He has preached in the streets across from the White House, but never inside it. As a young assistant pastor in Texas, he stood up to Lyndon Johnson and prevailed. In pursuit of what he perceived as a human rights issue, he inadvertently helped elect John F. Kennedy president.
Now, after 12 years of what by any standard must be viewed as a highly successful pastorate here, the Rev. Dr. Herbert Meza, 57, has resigned one of his denomination's choicest assignments, the Church of the Pilgrims at 22nd and P streets NW. The resignation, was not prompted by disaffection on either side nor by irresistible job offers elsewhere but by Meza's conviction that "it's time to move on."
"I'd never stayed anywhere longer than five years before I came here," Meza said of his conviction that a thriving ministerial career requires frequent repotting. "Several times I've wanted to leave here but there always was unfinished business."
Now, with the church debt he had inherited paid off, a quarter of a million dollars in the bank to boot, and a vigorous congreation deeply involved in ministry to the wider community as well as to its own spirtual life, Meza believes he should seek a post elsewhere. He has "a number of irons in the fire," he said, but no definite idea of where he will go.
In his dozen years here, Meza has rarely made the headlines, yet his ministry at the Church of the Pilgrims through the bewildering '70s was anything but ordinary.
"I came here the year Washigton burned," he recalled for a visitor in a look back at his ministry here. "I thought I was coming to Camelot, and the day I came Robert Kennedy was assassinated."
-- His ministry here spanned "10 years of antiwar activity," he recalled. "I have preached in the streets" -- in Lafayett Square across from the White House -- "and I've preached in 100 churches" of the Southern Presbyterian Church across the country.
In 1971, Meza was one of 50 American church leaders who traveled to Paris to meet with international negotiators seeking an end to war in Vietnam. "As an ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts, my pacifist convictions did not come cheaply," he said.
Nevertheless, his reputation as a peacemaker was so firmly fixed that at his farewell service last Sunday, his congregation formaily established the Meza Lecture Fund for Peace and International Missions.
The Church of the Pilgrims is only two blocks west of Dupont Circle, which was to become the magnet for hippie and antiwar counterculture during the Vietnam era. The church responded with the Mustard Seed, a center that offered food, housing, counseling and assistance to runaways.
For a different constituency, the church made its facilities available for a Head Start program that still is thriving. When neighbors, more oriented to property values than works of charity, protested, Meza and his staff battled for the zoning variance that kept the school open.
The presbyterian Church in the U.S., better known as the Southern Presbyterian Church, built Church of the Pilgrims 40 years ago as a sort of denominational toe-hold in the nation's capital.
Under Meza's leadership, it has been transformed from a "a Presbyterian fortress," he contends, into a center of ministry and serivce. The handsome, rambling building houses several service agencies, including the D.C. Providers Council and the Council of Agencies, the Seller Door Thrift Shop for the benefit of the Head Start program, and provides space for two weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Meza if fond of saying that his ministry is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Over the years, his efforts to proclaim what he believes the Gospel has to say about political issues has attracted a particular kind of congregation.
"They are highly educated, overwhelmingly college graduates, middle class, 80 percent white, mostly government workers -- but no members of Congress," he says of his flock. "People who come are people who do their own thinking. They are not there for status; they are not there to be comforted," he added.
Meza, who has lectured and taught part time in theological schools during his pastorate, believes a minister must earn the right to take unpopular positions. "You have to be a good pastor," he said. In his next to last sermon, he recalled that he had been in the homes of 90 percent of the congregation's 370 members.
Last year, the congreation decided to repair its valuable Skinner organ. "They told us it cost $85,000 to have it repaired," Meza said. "So we hired a man who would show us how to do it ourselves." Church members contributed 26,000 man-hours to the seven-month repair project and completed the task for $20,000.
Capital funds were needed, both for the organ and other repairs. In the spirit of the Gospel, "we decided it was not possible for us to raise funds for ourselves without giving some to others in need," Meza said.
They raised $65,000 and used $20,000 each for the organ and for the building repairs and sent the remaining $25,000 to a vocational training school in Hati. This month, 20 members of Church of the Pilgrims will go to Haiti to help fix up the school.
"All my life I've tried to fight against barriers of any kind," Meza said. It was that philosophy that led him, in 1960, to set up the historic meeting of John F. Kennedy with the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to discuss Kennedy's views of the Constitution in light of his Roman Catholic faith.
Meza, then associate pastor of a suburban Houston church, took on then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, who sought to make political hay out of the meeting. Meza, who was program chairman of the ministers' group, fighting to keep control of his meeting, notified Johnson that if he and Sam Rayburn insisted on taking part in the meeting, the clergy would boycott it. Johnson backed down and Kennedy's assurance to the largely Baptist gathering that his Catholicism would not dictate his politics as president has been credited by historians with a substantial assist in deciding the election.