Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr., “pastor to the city of Chicago”, was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, son of a delta sharecropper. He received the call to the ministry at the age of 9, and came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, suffering violence at the hands of Mississippi racists, and involving himself with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Rev. Martin earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Philander Smith College (Little Rock, Arkansas) in 1967, then attended Payne Theological Seminary (Wilberforce, Ohio) and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, Illinois), from which he earned his Master of Divinity degree in 1971. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Monrovia College (Monrovia, Liberia) in 1986, an academic Doctor of Ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary (Chicago, Illinois) and an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2009.
Ordained a Methodist pastor, Rev. Martin spent the first twenty years of his career at two Methodist churches, one on the west side, and the other on the south side. But in his own words, “…I could not accept the ‘stricture’ in the Methodist structure, …I loved tMethodist Church, but you could spend your entire life doing committee work, and never do ministry. From this board to that board, from this council to that committee, and I was dying in terms of what I felt God had called me to do."
In 1981 he told the Bishop he was leaving. He had to surrender all his ministerial credentials. "… I told him, 'Fine, I'll start over…” And he did.That same year he accepted the call to become senior pastor of Progressive Community Center – The People’s Church, where he has served from that time to the present.
Community and Spiritual Leadership
Pastor Martin is known far and wide in Chicago and beyond as an exceptional community leader, working tirelessly to heal the social, psychological and spiritual wounds that abound. To his flock at Progressive, and in the community at large, he is a larger-than-life personality, respected and beloved because he respects and loves you.
Here is a timeline glimpse of Rev. Martin’s impact outside the walls of Progressive
1979 - Appointed to a 2-year term as Executive Director of the Chicago chapter of Black United Methodist Church Renewal.
1980-1982 - Served as Executive Director of the Chicago Southside Branch of the NAACP, the nation’s largest, of which he again served as President from 1985-1987. (Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1985)
1983-87 - Progressive was the home church of Mayor Harold Washington (Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1985), and Pastor Martin was the mayor’s spiritual mentor, either dining with or on the telephone with the mayor every day he was in office. While seeking election in 1983, Mayor Washington received a blessing from Rev. Martin at Progressive’s altar railing. (picture) At his funeral, Rev. Martin delivered an impassioned and eloquent eulogy (see excerpts at end of page). (http://www.nbcuniversalarchives.com/nbcuni/clip/5112537722_010.do) After his death, the Chicago press turned to Pastor Martin when they needed to find out “what Harold would have thought”.
1986-87 – Served on the Board of Directors, Chicago Housing Authority
1987-88 – Served as Chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority where he inherited facilities which housed tens of thousands of Chicago residents in increasingly-poor conditions. Because the facilities were already destined for demolition, no money was being spent on upkeep and repairs, and people were living in squalid conditions. The city pointed to the federal government; the federal government pointed to the city. Rev. Martin at one point chained himself to the offices of the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development in order to bring attention to the immediate needs of those under his care. (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-04-17/news/8803090921_1_resign-board-rev-b-herbert-martin)
1988-89 – Appointed by Mayor Eugene Sawyer as Chairman of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations
1990s – Rev. Martin worked with Dominic DiFrisco of the Old Neighborhood Italian American Club of Bridgeport to strive for healing across the racial divide. Reaching across the Dan Ryan Expressway into the Bridgeport neighborhood, he worked house by house and block by block to bridge the gap, both racial and physical. (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 29, 2000)
1997-98 – Rev. Martin spearheaded an effort to emphasize healing, reconciliation and the need for forgiveness in light of the beating by white youths of Lenard Clark in the Armour Square neighborhood west of the Dan Ryan. A prayer vigil was held at Progressive, attended by 1500; the parents of Frank Caruso, convicted in the beating, attended. Martin's plea for Caruso triggered "the biggest division in the black community since Harold Washington's death, when Eugene Sawyer and Timothy Evans ran for mayor.” (Chicago Reporter, April 1999.
1998 – In light of increased gang violence and a drug war at the Robert Taylor Homes, Rev. Martin led “Operation Safe Passage”, using men as human shields to escort children to nearby elementary schools as attendance began to plummet. The program attracted attention nationwide by bringing in men from all areas of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, and by shattering myths about African-American men. The shooting stopped and the gangs called a ceasefire in the face of the show of force. “We drew a line and said enough is enough.” – Rev. Martin (Christian Science Monitor, Wednesday, January 28, 1998, National Edition)
2000 – Rev. Martin joins Cardinal Francis George in a march organized by the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention to curb gun violence by establishing “cease-fire” zones in the city. (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 2, 2000)
2006 – Co-chaired the African-American/Jewish Seder, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, Urban League and Leaders United.
2007 - For years, Rev. Martin has been a leader in promoting inter-faith cooperation. One example; his participation in the Interfaith Thanksgiving Observance hosted each year by the National Conference for Community and Justice of Chicago and Greater Illinois. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 15, 2007).
Excerpts from Rev. Martin’s eulogy for Harold Washington, November, 1987
(Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 2007, the 20th anniversary of the mayor’s death)
Harold Washington is the compendium of all our historical struggles as black people in America. He is the epitome of all of our present achievements and a symbol of all of our future aspirations and yearnings and promise. Our loss is great and our grief is real.
It is not how long one lives, but how well one lives: Harold lived his life well. He loved life and he lived it to the full; every moment counted for something good and noble for somebody else, giving his all to life and taking little for himself.
Harold was tough. Some folks would even say he was kind of mean. Sometimes Harold would make you think that he was as mean as a junkyard dog, but beneath all that toughness was the real Harold, a compassionate, seriously committed human being, warm and gracious and willing to share his all.
Harold was a no-nonsense person. He didn't have time for foolishness, he didn't have time for inefficiency.
Harold Washington had tremendous intellectual capacity that was also accompanied by a prolific vocabulary with which to express himself. He could speak the King's English par excellence but he also had a working knowledge of the 47th Street black dialect. Oh, yes, he could, Harold could fuss and cuss black-folk style. He knew how to talk to black people. He knew how to talk about black people. And baby, you better believe me, he knew how to talk for black people. He never left home.
He was deeply spiritual, not religious. A lot of religious folks are going straight to hell. He was deeply spiritual, not sanctimonious, but deeply spiritual. He would always visit other churches, storefronts and cathedrals. He would even go to churches where he was not welcome. Harold tried to heal wounds and to bridge the gap that separated Chicago, to heal the wounds of racial and ethnic groups.
Now there is little that we can say or do to add or detract from Harold's record of service, for he alone has so nobly lived, served and died. Harold Washington has done all that he can do to help us.
For many people, both black and white, these frightening signs of our times send them into states of paralyzing depression, pessimism, resignation and despair. But, for those of us who are of a reform mind, I say to you that the darkness of this present hour, the difficulties of this present time are only opportunities for us to strike a blow for freedom, self-determination and justice for all.
For here, Harold Washington, even in death, has called us to our final summit meeting in this place. So let us seize this magic moment as our final salute to our chief, to rededicate ourselves to the task of a strong and aggressive reform in the city of Chicago.