby booth, back to the reverend, and listened. Eventually the man had heard enough and turned around, confronting Mendez, calling him “pretty damned prejudiced.”
Mendez, as he does, pushed back hard.
“The Constitution has been a two-way street for us,” Mendez told the man. “We are still defined as two-thirds of a man. We’ve had to get additional laws to the Constitution for our struggle.”
He’s had countless conversations like this, and will probably have many more. He aims to combat injustice anywhere and everywhere — it’s just what he does. He takes issue with how he’s been portrayed in the past, saying the papers, including the Journal, made him out to be a black nationalist who didn’t like white people. He insists that’s not the case. His only goal is to fight the social injustices he perceives in the world.
“Having been discriminated against most of my life, I don’t want to put that pain on anyone else,” Mendez said. “I take the image of God in all people seriously. That means everybody has the right to live with dignity, equality and equity.”
But the days of Mendez the firebrand are over, he said. He doesn’t have to lead the charge anymore.
“I’ve taken a background position so the younger generation can take the lead and speak out,” Mendez said. “It’s the progressive unfolding of things. I see my role as supporting, educating and encouraging younger ministers and activists to take charge of the struggle. There’s a lot of things I can’t do anymore. I would be selfish not to give it up.”
The road ahead
On Nov. 2, Mendez’s family and friends threw him a retirement party. It was the most efficient way to get everyone he knew together to celebrate his 36 years of “prophetic ministry.”
He saw people he hadn’t seen in years, and remembered the times they had together. He particularly enjoyed being reminded of the time he came face to face with a lion in Africa. Mendez said he even touched the big cat’s nose through a wildlife boundary fence.
He was given a bracelet at the party with a lion on it, symbolizing the trip. He’s worn it every day since.
“It was the most moving thing,” Mendez said about his retirement ceremony. “People came from everywhere.”
Mendez will probably come back and visit his former flock once a year, he says. Visiting more often wouldn’t be appropriate, not with a new pastor trying to make their own way. He will especially miss the music on Sundays he says — the choir is his favorite part of the church.
There are so many things he’s proud of here. The new sanctuary the church built. The outreach programs the church has started. He spoke at length about how proud he is of his congregation’s efforts to do good in the world. These last 36 years are his life’s work.
“I’m going to miss this place, these people,” Mendez said as he locked his office door. He’ll have to clean it out soon — finding a new place for hundreds of books, photographs and mementos of his life’s work.
“They made me who I am.”