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Meet Jonathan Jones

June 1998

“Good-bye Chicago!” Georgia Jones declared, as she and her brother, Jonathan Jones, crept across the Illinois border into Indiana in the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic.

“I think you’re happier about this move than I am,” Jonathan said, smiling.  He was sitting in the front passenger seat with his bare feet on the dashboard.  His window was open to the clamor of diesel engines and the industrial brew of refineries and steel mills.  It was early summer, and the brown pall over the lake was thicker than usual.

“I had to get out of that town,” Georgia said.  “There are too many ex-girlfriends back there telling lies about me.”  She was wearing a bright yellow sundress and leather sandals.  Her tight orange afro almost touched the roof of the old Subaru.  She was not pretty in a conventional way, but she was striking.  “Jonathan in drag,” one ex had described her.  And she filled a room with her personality.

Jonathan laughed.  At forty, he had relaxed into middle age with thick glasses and a small paunch.  He was wearing khaki cargo shorts and a Hawaiian flower print shirt, a going away gift from one of his parishioners.  After three years at the Chicago Theological Seminary and five more years at a big south side church as an associate minister, he was going home to Detroit to save the Church of the Inner Light from extinction.  Once a grand old house of worship, it had fallen on hard times as the city itself had decayed.

“I still don’t understand why you want this church,” Georgia said, as she blasted her horn at a silver Mercedes convertible, edging its way in front of her on its way to a weekend cottage in the dunes.  “Momma says it’s a bunch of dried up old ladies and drunks looking for a quiet place to sleep.”

“That’s about right.  I think I’ve met the entire congregation, at least the ones who care enough to put money in the plate.”

“And?”

“They’re ancient.  Two of them have passed away since I accepted the job.  It’s going to be a challenge.  But I’m looking forward to it.  I was getting bored with the South Shore crowd.  Rich black folk can be just as pompous and petty as rich white folk.”

“Uh-huh.  I hear that.  But still, Momma says these folks can barely keep the lights on, let alone pay you.”

“I admit it’s a leap of faith, but I hope to turn things around.  That neighborhood needs that church.  At least I’ve got a job.”

She looked over at him and raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll have a job before you lose another old lady.”

“Planned Parenthood again?”

“No, I’m thinking of hooking up with an AIDS outreach program for the brothers.  Try to teach them to practice safe sex and stop infecting our sisters.”

Jonathan shook his head.  “Good luck with that.  I’ll fill my church before you convince one of them to wear a rubber.”

Georgia and Jonathan settled into the old parsonage with her two cats, Letitia and Leslie, and his dog, Zeke, a big mutt with long black fur and a tail that knocked over plant stands and small children.   They hadn’t lived under the same roof since childhood, and their mother predicted they wouldn’t last a week.  But after a few heated moments over music and menu preferences, they managed to negotiate reasonable terms of co-existence.

The Church of the Inner Light was a former synagogue that had been recycled by a splinter group of disaffected black Baptists in the 1950’s.  They had grown tired of the shenanigans of their minister who had spent the congregation’s hard earned tithes on Cadillacs and fur coats for his mistress.  Their goal had been to reach back to the original message of Jesus Christ, stripped free of theatrics and bling.  An activist church, they had opened a soup kitchen and homeless shelter and sent scores of volunteers south for the civil rights marches in the 1960’s.  Some of those who had marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King in 1965 were still in the pews every Sunday morning, praying for a miracle to save the church from the wrecker’s ball.

When the neighborhood was still vibrant and the congregation still prosperous, the church had bought an old gray stone manse nearby for the young firebrand minister and his family.  After he was shot dead in the sanctuary one Saturday morning in 1985, trying to convince two teenagers not to steal the silver-plated communion service, his widow moved out, and the church limped along with a string of pastors, most of whom chose not to live in the parsonage for safety’s sake.  A determined crew of septuagenarians and octogenarians had cleaned the old home and trimmed back the bushes in the days before Jonathan and Georgia arrived.

Within a month, Georgia had talked her way into a job with an AIDS service agency that didn’t know they needed her until she convinced them she could save lives and find funding to cover her salary.  Her old friends held a small homecoming party for her, and that night she met Cecily Ferguson, an engineer with General Motors.  “That girl had me tongue-tied,” she told Jonathan the next morning at breakfast.  “Sweet, sexy, black as midnight and all woman.  Hmmmm.”

“When do I get to meet her?” he asked.

“Tonight.  She’s coming over for dinner.  Can you make your lasagna and let me take credit?”

“What did you tell her?”

“I might have said something about how good I was in the kitchen.”

“Georgia, this never ends well.  Just tell her the truth.  She won’t care that you can’t cook.”

“I’m sorry.  I couldn’t stop myself.  It’s her passion, and I wanted her to like me, so…”

Jonathan looked at his watch.  “I’ve got to go.  My first official board meeting.  I’ll pick up the ingredients and help you make it, so you don’t have to lie.”

“Thanks, Johnny.  Now, we’ve got to find you a man.”

He laughed as he headed for the front door.  “Don’t waste your time.”

Jonathan had dated discreetly in divinity school, but after he graduated and started work, he had become celibate.  To him, it seemed the only option.  He couldn’t be openly gay and keep his job, and he hated the dishonesty of hiding his love life.  At first, he had found it hard to give up sexual intimacy, but as time passed, he had found abstinence truly allowed him to focus his spiritual energy on his work.  He took some solace in the writings of St. Augustine, who had converted to Christianity and taken up celibacy after the man he had loved died suddenly.  As the youth minister, Jonathan had started several athletic and academic clubs for the children and doubled and then tripled participation.  The pied piper of the South Shore, the board president had called him.  Revenues had risen accordingly as happy parents rewarded the church for keeping their children busy.  When Jonathan announced he was leaving, the senior minister had told him he was making a grave mistake.  “You have a great future here.  In ten years, you could have my job.  Wife or no wife.  You would be a power broker in this city.  All the politicians would seek your support.”  That was all Jonathan needed to hear to know he’d made the right decision.