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james meeks(EURWEB)  Seven months ago, the Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago issued a challenge to the unmarried couples in the congregation: If 25 of you tie the knot, I’ll foot the bill for the wedding expenses.

The result was a mass wedding Saturday in which 17 couples said “I do” inside the 10,000-seat House of Hope on the city’s Far South Side.

The event, aimed at promoting marriage in the African-American community, was part of a series of initiatives celebrating the church’s 25th anniversary. Salem members have also written 25,000 letters to U.S. troops overseas and donated $25,000 to Haiti relief efforts.

Each couple received a reception for 25 friends and family, wedding photography, premarital counseling and a one night stay at Swissotel — all free of charge. Church members also donated wedding dresses, jewelry and flowers.

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