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A Preacher In Hartford Realizes Helping Himself Is The Biggest Step

A Troubled Hartford Pastor Returns To His Church And Looks For Answers For Himself And For His Parish

Helen Ubiñas

May 16, 2010

On a crisp winter morning, I sat in a back pew at a Capen Street church and listened as a preacher who bore an uncanny resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard warned two dozen or so parishioners to beware the obstacles that lay waiting. Giants in their promised land, he called them.

"There are giants in my promised land," the preacher shouted, pausing just long enough for the small, but spirited congregation to holler back their approval.

"But they" — he paused again — "aren't going to stop me."

If anyone knows about those giants, it's the Hartford pastor whose nearly decade-long drug addiction once cost him his church, his family and his name. Those giants nearly crushed Bishop M. Anthony Jones. And while he's managed — so far — to avoid them, they are everywhere.

They are right outside, on a North End street where the same drugs that turned a promising pastor into just another neighborhood crackhead still come easy.

And there, in the path of a bullet that tore through the church's front door — a reminder that not even a place of worship is untouchable.

He fears for the safety of his parishioners, many of whom are related to him in some way. But the pastor has big plans, he tells me the first time we meet — to grow his congregation, to replace the church that's been housed in a crumbling three-story home for more than 50 years with a brand new one in a nearby empty lot.

And right there is where I nearly stopped listening.

The last thing this city needs, I told Jones, is another church. Look around. Every street corner inside its 18 square miles seems to have one. What Hartford needs is a church that's actually part of its community, I said, bracing for the excuses that usually follow when I complain about disconnected churches.

But they didn't come. Instead, Jones candidly talked about how he was still finding his own way back to a church and a neighborhood that held more pitfalls than he'd ever admit. He was determined to find ways to connect with the community, even if he hadn't figured out how.

"I just don't know how to reach this community," he said. "I really have no clue. Do you have any ideas?"

The more he spoke, the more I thought that this wasn't just a big-talking pastor

This was a man who was trying to rebuild himself by rebuilding his church — and the success, or failure, of one had everything to do with the other.

Giants In Promised Land

Milton Anthony Jones was born in 1966 into the United Pentecostal Church of the Redeemer. His mother, Louise, was a founding member and former pastor. Her son, she recalled proudly, took to church quickly. He was the choir's youth director. By 20, he was preaching. By 26, he'd started his own church nearby.

No one was surprised. He was young, charming, a natural leader — and he knew it.

"I was a better pastor and better preacher than husband and father," he said.

Then the giants began invading his promised land. Soon, his marriage was in trouble. There was, he said, infidelity, domestic abuse, mountains of denial. And an all-consuming drug addiction.

But it was all about appearances, so Bishop Jones was careful to stay away from church when he was high. Rather than face his family, he'd fish through garbage cans for food. If anyone asked, he was sick. When family and friends tried to intervene, he roared with indignation.

How dare they question him? He was the pastor.

Over nearly 10 years of on and off again drug use, Jones convinced himself that he had everyone fooled. Part of him still thinks so.

"I was MIA," he said. "I'm still not sure if anyone really knew then."

They did. They recognized the lies. Their sons, daughters and husbands were doing drugs. They themselves were addicted. It's why some came to church, to ask God, through their pastor, for the guidance and strength they sometimes knew he didn't possess.

The whispers — hypocrite, some said — were directed at his family, especially his mother, who'd sometimes be so tired from praying for her son through the night that she'd fall asleep in one of the pews.

But no amount of prayer could conceal the truth, especially in such a small city. Angry and disappointed, parishioners left. The fragile facade of church and family man fell apart. He emptied his bank account. He sold anything he or his family had to buy drugs. When his wife had enough and took their kids to Ohio, he became what he called "a one-man crack house."

And why not? he thought. He'd lost everything. Why hide?

He sold his furniture to a dealer for all the dope he could smoke.

"I thought if that didn't kill me, then I'd kill myself."

In a drug-induced delirium, he called friends who'd helplessly watched his steady decline.

"Look out for my children," he told them.

They called police, who took him to the Institute of Living for a 48-hour psychiatric hold.

Jones convinced himself it was his wake-up call. He and his wife talked about reconciling, maybe starting another church in Ohio. But they eventually divorced."Just get yourself together, Jones," he'd scold himself when the urges woke him in the middle of the night. "You're preaching all over the place, you're changing people's lives. Now change yours."

He couldn't. He remarried. He and his wife, Munshunda, who'd come back to church after her own absence, blended their families and set about building a life together. But soon the same destructive pattern started again. Lies, missing money and television sets. Long, dark disappearances into places a preacher should go to rescue lost souls, not become one.

Until, finally, an ultimatum to get help or lose everything again.

It took more than a year, and two extended stays at a faith-based treatment center in North Carolina where he was told what someone should have told the prideful preacher long ago: We don't care who you are out in the world. In here, you're nobody.

By the end of his second stay, the man who ran the program offered him a permanent job at the center and his church in North Carolina — a fresh start that meant he wouldn't have to face the giants that were bound to be awaiting him in Hartford.

Except when Jones imagined leaving for good and building new roots 600 miles away, he couldn't do it. He had to go back, to the same street, the same church. Back to his roots if he had any chance at redemption. The prodigal preacher was staying put.

Seeking Redemption

When Jones came back nearly two years ago, he apologized to the church's few remaining parishioners so much that one woman finally begged him to stop. The congregation has slowly begun attracting new people. Young men and women who seem at ease with the preacher.

And while I don't completely understand seeking guidance from a flawed man, I wondered if for people who are struggling, maybe it makes more sense to seek strength from someone who has fought to find, and keep, their own.

It's been far from a smooth return. By spring, Jones' big talk of building a new church had tempered. Instead, the old carpet held together with tape was replaced by an inexpensive wood floor.

They didn't raise enough money to hand out turkeys at Thanksgiving or gifts at Christmas. The celebration of the church's anniversary this month was postponed.

He is realizing how much more difficult than he thought it is to rebuild a church while trying to rebuild a life. How easy it is for the challenges and frustrations to build.

"Do I have days where I feel like freaking out?" Jones says. "Yes. Running down the street? Yes. I've got to get a church renovated with no money, I have to pay off this property with no money."

"All I have is faith."

And a few more answers than when we first met. After months of wondering just how to reach out to the community, Jones realized the answer might be right outside his church office window — in the men who sell the drugs he once chased and the woman with the familiar looking hunger who buys them every Tuesday afternoon like clockwork.

They are stark reminders of his past. But, he thinks, they might also be his purpose for the future. Now when the preacher tells someone they can escape their giants, they aren't just words. They are testament from a man who still wears their footprints.

'Will I Ever Do Enough?'

On one of the last days Jones and I spoke, we sat in his second-floor church office. A funeral for a fellow pastor had gotten him thinking about his legacy.

"I'm thinking about what will be said when I go. Are people just going to remember that I was some bum who smoked dope? Or are people going to remember that this guy, he really tried to bring something to the community?"

That first Sunday I visited his church, a banner hung over him as he preached. "Living in the Miraculous Change," it read. And isn't that what both the man and the neighborhood need? "I know that God has forgiven me," Jones said. "I know that this is a day-to-day journey with myself."

He paused to look out the window behind him, and for a long time the only sounds in the room were of his tears, and the soft din of cars passing below.

And then in a whisper, a question neither of us could answer:

"Will I ever do enough?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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