Pastor and Flock Convert to Catholicism
When Pentecostal minister Alex Jones came into the Church this past Easter he was not alone. He brought much of his congregation in with him.
by Judy Roberts | Source:
When Detroit-born Alex Jones became a Pentecostal minister in 1972, there was little question among those who knew him that he was answering God’s call to preach.
Now, many of his friends and family have dismissed the 59-year-old pastor as an apostate for embracing the Catholic faith, closing the nondenominational church he organized in 1982, and taking part of his congregation with him.
At this year’s April 14 Easter Vigil, Jones, his wife, Donna, and 62 other former members of Detroit’s Maranatha Church, was received into the Catholic Church at St. Suzanne’s Parish. For Jones, becoming a Catholic will mark the end of a journey that began with the planting of a seed by Catholic apologist and Register columnist Karl Keating. It also will mean the beginning of a new way of life.
Jones first heard Keating, the founder of Catholic Answers, at a debate on whether the origins of the Christian church were Protestant or Catholic. At the close, Keating asked, “If something took place, who would you want to believe, those who saw it or those who came thousands of years later and told what happened?”
“Good point,” Jones thought, and tucked it away. Five years later, while he was reading about the church fathers, Keating’s question resurfaced. Jones began a study of the Church’s beginnings, sharing his newfound knowledge with his congregation.
To illustrate what he was talking about, in the spring of 1998 he re-enacted an early worship service, never intending to alter his congregation’s worship style. “But once I discovered the foundational truths and saw that Christianity was not the same as I was preaching, some fine-tuning needed to take place.”
Soon, Maranatha Church’s Sunday service was looking more like a Catholic Mass with Pentecostal overtones. “We said all the prayers with all the rubrics of the Church, all the readings, the Eucharistic prayers. We did it all, and we did it with an African-American style.”
Not everyone liked the change, however, and the 200-member congregation began to dwindle. Meanwhile, Jones contacted Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary and was referred to Steve Ray of Milan, Mich., whose conversion story is told in Crossing the Tiber.
“I set up a lunch with him right away and we pretty much had lunch every month after that,” said Ray. He introduced Jones to Dennis Walters, the catechist at Christ the King Parish in Ann Arbor, Mich. Walters began giving the Pentecostal pastor and his wife weekly instructions in March, 1999.
Eventually, Jones and his congregation arrived at a crossroads. On June 4, the remaining adult members of Maranatha Church voted 39-19 to begin the process of becoming Catholic. In September, they began studies at St. Suzanne’s.
Maranatha closed for good in December. The congregation voted to give Jones severance pay and sell the building, a former Greek Orthodox church, to the First Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.
Father Dennis Duggan, St. Suzanne’s 53-year-old pastor, said the former Maranatha members and their pastor along with about 10 other candidates comprise the 750-member parish’s largest-ever convert class.
Unity and Diversity
Although not all parishioners at predominantly white St. Suzanne’s have received the group warmly, Father Duggan, who also is white, said he considers the newcomers a gift and an answer to prayer.
“What the Lord seems to have brought together in the two of us — Alex and myself - is two individuals who have a similar dream about diversity. Detroit is a particularly segregated kind of community, especially on Sunday morning, and here you’ve got two baptized believers who really believe we ought to be looking different.”
Father Duggan hopes eventually to bring Jones onto the parish staff. Already, he has encouraged Jones to join him in teaching at a Wednesday night Bible service. And, he is working on adapting the music at Masses so that it better reflects the parish’s new makeup.
The current European worship style at St. Suzanne’s has been the most difficult adjustment for the former Maranatha members, Jones said, because they had been accustomed to using contemporary music with the Catholic prayers and rituals. “The cultural adaptation is far more difficult than the theological adaptation,” he said.
Jones said the four biggest problems Protestants have with Catholicism are teachings about Mary, purgatory, papal authority, and praying to saints. He resolved three of the four long ago, but struggled the most with Mary, finally accepting the teaching on her just because the church taught it.
“It is so ingrained in Protestants that only God inhabits heaven and to pray to anyone else is idolatry. ... The culture had so placed in my heart that only the Trinity received prayer that it was difficult.”
He is writing a paper on the appropriateness of venerating Mary for a class at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary, where he is taking prerequisite courses for a master’s degree in theology and pastoral studies. He also is writing a book for Ignatius Press and accepting speaking engagements through St. Joseph Communications, West Covina, Calif.
Jones, the father of three married sons and grandfather of six, is leaving the question of whether he becomes a priest up to the Church.
“If the Church discerns that vocation, I will accept it. If not, I will accept that, too. Whatever the Church calls me to do, I will do.”
Although he has given up his job, prestige, and the congregation he built to become Catholic, Jones said the hardest loss of all has been the family and friends who rejected him because of his decision.
“To see those that have worshiped with and prayed with me for over 40 years walk away and have no contact with them is sad.”
It was especially painful, he said, when his mother, who had helped him start Maranatha, left to go to Detroit’s Perfecting Church, where his cousin, gospel singer Marvin Winans, is the pastor.
Neither Winans nor the pastor of the church that bought Maranatha’s building would comment on Jones’ conversion. Jones also is troubled that those he left behind do not understand his decision.
“To them, I have apostasized into error. And that’s painful for me because we all want to be looked at as being right and correct, but now you have the stigma of being mentally unbalanced, changeable, being looked at as though you’ve just walked away from God.”
Jones said when his group was considering converting, prayer groups were formed to stop them. “People fasted and prayed that God would stop us from making this terrible mistake. When we did it, it was as though we had died.”
He said Catholics do not fully understand how many Protestants see their church. “There’s this thin veneer of amicability, and below that there is great hostility.”
But he remains convinced he is doing the right thing.
“How can you say no to truth? I knew that I would lose everything and that in those circles I would never be accepted again, but I had no choice,” he said.
“It would be mortal sin for me to know what I know and not act on it. If I returned to my former life, I would be dishonest, untrustworthy, a man who saw truth, knew truth, and turned away from it, and I could just not do that.”
Reprinted with permission from The National Catholic Register. Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.