Pastor Donté Jones' Faith Story
I understand faith as a word of action. Faith is the act of joining in God’s redemptive and liberating work. It often requires the professed follower of Christ to trust in God’s character of love, while taking steps into unknown territories with unforeseeable outcomes. In reflecting on how I would effectively convey my faith journey, on whether I should sequentially list acts of faith leading up to this point, or whether I should give an account for my desire to serve as an ordained minister within the United Church of Christ, I thought about the significances of my present faith. I thought about how my Christian faith informs every facet of my daily life and how without it, life would be meaningless and empty. It was by this way of thought that I have decided to use this post
as an opportunity to introduce my present faith to you. A faith that is characterized by action and a trust in God’s love for me. My hope is to effectively provide an overview of some of the essentials of my faith and how my faith journey has brought me to this point.
I am disciple of Jesus Christ. I accept the biblical accounts of Christ's ministry, his life, death, and resurrection, as a reliable depiction of God’s work of redemption and liberation in the world.
I was born September 13, 1982.
My earliest memories of discipleship are rooted in my childhood experience of faith. As a child, my mother, Dianne P. Jones, took my two sisters and I to the Bethlehem Baptist Church located on the corner of Berks street and Woodstock Street in Philadelphia, PA. At that time, the church had been home to five generations of my family beginning with my maternal grandmother’s grandmother. Today, my father is the senior pastor of the church and it is now home to six generations of my family. Although the history of the church involves the significant contributions of many families and individuals, I steam from a long heritage of ministerial and lay leadership within that church. My maternal great uncle and grandfather have served as chairs of the deacon’s board, my maternal grandmother served as an ordained minister, my maternal aunt served as a licensed minister, my mother currently serves as co-pastor. My aunts, uncles, cousin, siblings and close friends have at some point in their faith journeys served in lay positions of the church such as choir members, ushers, greeters, sick and shut-in ministers, evangelism ministers, kitchen/hospitality team members, and food pantry members. I have also been very involved within my family’s church. I will discuss my involvement later in this essay. Now, my aim is to show the strong ties and roots for which my earliest faith was nurtured. For my family, Christian faith was and remains the medium through which we did and do all aspects of life.
In reflecting on my childhood faith community, I now appreciate the level of urgency to which they conveyed the gospel message. Jesus, as they taught me, was coming soon and no person knew exactly the day or hour in which he was to return. It was for this reason that all disciples of Christ were to earnestly practice their commitment to God’s call through the biblical model of Christ ministry. We were to distinguish ourselves from the world of darkness through our Christian faith. We were to walk in humility, treat others as we wished to be treated, take a stand for justice and righteousness, not return evil for evil, renounce behaviors that brought division, share what little we had, and pray without ceasing. In doing these things, we were living out our profession of Jesus as the Christ.
Faith grounded in urgency produced a sense of sincerity and passion about our proclamation of faith. The reality of Christ's return was good news for those old saints. Many of them understood life though the experiences of Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and the World Wars. They found life in many respects to be hard and less rewarding than their fellow white Americans. Many of them, as in the case of my maternal and paternal lineages, migrated to the Northern States from the South in hopes of a better life. They were, however, greeted with marginal success here in the North. Discipleship, therefore, pivoted on the reality that we were children of God and therefor heirs of the God’s soon coming kingdom. There, no bigotry, injustice, or hatred could prevent them from receiving a just reward: an eternal life full of peace and joy. Nearly every song, sermon, and liturgical practice pointed to this notion. The most important practice of Christ’s disciple was found in the Great Commission,
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:19-20, KJV)
Our faith informed us that Christ ministry culminated to this charge. We were to evangelize and baptize those who had not received the assurance of God’s pardon. We were to preach liberty to those suffering under the burden of sin and to those who were marginalized by sinful socio-political systems. Every engagement, whether we were in the church or grocery store, was an act of witness to God’s love and grace.
The charge of Christian discipleship set before me in my earliest memories of faith remains sturdy at the center of my present faith. It is a charge that calls me into active engagement with the biblical account of Christ's ministry. It challenges me to remember Christ's promise to return to his flock and thus to maintain a sense of urgency in the spreading of the Good News. It calls me to earnestly reflect upon my interactions with others and to weigh those interactions up against the teaching of Jesus so that I might live out my profession of Christ.
I believe in the transformational power of God as experienced in a life lead by the Holy Spirit.
I was very active in church as a child. I was baptized at the age of twelve in accordance with baptist doctrine which claims that a child must be able to reason, believe, and confess Christ to partake in baptism. My mother ensured that my sisters and I were present in church almost every week for Sunday School. In addition to that I served on the junior ushers board and children's choir. At the age of eight my family purchased a drum kit and convinced the pastor, Rev. William Evert, and the deacon board to allow me to play for the adult choir. I can recall some members of the church being angered by the presence of drums in worship, as they felt that a drum kit was too much like Rock music and that it had no place in our sacred space. They prefered to use the rhythm of their hands, feet, and hand instruments for our ecstatic worship experiences. My engagement with the church was not only in these ministry to which I belonged but also in accompanying my parents to their many church related commitments. Looking back, it is not far fetched to say that a few days of nearly every week of the first eighteen years of my life were spent in church. Yet, it wasn’t until the age of thirteen that my faith became paramount to my sense of identity. It begun with my father’s reconciliation with God and his family.
My mother, maternal grandparents, and maternal Aunt along with a host of pastors, family members, church community members, and friends have all played significant roles in cultivating and propelling me into faith. Yet, no one person has had more impact on my early spiritual formation then my father, David A. Jones. The passion I experience for the Christian faith today can be directly traced to his fathership and pastorship. My very understanding of the transformative power of God begins with my witness of his transformation.
My father, although not raise in church, joined my mother's church not long after they met. He was 19 and she 18. They would eventually marry within six months from the time they met. It was in my maternal family’s church that my father learned about God and after years of membership sensed a calling for ministry and was eventually licensed to preach. I remember the zeal my father had in those days. He did not wait until a church invited him to preach, he went without invitation into the neighborhoods and places where people needed to hear a message of liberation. At the age of eight or nine I can recall accompanying my father to his preaching engagements in alleyways, outside bars, on prostitution corners, in homeless shelters, and even on unexpectedly occasions when driving to some destination. I recall the response of those to whom he ministered. I remember the tears of destitute mothers lost in misery and without hope. I remember the exhausted surrender of angry men exasperated by their grief of lost in drug addiction. I watched my dad bring hope to a people who had lost hope. There is nothing like witnessing that exact moment when light evades the darkness of a captive soul. In that moment, it's not about any one person present but rather the communal experience of God love. Every time my father and I witness someone undergo the transformative power of God, we too experienced that power.
The drive to co-experience the transformational power of God would eventually drive me to conduct my own evangelism outing. In my early teen years I would preach to the children in my neighborhood. During the summer months it wasn’t uncommon for me to have 6 - 12 kids gather on the front steps of a neighbor's home or in a nearby stairwell of a apartment complex. It was not long before my gatherings attracted adults. My father still recalls the morning when an adult man knocked on his door to inquire about the time and location of my gathering that day. By the time I had reach high school, I took on another approach to evangelism. In planning, I had divided my neighborhood into sections and spent my free time, in between homework and chores, knocking on doors and extending invitations into Christian discipleship. In high school I became president of the bible club and was honored with the citizen of the year award. My fellow students knew me as “the bible boy” because I carried a large print bible with me wherever I went. I will never forget the day when I was called into the principal office. I could not imagine why he had called me since most students who were called into his office were there for corrective reasons and I stayed out of trouble. I was astonished when the principal asked me to pray for him there in his office. In college I lead my fellow students as chaplain for Residential Assistants (RA) and president/teacher of the campus bible study club, Students Against a Godless Society (SAGS). Through these engagements in college I continued to fulfill my drive to co-experience the transformational power of God. Works like these continued throughout my young adulthood within the continual engagement of my home church in Philadelphia and the eventual planting of two churches. I could write a novel on the many ways I have witnessed and co-experience the transformational power of God through the Holy Spirit.
It was in 1996 that my father began to sense a burden on his call into pastoral ministries. His call was confirmed by the church’s late Pastor Evert. In the final year of Rev. Evert’s life, he began to closely mentor my father in what he had learned about pastoral ministries. My father was ordained in early 1997 and within six months of his ordination became the third pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church when Rev. Evert died suddenly. My parents invested a lot of energies in our church and its new 501c3, the Joshua Achievement Center (JAC). Over time my parents left their secular job to work fulltime in ministry. Today, Joshua Achievement Center is an crucial ministry in Philadelphia. In addition to the program being aimed to help substance abusers and their families recover, it provides thousands of Philadelphia residence food each year and employs many.
In the first few years of my father's pastorate my parents and I spent much time in prayer, fasting, worship, evangelism, and meditation. It was during this time that I had a number of experiences, some being supernatural, that drew my attention towards the faith. As I have mentioned, I had always been very active in the church and had already consider myself a Christian, however, my devout faith came into being at this time. First, I recall the love I experienced from the old saints. I suffered with chest pains and was in and out of hospitals. I remember one afternoon while in church the old saints gathered around me and prayed so earnestly for my health. My only response was to cry from the love they had shown me. Second, I always had a gift for preaching. Around the age of six I would create a podium, gather my sister and teddy bears around the around the altar and preach. Even then I loved the the preaching moment. My dad recalls in those days waking up one morning to the sound of me preach a sermon titled, Wolves and Sheep Clothings. In the first few years of my father’s pastorate I was invited to preach a few sermons before the congregation. I was fourteen during my first sermon. I used a paper easel to demonstrate the power of our environments and how what we intake through our senses can influence us towards good or evil choices. I was so nervous during that first sermon and at the end felt I did horrible. I promised myself that I would never preach again. Of Course, it wasn’t long before I was at it again. I cannot remember the topic or title of my second sermon, only that the response was great. So many people respond to the altar call that there was barely any room for people to stand. Third, I had a number of supernatural experience that brought me closer to God.
I believe that God’s love is radical and that our aim as Christ’s disciples is to share this love with others.
I was ordained on March 29, 2009 at Bethlehem of Deliverance Church. I should add that the change in the name of the church resulted from my father’s leadership. The church moved, in title, from baptist to non-denominational in the late 90s. I didn’t realize it at the time but it would not be long after my ordination that my life would be forever changed. In march of 2010, I stood in that great church in which my faith had been nurtured, I stood before my beloved community which had affirmed my call for so many years, I stood before them and announced that I was gay. This is one of the most courageous acts of faith in my lifetime. My choice to share my sexual orientation was inspired by two circumstances. I had spent many prior years seeking out God in understanding my identity. It was in my exploration that I had discovered that God loved me just as I was and that all the teachings I had received that were adverse to this notion were themselves misguided. I had, through my own life experiences, gathered undeniable proof that God love me as I was. It was thus through the circumstances of meeting my previous partner, Carlos Forbes, and not wanting to live my love for him in secret that I shared my truth.
The immediate response to my “coming out” was mixed, however, I received many words of support that morning but also words of condemnation. The announcement was hard on my family, especially my dad who had always made clear his strong dislike of gay people and gay culture. In those first few years after my announcement, the backlash was hard on everyone emotionally. I had not anticipated that times would be as hard as they were. In considerations of what was best for my emotional, physical, and spiritual health and for the health of others who were negatively affected, I made the difficult decision to stop attending Sunday worship and to stop working for the church on a ministerial capacity. The abrupt change left me deeply hurt.
It wasn’t long after my “coming out” that my story began to receive traction in small and medium sized faith communities across the country. Although many people wrote horrible things to me on social media, even in some cases sending life threats, I received a huge amount of support from a wider community of people who were inspired by my actions. It was in the following months that I realized my story was much bigger than me. I realized that it had become a point of reference for others who sensed God love as radical in comparison to our religious institution understanding of God’s love.
It was through the many encouraging voices of this time that an idea emerged to plant a church in Philadelphia that would provide a safe space of worship for people who felt rejected from their religious institutions. Initially I was opposed to leading such a church plant but the more I considered the voices of people wanting leadership, the more I felt a growing burning desire to minister to them. It was on September 12, 2010 that Carlos, myself, and a small team of people held our first worship service. I lead the church from 2010 to 2013, which were three of the most challenging years of my life. During that time I faced a financial crisis, challenges in reconciliation with family, and many of the challenges are inherent in church planting. This time, however, was characterised by many positive monumental moments of which the greatest was having many opportunities to minister to so many beautiful people. I was honored to develop meaningful relationships with so many beautiful people. I officated two civil unions. I was invited by the mayor’s office to be the honorary speaker for Philadelphia’s Gay History Month and I was chosen by the commissioner of behavioral health to serve on the city’s Board of Faith and Spiritual Affairs. Before marriage was ruled a civil right for gay people, I performed over 100 commitment ceremonies.
My ministerial involvement with communities that have been historically rejected by other faith communities is grounded in my understanding of God’s love as radical compared to our human standards. It was this sense of God’s radical love that impressed upon my heart the desire to further my theological education. I wanted to expand my theology and pastoral skills in order to be a better servant. In the summer of 2013 I inquired with United Church of Christ seminary in Lancaster about the Master’s of Divinity program and was admitted that fall.
I am grateful for the diversity of ways I have experienced the United Church of Christ since seminary. I have served as student pastor for Maidencreek UCC in Blandon, PA and Victory For The World Church UCC in Stone Mountain, GA. The two churches have given me invaluable experience in very different expression of the UCC. I have had the wonderful opportunity of attending the 2015 and 2017 Synods and participating in a range of sessions. I also had the opportunity of attending the Open and Affirming national meeting in 2015 and taking the training in leading congregation to becoming ONA.
I have had the wonderful opportunity of serving on the Penn Central Conference Minister Search Committee. I have also invested a great deal of time and energy in itinerary ministry throughout central Pennsylvania. I was especially blessed in my service to St. Paul's UCC in mannheim and Wisdom’s Table UCC in Lancaster.
It was in seminary that I was first exposed to reformed theology. This was a wonderful experience for me as I was able to expand my theology and experience its richness. I would like to mention my beliefs on the sacraments next.