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Megachurch only part of Tampa pastor’s legacy
TAMPA The second the doctor told him he had cancer, the Rev. Arthur T. Jones tuned everything else out. Dear Lord, he prayed, I don’t deserve this. I never put drugs in my veins or alcohol in my mouth. I wasn’t that bad of a dude. You know where this came from, and you know how to get rid of it. It was Dec. 1, 2010. The founder of Bible-Based Fellowship Church, Tampa’s first nondenominational African-American megachurch, Jones made it his mission to beat the deadly multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis treatments. And he prayed like never before. “I do believe he will heal me,” Jones told The Tampa Tribune in a two-hour interview 10 months after the diagnosis. “But if not, I know where I’m going. I’ll get to see my grandmother, my mother and my uncle again. I’ll get to see Jesus.”On Saturday, Jones, 65, lost his hard-fought battle. He died in a local hospice with family by his side. A viewing will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the church, 4903 Ehrlich Road, Tampa, with a celebration of life set for 11 a.m. Friday. “He leaves a legacy that will go on,” said the Rev. Stephen Nunn, pastor of United Hearts International Ministries in Tampa and Jones’ brother-in-law. “As a man of God, a preacher, a teacher, a friend, a brother and a mentor, he used the pulpit and gospel music to bring hope and joy to this community.” For more than two decades, Jones had a successful career as an IBM marketing executive. But he is best known for the mark he made in the faith community. Bible-Based Fellowship, the church he founded in 1992 with 28 people in his living room, eventually grew to a reported 3,500 members on a sprawling 10½-acre campus. The ministry spawned several area congregations and two schools in Africa. He also was a co-founder of the famed 200-member Florida Mass Choir and took part in 14 recordings on albums and compact discs. Because of his influence, the Gospel Music Workshop of America came to Tampa for its annual gathering on several occasions. On Aug. 14, 2011, some of the biggest names in the business came together to pay tribute to Jones in an energized afternoon of praise and worship at the church. Thousands filled the sanctuary. “Rev. Jones was a giant in the gospel music industry,” said William Sanders, a Tampa-based music producer. “He set a standard that has been imitated across the country. His song ‘I Thank God for the Blood’ is a classic still used for the Communion service.” Preaching was never in Jones’ plans. He was born in Tampa on Christmas Eve to a 13-year-old girl who had been raped. His beloved grandmother, Gusscilla Jones, widowed just months before his birth, took him in immediately. She already had raised eight children. What was one more? As a young man, Jones set his sights on being an aeronautical engineer, a career field where few, if any, African-American men had ventured. While studying physics at St. Petersburg Junior College in 1968, he was recruited by IBM executives who were seeking to diversify their company’s workforce at the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville with the Apollo space program. He and 11 candidates were accepted into the nine-month program. Living with his grandmother meant “my only option was to end up No. 1 in my class.” He didn’t disappoint her, graduating in the top spot. He had several jobs within the corporation for the next 24 years, moving every two years with each promotion. He and his wife, Doris, had two sons and two daughters, and they lived comfortably on his executive’s salary. Once a month, on weekends, he traveled to meet the Mass Choir for performances. But juggling so many roles — career, music and family — started to take a toll. Jones told the Tribune he finally accepted he was running from his true calling. “The Lord wanted me in ministry,” he said. “And I knew it from the time I was baptized on the third Sunday in June in 1955 at St. John’s Progressive Church. I just hid it for the next 29 years.” For 24 years, since that first meeting in his living room, Ruth Hunter served as Jones’ administrative assistant. She says it would be hard to describe what her pastor meant to his congregation in just a few words. “He was steadfast. He was a visionary. He believed in the truth,” she said. “But the best part about Rev. Jones is that he had a good heart. He had a heart for all people and never stopped trying to help others.” While undergoing dialysis, which left him weak, she said, he would sing along to a gospel song made famous by Walter Hawkins: “Hang on Old Soldier.” “That gave him a lot of comfort through his terrible ordeal,” she said. Though he professed optimism that he would beat the cancer, Jones stressed the importance of keeping church operations running smoothly. His extended absences from the pulpit did not affect attendance, said Corey Edwards, the church’s minister of music. “That’s a testimony to his organizational skills,” Edwards said. “He laid a foundation that was greater than him. Even a month or so ago, he came to one of our strategic planning meetings and encouraged us to keep the vision and stay focused on our mission.” Edwards said that Jones was not without his critics. Some members left because they thought he ran the ship too tightly and often was stern and unrelenting in his expectations. Even Edwards has been on the receiving end of his boss’s wrath. “But I will tell you, he was even-handed in his rebuke and his compassion,” Edwards said. “His chastisement was not malicious in nature. He had high standards of excellence for himself and expected the same from others.” Edwards is leading two rehearsals this week for a memorial choir — composed of current and former church members, noted gospel singers and former Mass Choir members — that will perform at Friday’s service. He expects the music to be a “glorious tribute” to a man who mentored so many, including him. In his interview with the Tribune, Jones said getting cancer was “humbling.” As an advisory board member at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, he would visit the hospital and see patients coming and going to treatment. He never thought he would be one of them. “My heart has been tenderized by this experience,” he said. He thought that God brought him to the sidelines to evaluate some of the mistakes he had made in life and learn from them. He had only one more request. “I know I’ve got one more lap left in me, Lord,” he said. “Let me run it. Let me back in the game.” His prayers were answered. A year later, he returned to the pulpit for a few months. His final sermon from the sanctuary was earlier this year.