When he was 10 years old, the Rev. James Hodge Sr. heard the Gospel from a white missionary who crossed the racial barriers in his small Mississippi town to teach Sunday school and deliver the message of salvation.
That inspired Hodge, who later in life earned his living as a social worker in Hennepin County but spent most of his time in the ministry breaking down walls and bringing people together.
Hodge founded the nondenominational First Communion Christian Church in Minneapolis in 1953 hoping to reach people of all races, creeds, ethnic groups and socioeconomic status with the Gospel. He served as its volunteer pastor for 55 years.
"He was not preaching to the choir; he was reaching a lot of people who were unchurched," said his son Richard, of Minneapolis. "He never drew a salary. He put way more money into the church."
James Hodge, of south Minneapolis, died of pneumonia on April 22 at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. He was 89.
James was born in Corinth, Miss., but by the time he was 15 both of his parents had died. He hunted, fished and sold peanuts to survive while finishing high school. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces in liberating the Philippines. He earned a Combat Infantry Badge, Good Conduct Medal and combat ribbons before he was honorably discharged as a private first class for medical reasons in 1945.
He used money from the G.I. Bill to earn a sociology degree from the University of Minnesota and study under the Rev. Billy Graham at Northwestern Bible Institute, now known as Northwestern College in Roseville.
For two years he served as an associate pastor at north Minneapolis' Zion Baptist Church before starting First Communion Christian Church. As lead pastor, he drove buses to pick up kids for Sunday school, provided clothes to the needy, distributed Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets for the needy and visited prison inmates.
"He was like a father to us," said longtime friend and church member Willie May Arradondo-Powell. "He loved helping others, and it did not care what color they were. He was kind, generous and a spiritual man who was about teaching the world, and he did it through action."
First Communion was never a big congregation, but its influence was felt across south Minneapolis, Arradondo-Powell said. It touched former Minneapolis schools superintendent Richard Green who attended Sunday school at Hodge's church, Richard Hodge said. But mainly, First Communion was a melting pot where minorities and whites could meet to study the Bible.
At its peak, the church had 200 members who assembled at such places as the Downtown Minneapolis YMCA, the Blaisdell Avenue YMCA, in basements of other churches and in a building on 38th Street and 4th Avenues S. Sometimes Hodge even held services in his home.
His church work was done on top of his full-time job as a senior social worker in Hennepin County's Human Services and Public Health Department from 1954 to 1986. He also was a devoted member of the NAACP, the YMCA and other civic organizations, Richard Hodge said.
Above all, he treasured his family.
"James was a man who enjoyed his children. He was active in school functions, attended sporting events, music events and teacher conferences," said daughter Laura Randolph, of Mableton, Ga. "He made sure they had art lessons from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, piano lessons and flute lessons. But more importantly, he taught them about their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."
Hodge also is survived by his wife of 59 years, Maryann, of Minneapolis; daughters Julianne Hayes, of Smyrna, Ga., and Sharon Hodge of Minneapolis; sons Thomas Hodge of Austell, Ga., and James Jr. of Eagan, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.