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Triumph Baptist Church honors Pastor James S. Hall Jr. for 65 years of preaching and activism

PASTOR JAMES S. Hall Jr. once welcomed baseball player Jackie Robinson to his home, baptized a teenage Jesse Jackson, and led marches against segregation.

PASTOR JAMES S. Hall Jr. once welcomed baseball player Jackie Robinson to his home, baptized a teenage Jesse Jackson, and led marches against segregation.

At the time, the civil-rights movement was kindling, and Hall was in the midst of it.

"In October 1959, Jackie Robinson stayed at my house when he came to South Carolina to speak to the state NAACP conference. He couldn't stay at any of the hotels," said Hall, the founding pastor of Triumph Baptist Church in Nicetown.

At 84, Hall's journey has been a long one. It is well-documented inside the Pastor's Journey Room at the church, through awards, photos - including one of Hall with Jackson in the '70s - and a life-size cutout of Robinson in his Dodgers uniform.

On Sunday, the church will honor Hall for his 65 years as a minister and also celebrate the 47th anniversary of Triumph, which was founded in 1969 at 16th and Wingohocking Streets. The church moved to Hunting Park and Germantown Avenues nine years ago.

The anniversary celebration will include a special service at 10 a.m. Sunday, followed by a banquet at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue hotel at 6 p.m. At least 800 guests are expected.

"To have 65 years of preaching, I am so blessed I don't have words to express it," Hall said. "To come through some of the things I've come through and to be threatened as I have been [during civil rights protests], to still be alive at 84 years old, the Lord has blessed me."

He recalled the time in Greenville, S.C., in 1959 when he and his then-wife, Elizabeth, drove on to the airport. Elizabeth Hall sat down in a whites-only waiting room.

When a police officer told her to leave, Hall said, he sat down beside her. Robinson was busy at the ticket counter.

"I was thinking that something violent was about to happen when, all of a sudden, about 100 children came running into the airport. They were coming in all excited to see Jackie Robinson."

He said the children had no idea a dispute over segregation laws had been brewing.

"It's like the Bible says, God sends us angels to have charge over us," Hall said. "With the children coming to see Jackie, that stopped [police] from doing any harm to us."

At the time, Hall was 27 and pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville. A few months later, in January 1960, he led a youth group that marched silently on the airport to protest segregated waiting lounges.

Because Hall was young and talked about civil rights issues, teenagers and college students flocked to his church. One of them was a Sterling High School football player named Jesse Jackson. Hall baptized him.

Jackson has said he took part in a march Hall led on the airport and in later protests at Greenville's whites-only public library.

"He was the pastor who first introduced me to social action, Jesus, and social change and Mahatma Gandhi," Jackson told author Roger Burns in his biography of Jackson.

"Pastor Hall led a march, over much resistance from the community, because they couldn't understand why a preacher could do such things."

In 1963, Hall came to Philadelphia as the pastor of Morris Chapel Baptist Church, which he led until 1969. That year, he and 62 other members organized Triumph Baptist.

Some of Hall's anniversary celebrations began last Sunday, when the congregation surprised him with the unveiling an honorary street sign in his name: "James S. Hall Jr. Drive." "I was very honored," Hall said.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced the resolution naming the 1600 block of Hunting Park Avenue for Hall in recognition of his decades of preaching and service.

"Rev. Hall's ministry at Triumph has extended far beyond the pulpit," Bass said. "His long history of community involvement and leadership has positively impacted the surrounding neighborhood and improved the quality of life for all its residents."

Triumph is planning to build 103 homes for senior citizens on church-owned land in Logan, and Hall frequently sends formerly incarcerated people to job interviews at the ShopRite grocery on Fox Street.

Hall was born in Marion, S.C., in 1932; both his father and grandfather were preachers.

He said he felt a calling to preach when he was 9, but didn't tell his father until after he'd graduated from high school.

As a third-generation minister in his family, he is proud that two of his four children are also ministers. A grandson is the fifth-generation preacher in the family.

His older daughter, the Rev. Cathy Johnson, is an assistant minister at Triumph, and his younger son, the Rev. Phillip Hall, is pastor of Love Missionary Baptist Fellowship Church in Ogontz.

His older son, James Anthony Hall, retired after 21 years in the Air Force, and his younger daughter, Wanda Lowe, teaches at a day-care center. Hall's grandson Phillip Hall Jr., 25, starts seminary school next fall.

Frances Stallings, Triumph's fiscal manager, said the congregation, which has about 5,000 members, admires Hall.

"He's a people person," Stallings said. "He listens, he cares. He will do anything for anyone. He's so genuine in what he does. He's a God-fearing man."