Alex Jones was a pentecostal preacher who risked the friendship of family and colleagues to convert to Catholicism. John Hinton tells his story Alex Jones has had two awakenings in a career dedicated to serving God. Born in 1941, he grew up in a God-fearing black working-class family in Detroit at the time of a yawning divide between the races. By the time he was a teenager, he rebelled
against the church but always obediently accompanied his mother for fear of a hard slap and a reprimand.
One Sunday service was to make all the difference. The preacher had just finished his sermon when the congregation began singing, clapping and rocking on its feet.
Prompted by someone next to him to thank the Lord. he rose to his feet and shouted: "Thank you, Jesus," raising his voice each time he repeated it. What followed was his personal revelation.
He was suffused with the warm glow of the Holy Spirit, began to cry and ask for forgiveness.
"God really does exist," he thought as the realisation overcame him. Collapsing on the floor, he was helped by the pastor, raised himself up and began to preach to the excited congregation.
"The Lord will return," he told them. "He will come back again. He will come back."
In his remarkable memoirs, No Price Too High, Jones says his eyes had been opened to a whole new world.
"What had happened to me was awesome. It was the starting point for my quest to know God. NothMg else mattered. It may have been a little extreme hut I had no desire for television, for movies and material things." He threw away his cigarettes and returned books he had stolen two years earlier to the astonished librarian at his school library.
Indeed, his life had changed for good. He went to college, became a teacher, married and began to raise a family, travelling all over the Mid West at weekends as an evangelical preacher with the Church of God in Christ.
For him and his family it was a time of trial in Detroit, where the riots and fire-raising began in 1967.
The city, home of motoring giants Ford and General Motors, had been carved up by new freeways and an ensuing exit to distant suburbs such as Bloomfield Hills by the white middleclass.
Jones's pleasant innercity neighbourhood was becoming a ghetto, dominated by crime and drug addiction. Looting had begun and the National Guard arrived to repress the violence — "coon-hunting" with 50-calibre machine guns that could cut through walls. "Suddenly," he recalls, "we would hear bullets pinging off the walls right above our heads from snipers shooting. Most nights we would just sleep on the floor to protect ourselves."
In the years ahead Jones began to discover in the Evangelical Church an emphasis on teachings of the Bible that the Pentecostals had somehow overlooked. The latter's bias against intellectual scholarship and theological development began to trouble him.
In 1982, he left the.Pentecostal Church and with the help of 20 families raised funds to start his own Maranatha (Aramaic for "Lord Come") Christian Church in Detroit housed in a beautiful former Greek Orthodox church building.
But not all the changes he envisaged in his new church went down well; changing from the traditional call and response music to hymns, for instance,"fell like a dud".
Among his other changes was an evening Bible class that was to launch his journey into the Catholic faith. This time he was courting popularity and he grew bold.
"How," he asked his class, "would you like to get into a time machine and go back 2,000 years to the time of the early Church?"
In preparing to provide the answers, he began to read the writings of the Church Fathers, including those of St Ignatius who — with the echoes of apostolic teaching still ringing in his ears — urged Christians to pursue spiritual maturity and the holiness of life. Preacher Jones was becom
ing a Catholic almost without knowing it.
He had been brought up in the Pentecostal Church with some remarkable prejudices against the Catholic Church. Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists — none are saved, he was told. The Catholics? They had not even started. Indeed, they were wicked. And now his eyes were opened, as they had been by his early seizure by the faith, not so dramatically, perhaps, but as the fruit of study and prayer.
"What finally convinced me to become Catholic was the discovery of two things," he says. "The first was the promise of Jesus to Peter that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church; the second was the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit would never leave the Church."
His conversion five years ago was not without pain. He walked away from friends, some family members; his mother, now 94, never understood his change of mind and heart. But "when I recognised that the Catholic Church was the Church of Jesus Christ as it has always been from the beginning. I had to be a part of it," he explains.
"Knowing that this was his Church and that this was Christianity in its ultimate form... I could not remain out of the Church for the sake of pride, convenience or money. Nearly 60 years of formation — trials, tribulations, triumphs, successes and failures, joys and sorrows — had culminated in my attaining the fullness of Christian faith and life."
With him on his journey into the Catholic faith Jones took 54 members of his church. Some have struggled with the change, missing what he occasionally misses himself: the freedom and joyful spontaneity of a Pentecostal service. However, many who followed his lead are glad they did so.
Pastor Jones is now a deacon in Detroit working with the poor, recruiting for the Church and trying to fulfil his longterm ambition to bring more African-Americans — traditionally at odds with "Euro-style" worship — into the Catholic faith. And as Jones points out: "Most of them if they knew what I know now, would be flooding the Church and tearing down the doors."
No Price Too High is published by Ignatius Press, priced Lii ..50 and is distributed in Britain by Family Publications, Oxford wwwfamily publications.co.uk