One of the more celebrated Catholic converts — and a recently ordained deacon, by the way — is former evangelical Alex Jones. He now spends much of his time traveling the country, talking about his journey back to the Church. And a paper in Fort Wayne, Indiana profiles him this weekend:
Ten years ago, Alex Jones was the charismatic preacher of a thriving black independent Pentecostal congregation, Maranatha Christian Church in Detroit.
Today, he still preaches, but it’s as an ordained Roman Catholic deacon.
Jones doesn’t like to use the word “convert” when it comes to his experience, but his story makes him one of the Catholic church’s rarer flowers – a black evangelical Protestant who has wholeheartedly embraced the faith.
“There is spiritual conversion and ecclesial conversion. I was the latter. I was a Christian before I became Catholic,” says Jones, who will speak at St. Henry and Sacred Heart Catholic churches Friday and Saturday.
“It was never about going to heaven or knowing the Lord. Those things were accomplished while I was in the Pentecostal church. It was simply coming into the fullness of the Christian faith.”
Indeed, Jones says he’s still often asked why he would want to be Catholic.
“No one wants to be Catholic where I come from. Not even Catholics,” he says with a laugh. “It was almost like you were leaving Christianity.”
Jones says his journey is one from which the church – which has 130 million Catholics in Africa but only 24,000 blacks among his Detroit diocese’s 1.3 million members – can learn.
His conversion began, he says, when he began looking at early Christian worship with a congregational study group. That led to a reading of the early church fathers, including St. Ignatius of Antioch, a friend of the apostle John, and St. Clement of Rome, the third successor to St. Peter as head of the church.
“I wasn’t looking for truth,” he says. “But I saw the continuity from the apostles to the church today, and that necessitated a further look.”
As he continued to pursue his questions, he instituted a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist on Easter Sunday. He took the Bible from front and center on the Communion table as it morphed into an altar.
He began to see that as a pastor, he was missing apostolic succession and a hierarchy that ensured continuity of teachings. It took a two-year journey during which he sought help from other Catholic converts, but after he saw what he needed to do, “it was clear as a bell,” he says.
Jones joined the church in 2000. His wife, family members and 54 of his church’s members followed. Some of those people have “returned to their Pentecostal roots,” he says, but many have remained.
He now is a deacon for St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Catholic community, two congregations that share one priest.
He also has written a book and produced a documentary about his experiences and speaks at Catholic events nationwide.
Jones says the reasons more American blacks are not Catholic are partly historical and partly cultural.
American blacks “tended as slaves to take on the faith of their slaveholders,” he says, noting that only in Louisiana and Maryland were they Catholic.
And within the church even today, he sometimes finds an “us-and-them” mentality about those from other races or denominations.
“If (they) blacks knew more about Catholicism, if they saw their face reflected in the liturgy and the church leadership, they’d be more inclined to investigate further,” he says.
Catholic parish schools, another traditional influence on blacks, are on the wane in many city neighborhoods where black families live because they are expensive for dioceses to maintain, Jones says.
“The Catholic Church is going to have to learn how to inculturate,” he adds.
The Rev. Daniel Durkin, who serves both St. Henry and Sacred Heart, says Jones’ visit represents an evangelistic outreach to people in the churches’ southeast Fort Wayne neighborhoods, which he says are 90 percent black.
“A lot of ministers are saying we need to be doing more (evangelization) on the south side. A lot of us feel we’re losing a lot of people on the south side.”
Durkin, who is white, says Benoit Academy at St. Henry is another example of the Catholic outreach. About 65 percent of students are black; only 35 percent are Catholic.
In Jones, “We’re hoping to bring someone to the church that can identify with them (black neighborhood residents), and they can identify with as well,” Durkin says.
Jones, 66, who was director of evangelization in the Detroit diocese until his recent retirement, says he has asked his bishop twice about becoming a priest.
“Both times the answer was no, so that’s that,” he says. “If they offered it to me, I’d take it in a heartbeat, but it’s not likely in this diocese. They don’t allow married priests.”
He points out that 80 dioceses do allow priests who are married when they come to Catholicism from other denominations.
Deacon Jones also has his own self-titled website, with a great gallery of pictures, information, and details about how to book him for a speaking engagement or mission.
I’m hoping and praying for him — and praying that one day he may be welcomed into the priesthood.
Whatever ministry he practices, he’s a real gift to the people of God.