By 1961, James T. Gilliam had already lived quite a life.
Growing up in the Hill District and Homestead, Mr. Gilliam had served in the Navy during the Korean War. He returned home to Pittsburgh, took a job with the U.S. Post Office, found the love of his life, Alma; they married in 1956 and moved from the city to Bethel Park, raising four sons, including the late NBA star Armon Gilliam.
Mr. Gilliam took up amateur boxing, a sport he discovered in the Navy that seemed perfect for his 6-foot-2, linebacker-like body. He won several local titles as a heavyweight in the 1950s and was considering becoming a professional fighter.
But an encounter with the Rev. Harold Tinker, the former Negro League baseball great who was pastor at Central Baptist Church in the Hill District, set Mr. Gilliam on a new path.
"That's when he had his conversion experience," Mr. Gilliam's son, Jerrel, said. "He gave himself to Christ. And when my dad made that decision, he didn't feel he could box and pursue this new life."
The skilled boxer with the gentle voice made a change.
As a pastor, he sought to fill the voids in peoples' lives -- both in a spiritual and practical sense -- and it became the defining decision of his life, family and friends said.
"He was a pastor who recognized the problems and did something about it," said Brenda Atkins Lockley, the executive director and CEO of Melting Pot Ministries, a church-based social service organization in the South Hills that Mr. Gilliam helped to create.
Mr. Gilliam, of Bethel Park, died Tuesday after dealing for several years with the complications of dementia, his son said. He was 83.
He began his work at Shiloh Church in South Park, where he was pastor for more than 40 years, and where his son, Jerrel, is now pastor.
While at Shiloh, Mr. Gilliam not only helped create Melting Pot Ministries, but he and his wife began one of the South Hills' first food banks, which continues today, and other programs, Ms. Lockley said.
"There was little recognition then that there were these pockets of poverty in the suburbs," she said. "Pastor Gilliam and his wife understood that."
But as the leader of a small, predominantly African-American church in the overwhelmingly white suburbs, Mr. Gilliam also recognized that minority church communities alone would not be able to create the social safety net people needed.
So, over the years, he began outreach to the larger, predominantly white churches around the South Hills and forged bonds with many that had not existed before.
"He called me one day shortly after I came here [18 years ago] and said, 'Would you be willing to meet with me for prayer and see if our churches can have a relationship?' " recalled the Rev. Greg Adkins, pastor at Peters Creek Baptist Church, a predominantly white church about 1 1/2 miles from Shiloh.
The two churches began a relationship that continues to this day, with Peters Creek helping to support Melting Pot, and the two churches cooperating on their respective food pantries. Peters Creek also supported Shiloh's failed, controversial efforts more than a decade ago to build a home for unwed pregnant women.
"He was the sweetest, kindest guy I've ever met in ministry," said Rev. Adkins, who was also an admirer of Mr. Gilliam's energetic preaching style.
"When you heard Jim preach, you got excited," he said.
South Hills Assembly in Bethel Park was another church that forged ties through Mr. Gilliam's outreach.
"We just really hit it off," said the Rev. Jack Stepp, the church's lead pastor. "The whole scenario of working together was just a real healthy one."
Mr. Gilliam's most important work was the change in individual lives, his son said.
One of those people he reached 30 years ago was Harvey Hall.
"I was a hopeless drug addict then," Mr. Hall said.
When Mr. Hall returned home from jail in 1983, Mr. Gilliam made the simple gesture of paying Mr. Hall's heating bill. Mr. Hall came to Shiloh one Sunday morning, just to say thank you.
"When I saw this man on the pulpit, I saw the glow on his face and I saw Christ in his life and I accepted Christ in my life," said Mr. Hall, who is now a counselor and associate pastor of his own church in Pittsburgh. "He made me into the man I am today."
Besides his son Jerrel, Mr. Gilliam is survived by his wife; two other sons, Gralan and Javan; a sister, Myrene Smith; a brother, Elbert; 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Shiloh Church, 2624 Brandis Ave., South Park. A funeral service will be held there, too, at 11 a.m. Monday. Burial will follow at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Bridgeville.
The family suggests donations to Shiloh Food Bank.
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.