Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tribute to Father Jim Jones, d. September 1, 2006


Rambling Around with Jimmy Jones

When I still in high school a jail chaplain came to our parish in Chicago to preach on behalf of the social ministries of the diocese. Jim Jones was not a gentle preacher. He “spoke as one with authority, and not as the scribes,” or, one might add, “and not as Episcopalians are accustomed to hear.” Yet it was not in the evangelical style either. It was “in your face” preaching. It translated the gospel directly into jailhouse jargon, into the vernacular of an oppressed and degraded people. It was irreverent at times, invoking the image of apostles and saints as bumbling, clueless people like ourselves. I remember Father Jones, quoting the New Testament in his sharp nasal voice, “and Peter, not knowing what to say, said…”. It was the first time I had heard a congregation laugh so hard during a sermon, or discuss it so intently afterward. It was also the first time I had been confronted with the reality, not only that it was possible for prisoners to hear the Good News proclaimed by Jesus Christ, but that prisoners are the only ones who can here it. Most amazing of all, I was hearing the Gospel as if I were a prisoner myself, and understanding for the first time how it might truly deserve to be called “Good News,” the best possible news. I remember the passion with which he spoke of Christ incarnate among the least respectable and most despised members of society. And I remember thinking, “this is what I believe. This is how I want to be.”

The notice in The Living Church Magazine read “The Rev. James G. Jones, Jr., who founded the first halfway house for ex-convicts in the United States, died Sept. 1 in his sleep in Copper Harbor, MI. He was 76.”

The Living Church is a small magazine with a narrow focus, and an ironic venue in which to read the obituary of a man who had appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, been the subject of a feature article in The Saturday Evening Post, and been a guest on This Is Your Life. It is ironic that a homicidal cult leader with the same name is better known than a man who, as an Episcopal priest, community organizer, and psychotherapist had touched the lives of people from the halls of highest academia to the meanest Chicago streets. James G. Jones touched my life, and served at different stages as prophet, role model, mentor, friend, and now… what do you call a departed Christian who has had such a blessed influence on the lives of others?… I think you call them “saints”.

But not without further irony. Jim had fallen far away from the church, though I understand he did occasionally attend Roman Catholic services. A nationally-known authority on addiction and substance abuse, he struggled with alcoholism himself, as well as heart disease, and the lingering effects of the encephalitis which had nearly taken his life years before. In many ways, Jim was a tragic figure.

Most clergy have a streak of narcissism, and ordained ministry can provide a socially acceptable way to be the center of attention. But the acclaim focused upon Jim in those early days had a Hollywood-like quality, and his enjoyment of it may have been close to an addiction. But there was nothing posed or fraudulent about his passion for the underdog, his prophetic loathing for injustice, or his often irreverent efforts to expose the idolatrous features of American culture and religion. Although it often made good theater, it was never done for show.

And nothing… not addiction, not disease, not disillusionment, not death … can take away the gift that Jim was to those who had caught his vision, or been touched by his contagious “sense of the sacred” that made holy things seem real and even the harshest reality seem holy.

One of Jim’s qualities was a fearlessness that seemed reckless at times. Many times in his company I felt the rage of alienated people directed towards us. These people could be Black, White, criminals, police officers, or pious church people. Jim would confront, provoke, debate, and agitate. He had no apparent need of happy endings. It was enough to speak the truth and then “shake the dust from his feet.” Early in our history with each other he took me to a tavern on Chicago’s Skid Row where the owner had donated some canned goods. It was 10a.m., and a group of down-and-out men were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the tavern. As we entered, they glared at us with undisguised suspicion. When we emerged from the stale-beer dinginess of the tavern, their hostility had grown more obvious. I was afraid they were not going to allow us to pass through them on the sidewalk. Undeterred, Father Jones walked up to one of the group and blew air in the man’s face. “That’s to show you guys we weren’t in there drinking at 10 o’clock in the morning!” he announced. The men began to laugh and slap us on the back. They were still waving and laughing as we drove away.

An often-repeated story concerned an occurrence when Jim was chaplain of the Cook County Jail. It seems there was a cigar-chewing guard who repeatedly would come into the chapel and remove prisoners whom he felt were behaving badly. Jim objected, but the guard ignored his protests. “So I decked him”, Jim liked to say.” This got him in trouble with the prison administration, of course, and he was brought before an Assistant Warden who later became a distinguished criminologist at the University of Chicago. Many years later, Jim and I attended a Memorial Service for that same man, who, it happens, had taken his own life. Although the Memorial was not to be “religious,” Jim had been asked to give one of the memorial talks. The other speakers were all very solemn academic colleagues of the deceased. Alone among them, Jim spoke of his anger: “I’m mad at him for killing himself,” Jim said, “but I love him anyway, and so does God.” These words startled that erudite assembly, and spoke for their true feelings in a way that polite erudition could not. Jim went on to tell the story of the offensive prison guard, and how the Assistant Warden who counseled him afterward was the same man being memorialized that afternoon. “He taught me about the meaning of my own religion,” Jim said. “That was the beginning of my education in non-violence. Since that day I have never hit another human being.”

Jim’s personal life was difficult. He and his first wife, Kitty, divorced in the mid-1960’s, and he became a part-time father to their five children. He remarried and moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where he worked as a community organizer. In the early 1970’s he moved to Miami, FL, where he worked as a director of substance abuse recovery programs and as a private psychotherapist. Eventually, he divorced and remarried again, and after his retirement went to live in Copper Harbor, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where his father (also an Episcopal priest) had served for a time while Jim was a boy.

During the later years in Florida Jim grew increasingly disillusioned with the church, eventually to the point of bitterness. Though he served as an assistant in several congregations, he often expressed disappointment in not being called to serve as rector of a parish. After an initial openness regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood, he became increasingly negative on the issue. This provides a further irony to his life, since Jim was the catalyst for so many catholic-minded Episcopalians to adopt a progressive stance with regard to such changes in the church. He was “on the left” in every other aspect of church politics. On the subject of human sexuality, for instance, he was an early and outspoken champion for the rights of homosexuals in the church and society in general. Why so negative about the ordination of women? The reasons he put forth did not seem to match the intensity of his feelings on the matter.

1976 was the year the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women, but wonder if the roots of Jim’s alienation did not lie in the preceding decade, with Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church. This was the Council that sought to renew the idea of the church as the “Community of All the Baptized”, and with that to reduce the emphasis on clerical power and priestly mystique. The Vatican II decrees seemed to de-mystify the Mass for many people, and although he tried to adapt to the “new rites” (of which the Episcopal Church had its own version), Jim never seemed to quite “get it”. He once told me “in the old days, we never worried about ‘the experience of worship’… in those days, we WERE the experience.” Did Father Jim feel lost without the old mystique of the priesthood? It may seem like a foolish question, since his bearing and manner were far from conventional. It may be, however, that the popular image of a priest as an austere and remote figure provided a kind of ready-made icon for him to be iconoclastic about. The discrediting of these old ideas, obscured by unconscious projections and expectations, may have affected Jim more than he, or anyone else, knew. If so, he was not alone.

If this were so, it could be understood as another example of Jim’s capacity for prophetic insight. Since the 1960’s, clergy have put tremendous energy seeking credibility in the secular arena, and now find themselves scrambling to recover a “sense of the sacred” which many had once regarded as a liability. While the churches were learning to be “secular”, the spiritual agenda of our culture was being co-opted by neo-evangelicals and New Age spirituality. One doesn’t have to reject the ordination of women to acknowledge that didactic, utilitarian liturgy fails to catch the imagination of our times. Perhaps Jim, for all his contradictions, was as much a prophet in this area as in others, striving to sustain an authentic “sense of the sacred” with little support from a church preoccupied with pietistic “renewal movements” and institutional survival.

But it might have been different, and we can still learn from Jim’s example, even his failings. To grasp the significance of a “baptismal ecclesiology” takes more than a change in seminary curricula. For such a return to early Christian norms it is necessary for each of us to become more intimate and more honest with each other and ourselves, and to confront the demons, ghosts, and idols that afflict us from within and without. We must learn to be less reliant on established hierarchies, whether based on class, gender, race, or religion. If it’s true that Jim was better at impressing, entertaining, shocking, and inspiring people than he was at just being with them, he would not be the only person to have it so.

Jim once told me that “I’ve never had a woman as a friend,” a startling admission for a thrice-married man who was rarely without female companionship. “Maybe in AA I can make some woman friends”, he told me. That was years ago. Maybe he did.

Life Magazine is dead, and so is This Is Your Life. If the Saturday Evening Post still exists it is as a shadow of its former self. And now Father Jim is dead. Only The Living Church, and whatever publication you are now reading, is alive to tell his story.

But it will be told, one way or another. It is being told whenever our eyes are opened so that holy things seem real, and even the harshest reality seems holy. It is being told when we are able to use the language of social analysis and psychology to express the Gospel in solidarity with the oppressed and forgotten. It is being told when we are fearless, reckless, and prodigal in our love for the world and the Incarnate God who hides within it. It is being told when we can express our reverence in irreverent ways, and even our tragic flaws can be seen as having their comic aspect. These are things Jim taught me to value, and I still do.

Pray for us, Father Jim. When we are stuck in our various addictions, pray that we might find serenity for that one day. When we are taking ourselves too seriously, pray that we might lighten up. When we are lonesome, pray that someone like you bangs on our door to go out and find a blues band playing somewhere. When we are hesitant to call or write some old friend, pray that we not put it off. And while you’re at it, pray that I be forgiven for not staying in closer touch with you. If I have written anything that is offensive to you or represents you falsely… well, you’re stuck with it now. As John Prine has written and sung,

Father forgive us for what we must do;

You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.

We’ll forgive each other til we all turn blue,

And whistle and go fishin’ in heaven.

Rest in peace, old friend. “Even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”