Early in your career, you lived among and ministered to Welsh coal miners in Northern Pennsylvania. What did this experience teach you?
This was in hard coal country, West Scranton’s “Welsh Hill,” where we arrived, newly married, in 1959. I was just out of Princeton Seminary, and Arline was still in college. Most of the mines had shut down and were filling with water. Many men were out of work, some with black lung disease gasping for breath and spitting into a bucket. Rotten egg gas from the slag heaps wafted over the town.
The recession of 1959 hit Scranton hard. Money was scarce. My salary was $300 a month, and that was more than many families had to live on.
In spite of all this, the people had a spirit in them that surged up in powerful singing. They poured all of life into their ponderous Welsh hymns, many of them in minor keys.
On my first Sunday there, standing before the congregation in the midst of reverberating song, I knew I was part of something I had never known before. The sound was a kind of aching wail, as if it arose out of dark mines and the cave-ins and explosions, the danger and death. But there was also a soaring sound of eventual triumph, if not in this world, then the next. I was overwhelmed.
Nothing in seminary prepared me for this sense of what faith and worship can mean. When I broke the communion bread, tears streamed down their faces. In that moment, they seemed to feel a connection with all their loved ones, both living and dead, and with the suffering they and their forebears had been through, all the way back to Wales. It wasn’t something to be explained, it was just there.
I learned that Jones is a Welsh name, and that being Welsh includes being lifted by songs and poems and inspiring words. And I learned that faith and worship are much more than the theologies by which we try to understand them, much more than believing in this or that creed. I learned that religion has to do with the heart, the inner person and the shared community, that it is a way to approach great mystery and can take many blessed forms. Among my best teachers were the dear people of Welsh Hill all those years ago.
When and why did you become involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
This happened on Sept. 16, 1963, when we were living in Topeka, Kansas. The day before, four little African American girls were killed by a bomb in their Sunday School.
I was walking down the street and saw the headline at a newsstand. It stopped me cold. I said to myself, “Lord God, we can’t let kids be bombed in Sunday School, that’s all there is to it.” I may have used stronger language than that.
I walked downtown where Sam Jackson, head of Topeka’s NAACP, was forming up a march. He invited me to join in, handed me a sign to carry, and put me in the front row. I was the only white person I could see, though it turned out others were there. We marched several blocks down the main street and turned left into an African American section of town where we entered a stately wooden church that soon filled to standing room only.
I was given a seat on the platform next to Linda Brown, whose father, back in 1954, was principle plaintiff in the case that began the desegregation of the nation’s schools. That Linda Brown had to walk over a mile to catch a bus to a segregated school on the other side of town, even though there was a school seven blocks from her home, was significant to the case. By 1963, Linda Brown was a grown woman and a symbol of the struggle for equality in Topeka. I felt I had a seat of honor.
I was asked to give the invocation, which I did, with the congregation responding “Amen” and “Yes, Lord” as I prayed. I’m telling you it was hard to stop with all that good will and enthusiasm coming my way. After that, many spoke, many mournful hymns were sung, many prayers were offered, and the service went on into the night.
Next day, the morning paper had a picture of the march on its front page, and it looked like I was leading it. Well, this didn’t set well with a lot of people, including some members of the historic Central Congregational Church where I had been Associate Pastor for only a few weeks. This was the beginning of three heady years of meetings, vigils, and marches, including the last part of the march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King in 1965.
That was a glorious day. The group Peter, Paul and Mary sang, as did Joan Baez and several others. Dr. King gave a stirring address in front of the beautiful Alabama capitol with a stern line of green helmeted and well-armed Alabama police stretched out on the steps behind him. Governor George Wallace, reportedly, looked out an upstairs window, but he refused to meet with Dr. King.
Next to me in the throng was a young African American woman who was studying to be a teacher. I asked her how she felt about what was happening. She said she was so glad to be there, but her mother, afraid of what might happen, had begged her not to march. As soon as the march was over, we were warned to get out of town right away, which we did.
While I was in Alabama, my wife and our newborn daughter received death threats over the phone. Arline didn’t tell me about this until maybe 10 years later. She knew, I guess, that knowing much sooner would have freaked me out.
Given your unique perspective, where do you think we are we today with race relations in our country?
I’m afraid the gains of the Civil Rights Movement are being eroded away. It pains me that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Selma to Montgomery march helped bring about, was weakened by the Supreme Court, allowing states to restrict the vote. I think it had an effect on the recent election. So here we go again. That we need the Black Lives Matter movement is another indication we have a long way to go.
But I’m pleased to see huge turnouts for the Women’s Marches around the world. They seem to champion freedom and justice for everyone. I hope they will follow Dr. King’s non-violent ways and become a growing force for the good of all people and the Earth itself. I may even go marching again someday.
As longtime minister of the Guerneville Community Church and Monte Rio Community Presbyterian Church, was there a theme to your messages that you shared with your congregations?
Looking back, I see that I started out trying to say something like “the pull of faith and the tug of life are not necessarily in opposite directions.” Later, I often found myself saying “the Christian God is too exclusive,” hoping we would open up to various ways of faith and a wide range of life orientations. River folks took that pretty well, I’m pleased to say. Recently a main theme is “we are called to create caring communities.” I’ve used the little town of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show as an example of a community where people accept each other for who they are and support one another through the ups and downs of life. Congregations are often like that, I’ve found, warm, inviting, supportive, and I can’t understand why so many people find it good to stay away from them.
You write columns, books and poetry and belong to a writer’s group. You seem to have a rich, deep writing life. What does writing mean to you?
It’s a way of knowing where I am in my trek through life. I don’t keep an organized journal, but I’m always jotting things down, things I notice or things that just come to mind. Some jottings develop into sermons or columns or poems or even books, but many don’t. I think we do well to leave some record behind telling how it was for us to live in this world during our time. It’s a satisfying thing to do.
Tell us about your upcoming book, “Proud to be a River Rat.” When will it be published and how can people purchase it?
I’m hoping it’s out by March or April. It’s a collection of columns I’ve written, first for that wide-ranging publication called The Paper, then for the Russian River News, and now for the Sonoma West Times and News. It features people I’ve known along the lower Russian River these 50 years or so, people like Bill Byrd, Guerneville’s candidate for president of the United States, whose platform still appeals to me more than many I’ve seen from the major parties. It’s a fun book and may even have some historical value. It will be available on Amazon, in local outlets, and I’ll have copies that people can get at a discount.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
You mentioned jazz. This started with my mother who had been a Flapper Girl in the 1920s. She always had the music playing at home. In seminary, my roommate blasted his Ella Fitzgerald records out the window to give the school a little culture, he said. Over the years, hanging out in jazz clubs, I became kind of a chaplain to the scene, doing funerals and weddings for some of the musicians. I even baptized one of them. And I served on the board of the Russian River Jazz Festival when we brought the likes of Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Carmen McRae to The River. We barely broke even, but the music was great.
Also, I do church gigs, “And God Said, ‘Let There Be Jazz,’” with drummer Benny Barth, guitarist Randy Vincent, and Chris Amberger on bass. They played at the 50th Monterey Jazz Festival, and Benny played at the first one. Benny recently passed away, so my grandson Adam of Novato High School, to whom Benny gave his first drum lesson 10 years ago, is now our drummer on these gigs. What fun. SD
About Bob Jones
Bob Jones grew up in Watsonville during World War II and worked on apple, berry and lettuce farms as a kid. Then it was Cal Berkeley and Princeton Seminary and parishes in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Topeka, Kansas, Guerneville, and Santa Rosa. At age 60, he earned a doctorate in poetry and religion. Three books emerged: “Limited To Everyone,” about a more inclusive way of faith; “Prayers for Puppies, Aging Autos, and Sleepless Nights,” offbeat prayers with drawings by Gay Guidotti; and “God, Galileo, and Geering,” dealing with writings by religion scholar Lloyd Geering. Married 57 years, he and his wife Arline have two daughters, both teachers, and four grandchildren.