For the past 13 years, the Rev. LARRY LEWIS has been a fixture at Champaign’s 176-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church — preaching the Gospel, leading services and hosting a ministry that helps former inmates start over after prison.
At the end of this month, Lewis plans to step down from all this work — including his seat as chairman of the board for the Housing Authority of Champaign County — and retire to Richmond, Texas.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell caught up with the 67-year-old former East St. Louis Lincoln wrestler to talk about his life, ministry and what comes next.
Let’s start at the beginning. How were you called to become a pastor?
I originally wanted to be a medical doctor when I was a kid.
While I was attending the University of Illinois, I lived with two roommates who were my close friends. Years later, when we were in our early 40s, as one of them was undergoing marriage problems, we got together to take an objective look at each other’s lives.
One roommate became a good lawyer, and a judge told him he was capable of becoming more than an attorney. He told him to set his eye on becoming a judge or run for mayor of East St. Louis.
He told me about the difficulty of trying to run a law practice. If he set his fee lower than the white attorneys, people would assume he was an inferior lawyer and not hire him. If he set his fee equivalent to the white attorney, they went to the white attorney anyway. If he set his fee higher, they wouldn’t hire him because they couldn’t afford it.
I told him to move to the East or West Coast and get into contract law.
My other roommate always wanted to be a millionaire and had 13 brothers and sisters. Two of his siblings had become millionaires. I told him, “No guts, no glory.” You do all your research but never take a chance. I told him to take a chance and become what he desired in life.
Then I told my two roommates I didn’t know what I was supposed to be. They turned to me and said I was supposed to be a preacher. I went home, and that night had an epiphany. God actually called me into the ministry.
What brought you to Bethel?
I worked in Springfield with the Illinois Bureau of Disability Determination Services and took an early retirement after 33½ years of service there when I came here.
I was a senior public service administrator for the Social Security disability program. I had administrative responsibility for one-fourth of the state of Illinois. We made decisions as to whether people met the criteria to qualify for Social Security disability. I took early retirement and moved from Springfield to here.
Abut 13 years ago, I was commuting between Springfield and Davenport, Iowa, on weekends to serve as a pastor there. I needed to eat, and I had children to put through college with my great job. When the pastorship at Bethel became open, they could not get anybody to come here. This was considered a difficult church to pastor.
I said: If you can’t get anybody to go there, I’ll go. I got the job. I would give it 100 percent and either be a success or a failure.
What ministry are you proudest of here in Champaign?
It would have to be a ministry called First Followers. a re-entry program. People with felony convictions face many obstacles and have trouble getting their life together. Some have difficulty living in public housing. Many of them have trouble getting jobs. Many of them need peer mentoring. Some have the temptation to commit another crime.
I opened up the church and allowed First Followers to run the program here. We gave them a van they could use for transportation to get to jobs and visit those in prison. We have served about 300 men and women. Now, people come to Bethel almost every day.
What’s it like performing a baptism?
It is the greatest feeling in the world. It is the ultimate end of life. God has already provided a remedy for us, if we take it.
When I baptize someone, a thousand angels in heaven rejoice.
Why are you leaving Bethel?
I am retiring, and the first thing I am going to do is relax. We are not meant to work all of our lives — or else we die on our job. I want to retire while I still have strength and vitality.
There are some unaccomplished things I would like to accomplish in life, and you cannot accomplish those things while you are holding down a job.
I want to travel and spend more time with my grandkids. I want to go to Africa. I want to go to Israel. I would like to go to the Bahamas.
A pastor has too many unexpected crises to deal with to plan trips like that. When I accepted a call to ministry, my time and my life no longer belonged to me. It belongs to God so I could take care of his people.
How did you meet your wife, Delores?
Delores recently retired after a career with the Secretary of State office in Springfield. I grew up in East St. Louis. My mother and father were divorced, so I would go to Chicago to visit my father for the summer, and Delores lived just across the street from my dad.
I was a freshman in college when I met her, and she was a junior in high school. For our first date, we went to eat at the corner restaurant. In Chicago, you have all these ethnic restaurants, and we went to one of them. We got married in 1980, and we have three children. Two of them are identical twins.
We understand you were quite a wrestler at East St. Louis Lincoln High School.
I was involved in long-distance races in track and cross country, but those sports were just opportunities for me to get in shape for my primary sport, which was wrestling.
I started wrestling at 112 pounds and later wrestled at 120 pounds, 127 pounds and 130 pounds. My senior year, I pretty much beat everybody. My chief rival turned out to be a wrestler from Wood River High School. I was undefeated and beating him 25 to nothing, and I was trying to put a figure four on him. My coach said I was too high and should give him one point for an escape. But I wasn’t giving him nothing.
With a few seconds left on the clock, my opponent came out of the back door, reversed me and pinned me. I didn’t face the wrestler from Wood River again until my last match.
We were wrestling at home, at East St. Louis. He was undefeated, and I had this one loss. The day before the big match was our high school prom, and I got drunk on prom night. The next morning, my practice partner on my high school team beat me and told me the Wood River guy was going to beat my behind.
As we stared at one another, I told him, “I’m not going to beat you. I’m going to bruise you.” I was beating him 27 to nothing and once again, the Wood River wrestler came out the back door. This time, I gave him that one point and won 27 to 1. I broke that guy’s spirit, and he never won another match the rest of the season.
While I had a great senior year, I graduated a mid-term from high school so I could enroll at the University of Illinois, so I never had an opportunity to wrestle at the state finals at the Assembly Hall.