A miracle is being performed on New Jersey Street… a miracle of integration.
That may be the first reaction of one who visits the Peoples Temple at 1502 N. New Jersey and finds a church that is uncompromisingly and wholeheartedly interracial.
Here is no color-bound congregation turning away God’s other children; here is no frosty assembly sitting gingerly at arm’s length from an occasional worshiper of a different race.
Here is an originally white group that goes into the “highways and hedges” seeking Negro fellow-worshipers: that numbers 104 NAACP members in its congregation; that practices equality to the extent it has seven interracial married couples!
When you learn that the Temple’s “witnesses”- many of them Southern-born whites – have just finished visiting 12,000 Negro homes in the city, you wonder what sort of prophet is leading them. And your amazement is increased when you discover that the pastor is a small-town Indiana product, raised in a community where Negroes were not permitted to remain after nightfall.
Rev. James Jones, the 25-year-old minister, has already lost two churches because of his crusades against segregation. But each time he has come up fighting all the harder and has built a larger, more successful congregation. How did this unusual Hoosier get to be a miracle worker.
James Jones was born and raised in Lynn, Randolph County, in a family of straitened circumstances. The town had one of those ugly traditions that a Negro person was not allowed to remain after dark. Rev. Jones recalls only knowing one colored youngster, who was accepted in a degree because he was a basketball star! But even this youth knew he had to be out of town by nightfall, unless there was a game.
The boy James went to work at 13 picking tomatoes. Later he moved to Richmond, where he was employed at Reid Memorial in his high school senior year. Here for the first time he came to know Negroes as fellow workers.
It was as a student at Indiana University, however, that he saw the light on race relations. He was then studying to be a social worker – “I came to integration before I ever came to the church,” he says.
He attended meetings of progressive and liberal students, heard Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and other speakers, and “suddenly the truth swept over me… that only complete integration in all phases of life was the solution to the race problem.”
The young student at once put his new-found convictions into practice, sometimes with rather lively results. “In those days I didn’t understand how to approach people with love,” he relates. “When I heard anybody use a racial epithet, I wanted to knock him down.”
On one occasion he was getting a haircut by a Negro barber who informed him that Negro patrons were not served in the shop. “Then here’s one white man whose hair you’ll never cut again,” Jones cried, leaping out of the chair and setalking out the door with his hair half cut.
He made Negro friends on the campus and brought one of them home for the Christmas holidays. Jones’ father, now deceased, refused to allow the guest in the house, whereupon the two youths went to Richmond to spend the vacation.
In his freshman year at I.U., Jones married Marceline Mae Baldwin of Richmond. After the sophomore they moved to Indianapolis where he entered Butler University. After a time he became interested in the Methodist ministry. Dr. Sumner Martin, then district superintendent, gave him an appointment as part-time minister of Somerset Methodist Church on the Southside.
From thevery beginning, because of his strong views against segregation, Rev. Jones’ career was a stormy one. Though the story is fascinating, perhaps there is no point in airing the disputes at this time. Suffice it to say that after several months of increasing friction with church authorities, the congregation withdrew from the Methodist Church.
Rev. Jones then became associate minister of the Laurel Street Tabernacle, most of his original congregation going with him. But here too he continued his efforts to obtain Negro members, and opposed jimcrow seating of colored worshipers.
Soon a demand was served on him to discontinue his interracial efforts. Instead, he says, “I went out and drove up and down the streets, looking for another church building.” Thus in April, 1955, he came to found the People’s Temple.
Rev. Jones says that Rev. John Price, for 40 years pastor of the Tabernacle, was then himself ousted by the congregation for his part in bringing in Rev. Jones. Advanced in years, Rev. Price suffered a heart attack. But he recovered and preached a dramatic sermon at People’s Temple supporting integration, which he had previously opposed. It was his last sermon – he died shortly thereafter.
The great thing about Rev. Jones’ experience is that not only members of his original Methodist congregation, but a large part of the Tabernacle congregation have followed him to People’s Temple. The church is fairly bursting at the seams with members and Sunday School children. Some who were strongly prejudiced have become the most fervent disciples of brotherhood.
The story seems to indicate that a pastor who fearlessly preaches the Gospel of Christ on race relations may find himself in trouble with church authorities – but he will be rewarded with an inspiring response from the hearts of the people.