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Amid tears, laughter and amens, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek announced to her Liberty City church Sunday morning that she would retire this fall after 23 years as a history-making politician.
Meek's 45-minute speech from the pulpit at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church was part confessional, part inspirational, part personal story -- and all heart.
The packed house at Mount Tabor let out a collective ''Ohhhh!'' when Meek said that she would not seek reelection after 10 years in Congress.
''It's time that I come home now,'' she said, after apologizing to the congregants for weeping before them. ĀĀThis is a pretty difficult job I have today.''
Meek, a Democrat, also asked everyone to help her son, Kendrick, who will seek a promotion to her congressional seat from the state Senate. He accompanied his mother to the church Sunday.
Meek emphasized several times that she is not stepping down for health reasons, although she was hospitalized last year for shingles.
She noted that she is 76, but said anyone who thinks she has slowed down should accompany her to a thrift shop, which is one of her passions.
''I'm at the top of my game,'' she said. ĀĀI don't want to wait until I can't walk or can't talk.''
That comment led into the confessional part of her speech, which was not in her prepared script: ''I sometimes have to get a few things to extend my hair. I have a few dents and dings and stuff.'' She paused and added, ĀĀSome of you have old cars that are doing pretty good.''
The congregation laughed knowingly.
Meek took the audience through her life story, remembering that she had grown up poor in segregated Tallahassee, where she was not allowed to use the public library.
''I took full advantage of the few advantages available to us,'' she said.
Meek noted proudly that in 1992 she became the first black candidate elected to Congress from Florida in modern times, and in 1982 had become the first black woman ever elected to the Florida Senate. Her career in politics began with her 1979 election to the state House of Representatives.
The congresswoman, the granddaughter of a slave, commiserated with the congregants about the plight of black people.
''I saw good people held down and prevented from rising to their potential, simply because of their color,'' she said. ĀĀI knew of good men who were killed for the same reason. I saw that power could be used to build or destroy, and I saw how powerlessness could lead to frustration and anger. I cannot overstate to you how much I respect my blackness and my racial identity.''
But she also discussed the importance of individual responsibility: 'When I talk to young people, I tell them, ĀYou don't need anything. All you need is desire.' ''
Before the church service began, her pastor, the Rev. George McRae, said in an interview that he appreciated Meek for not forgetting her roots after going to Washington.
''She is as down-to-earth as she can be,'' he said. ĀĀShe has time for anybody and everybody.''
Several congregants echoed that sentiment.
''She's been a mom to me,'' said Valerie Goram, 44. ĀĀShe helped my uncle go to Florida A&M. She helped my son get into an excellent charter school. I can call her at home, I can call her in Washington. I have never had her tell me she was too busy to help. She's a true Christian.''
Meek announced that she will create a foundation to assist people in need. After the service, she told reporters that she expects to donate more than $100,000 in leftover campaign money to her foundation. She has $368,000 in her campaign account.
Legally, she can contribute $5,000 to Kendrick Meek's campaign, and she also expects to give a chunk of money to other Democratic candidates. The rest will go to her foundation, which Meek says is another legally permitted use.
After she had finishing speaking from the pulpit, and as the church service neared its end, Carrie Meek and her son embraced for 10 seconds in their front pew. Four television cameras and three still photographers pressed close.
Afterward, Meek took off her glasses and wiped her eyes with a paper tissue.