Nobody believed J.H. Flakes Jr. had been called to preach. Even his wife, Robena said, "no way God would call you."
There was good reason for the skepticism. The young Flakes, married at 17, had dropped out of South Girard high school and made his living doing various jobs such as washing cars, delivering groceries and being a short order cook. Most of the few dollars he earned were spent on alcohol and gambling.
"I was not a good husband or father. I did not take care of my family," he said. "It was a tough time."
Eventually, his despair would land him in a hospital. "I went to a cabinet one day and took out a bottle of something with a skull and crossbones on it," he said.
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It was while he was undergoing a "miraculous recovery" from this low point that he came to believe he had been saved to serve God.
In order to validate that he had been called to preach, he prayed to God to give him a son. There were only girls in the immediate family on his father's side and nobody to carry on the Flakes name.
When his wife became pregnant, Flakes Jr. said he knew the child was a boy even though others, including the midwife delivering the child, kept insisting it would be a girl.
In a special service Sunday at 3 p.m., that son, the Rev. J.H. Flakes III, will take over as pastor of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus where his father has been pastor for 50 years.
"It is a humbling experience taking over for one of the greatest pastors in the country," Flakes III said. "It is like a football coach trying to replace Bear Bryant. My father leaves a legacy of honesty, integrity and service to the people. I have learned so much from him in terms of leadership style in how to shepherd a flock. He has taught me how to listen and how to be compassionate."
He said he has also learned that the church does not belong to the people but to God, and that he should stay true to the mission of Christ and the gospel.
"I feel very comfortable and thankful that the congregation will be led by my son," Flakes Jr. said. "He came to the church five years ago. He got to know the membership. They have bonded and believe he is the right person."
Flakes Jr. worked as youth minister at Fourth Street Missionary Baptist before he became pastor. When he began as pastor at the church, he was driving each week to Nashville, Tenn., to get his degree from American Baptist College. He is chair of the board of trustees at the school and a building there bears his name.
As for Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church, it has grown from about 600 members when Flakes Jr. took over to near 3,000. Flakes III would like to see even more growth.
The 55-year-old Flakes III has been working as a co-pastor with his father at both Fourth Street Missionary Baptist and Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Phenix City for the past five years. Flakes Jr. has served as pastor at Good Hope for 53 years.
Flakes III said he recently had a congregant tell him that when he preaches they see his father, the similar voice inflection, the same hand mannerisms.
The big difference, Flakes III said, is that while his father has used no props other than a bible through the years, he is more likely to use technology such as a PowerPoint presentation. He added that he is comfortable with his own style of leadership.
The father and grandfather of Flakes Jr. were both pastors. Early, he had no interest in following in their footsteps. Likewise, Flakes III had no intention to preach. He was a star athlete at Tuskegee University and was climbing the corporate ladder working for a company aiding chemically dependent adolescents. "I felt that was my calling," he said.
But in the 1980s he began to get the urge to preach and could not fight it. He got a Master's of Divinity degree from Morehouse College. He was preaching in Atlanta when he returned home.
Anyone who has been in this area for any time knows Flakes Jr., 77, is more than just a preacher. He has been a leader for social justice in the area.
During the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, Flakes Jr. served as president of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People which brought threats to both him and the church. He played a key role in the founding of service organizations the Urban League of Greater Columbus as well as One Columbus.
Flakes III said that as a child he was slightly aware of some of those threats. "I always felt my father knew what was best."
Recalling those civil rights struggles, Flakes Jr. said, "I was very vocal and considered a troublemaker by many. I thought I was doing what I was called by God to do and that is speaking out against things that were wrong. Community activism is part of the church. Jesus was the most fervent activist."
He still believes "God expects us to be one" and continues the fight for equality.
Flakes Jr. said that through the years he has had chances to lead larger churches in larger cities but never wanted to leave. "Columbus is a great place. I've never regretted staying here," he said.