The Common Good
May-June 1997

Not an Unfinished Symphony

by Sam E. Mann | May-June 1997

Mac Charles Jones: an appreciation.

Mac Charles Jones was my friend in the deepest meaning of that word. Jesus characterized this kind of relationship when he declared to the disciples, "I have called you my friend. Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their lives for their friends."

Mac and I knew the meaning of what Jesus was saying in this definition of friendship. We did this daily for each other—whether it was going places with one another when we really did not want to go, giving the other money that we did not have, or giving up on some part of our personality in order for the other to gain some ground. We knew how to give up life for the other.

That he was a large black man of immense racial integrity and that I am a smaller Southern white man who rejected the class privilege of the oppressor made this even more significant. The friendship showed us what is possible in a relationship and that we do not have to accept the defining criteria of the dominant racist culture. A black man and a white man can redefine relationship to include friendship.

My mother suspected this when in 1984 she sent me an article from The Columbus Inquirer, a regional newspaper that circulated around Eufaula, Alabama, and LaGrange, Georgia. The article was about Mac Jones, who was leaving LaGrange to pastor St. Stephen Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. The article talked of Mac’s intense commitment to the struggle against racism and especially his work to expose and negate the activity of the Ku Klux Klan.

My mother knew of my passion for this effort, but I think she also knew the possibility of friendship that existed. How right she was! Not only did our personal friendship flourish, but Mac became friends with my whole family. He and my wife, Beverlye, would talk into the wee hours of the morning after I had already wearied and gone to bed. He performed the wedding ceremony for my daughter Melissa and was joyously received on the many occasions he sat at our breakfast table for fellowship.

MAC JONES WAS ALSO the best Christian theologian I ever knew. His identification with the marginal and oppressed people of this world, whoever they were or wherever they were, is already legendary. Whether it was ordaining women in a church that refused such ordination, supporting human rights for gays and lesbian people, or uncovering the conspiracy to burn black churches in the South, Mac—like a modern-day Jehoshaphat—stood and stood strong in the face of what seemed like insurmountable odds and reminded us in his stand that the battle was "the Lord’s." I can hear his words now. "Reverend," he would say, "everything is going to be all right." And he was right.

I believe Mac was living a new ethic. He based his activities and strategies on the spirit of relationship and the creation of that heavenly table where all God’s children could find a place to engage the dialogue—even those he didn’t care for personally. He could always make room for those who wanted to come to the table. And he could make you want to come to the table. That was his greatest evangelical gift: He could attract you to the table in the midst of the most heated conflict to sit with those with whom you least wanted to sit. And more often than not, we came away with the beginnings of healing.

It was not enough for Mac Jones to uncover the evil sins of the KKK or the corporate board rooms of Texaco, or even enough to get them to contribute money and resources to the struggle. No, he wanted that holy relationship that leveled the playing field and brought all the children to the table with equal power. He wanted the board member and the klavern member at the table.

Franz Schubert wrote a symphony that we call the Unfinished Symphony—so called because he did not write a third movement, and we define all symphonies to have third movements. I asked a musicologist if it took away from the beauty of the symphony or if it created some problem in performance not to have a third movement. He said no, the symphony is beautiful enough, and certainly playable. Two movements were enough to rank this symphony among the world’s greatest.

That was Mac’s life. By human terms his work was unfinished, because he left so early and with so much, in my mind, left to do. But in reality two movements were enough for him. His life is beautiful, and there is no problem with the music, and I can hear him singing to me now: "Reverend, everything is going to be all right." In the memory and love for my friend, I continue to help create the table. Maybe, just maybe, we will make it before we destroy too much more.

Mac Charles Jones, pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and newly appointed deputy general secretary for national ministries for the National Council of Churches, died March 7 of a blood clot. Jones, 47, who The New York Times said had "dedicated his life to standing up for the underdog," was a leader in the campaign against arson fires in black churches and active in work to stop urban youth violence. His friend SAM E. MANN is pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

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