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Breaking Down Walls

Dr. Howard O. Jones reflects on his wife, his life and his Lord

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“When Billy Graham called me to be his first African-American evangelist, I was honored—and totally unprepared for the backlash that followed.”

This year, Alliance minister Dr. Howard O. Jones marks his fiftieth anniversary as the first African-American on Billy Graham’s team of evangelists and the first black American clergyman to hold major evangelistic rallies in Liberia, West Africa. “It was cause for great celebration in the country. The people went crazy,” Howard recalls. “It was as if we were the Beatles arriving in America for the first time, except we weren’t importing rock ’n roll, but the Rock of Ages.”

Howard’s illustrious life is chronicled in his autobiography, Gospel Trailblazer: An African-American Preacher’s Historic Journey Across Racial Lines. It predates his birth on April 12, 1921, with the story of his great-grandmother, Jane Martin, born into slavery on a Virginia plantation. She and her husband, Henry, promised their children they “would someday drink from Lake Erie” in northeast Ohio. The book ends with a poignant challenge to the Church, “which has not done enough to build solid bridges between the races.”

Life Partners

Now 87 years old, Howard recalls his life vividly. But if you really want to hear him speak passionately and tenderly, just ask him about his beloved wife of 57 years, Wanda, now home with the Lord. It seemed that no matter what we talked about, Jones’s mind eventually drifted back to Wanda Young.

“When God brings a man and woman together, ultimately His purpose is to unite two people who can serve and glorify Him more as a team than as separate individuals. I’m glad He operates that way, because I needed Wanda Young.”

Wanda and Howard talked often of marriage. But then Wanda met another Man and accepted Christ at a revival at her home church, Oberlin Alliance. She burst with joy as she told Howard, but her conversion drastically changed the relationship. They had less and less in common. Howard was a gifted musician and eager for fame as a jazz saxophonist.

One day, Howard recalls, “her soft, gentle hands took hold of mine, and she explained to me that unless I gave my heart to Christ, she would have to stop seeing me.” Her words cut him deeply, but he told her that their differences didn’t have to come between them and that she would never want for anything.

Wanda courageously responded, “Even though I love you, I love Christ more. Therefore, unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, I will not be able to see you anymore, because we’ll have nothing in common.”

Howard was crushed. She told him that he should consider giving up his glamorous dreams of superstardom. “It is my personal conviction, now that I’m a Christian, that God has something better for you in life than a career as a sax player,” Wanda said. “I’m going to pray, and our church is praying, that someday soon you’ll give your heart and life to Jesus and then use your talents to serve the Lord.”

Howard was irresistibly drawn to a saving knowledge of Jesus, and one day, he fell to his knees at the altar of the Oberlin Alliance Church, where he surrendered his life to Christ. Howard credits Wanda’s intercessory prayers and firm stand as the tools the Holy Spirit used to change his destiny. He cherishes the memory of this courageous young woman, who would be his life’s partner to reach lost people all over the world for Jesus Christ.

“A Christian woman struggling in her relationship with an unsaved man must put Christ first,” says Howard. “She must ask herself, ‘What would Jesus want me to do?’ If the man gives His heart to Christ, great, but if not, she has to tell him, ‘I love you, but I’m in love with Someone else more. If you don’t give your heart to Christ, I can’t be with you.’ Wanda did not waiver. She said, ‘Give your heart to Christ, or I will not marry you.’”

False Barriers

Howard and Wanda attended the Missionary Training Institute, which would later become Nyack College. During his first week at school, Howard received a letter telling him that a close friend had been killed in an automobile accident. As his face registered his pain, four white students prayed for him. “It was one of many defining moments that God used to open my heart to my white brothers and sisters at Nyack, and my eyes to the meaning of the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians: ‘Pray without ceasing.’”

Howard and Wanda experienced “the good with the bad at Nyack.” Of 600 students, there were only 12 blacks. “On Friday nights we listened as missionaries challenged the student body with the call of the Great Commission,” recalls Howard. “But when a black student raised a question about black missionaries, we were given shortsighted lines of reasoning why it was inadvisable.” At the time black missionary kids (MKs) would have to attend the same schools as white MKs. They were also told that the gospel wouldn’t be accepted from a black man.

“It took many nights of angst-ridden prayers and long discussions with other black students to help me keep the proper perspective: God was in the business of salvation and reconciliation, and He would use whomever and whatever He wanted to accomplish His purposes,” Howard says. “He never intended race, class or culture to become barriers to relationships among His people.”

Blazing a Trail

Howard and Wanda married a month after graduation and moved to New York City, where they planted Bethany Alliance Church. They then served other churches in New York and Ohio. Howard’s radio broadcasts, heard in the United States and Africa, brought him to the attention of the Sudan Interior Mission in Monrovia, Liberia. He was invited to hold evangelistic crusades for three months in Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria—the first black evangelist to do so. “It was our first international trip. The Liberian kids would stand when we entered the classrooms. They made a sign that read, ‘Welcome to the Fatherland.’”

The outpouring of celebration and the conversion of tens of thousands of Africans in response to Howard and Wanda’s ministry brought him to the attention of evangelist Billy Graham. Graham rejected racism and resolved not to hold segregated crusades. He wanted Howard as the first black evangelist on his team. With the blessing and support of the Smoot Memorial Alliance Church (now Union Avenue Alliance Church, Cleveland, Ohio), where Howard was affiliated with the Cleveland Quartet, the Joneses were released to answer the call.

More Than a Test

“There’s a mixed blessing being the first African-American to realize some key achievement in the United States. It is an honor to overcome a barrier that has long kept black people on an unequal footing with whites,” Howard says.

“But, along with the outer triumph, there is an inner ache—an angst—of having to live with the often unfriendly fallout of going where no black man has gone before. It’s a feeling that you’re a living experiment, a human lab test. It’s the pressure of knowing your every word and action has the potential to make or break the hopes of millions of others who will come after you. When I was on the board of Billy Graham ministries, it was tough, since I was ostracized because of the color of my skin. But Billy wanted that team integrated.”

Howard O. Jones has been called the “Jackie Robinson of Evangelism.” “Back in 1957, we were just three years removed from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that opened the doors for racial integration in the United States… The church has typically followed the lead of secular society when it comes to race. Our evangelical churches seemed to believe that heaven, too, would be ‘separate but equal.’”

While Howard is frank about his ongoing struggles with rac-ism within the Body of Christ, there is no animosity in his speech or writing. “I struggled hard with that,” he confesses. “I never wanted bitterness to be re?ected in my preaching. I keep focused on Christ and the cross. I want to write about bitterness without being bitter. Christ was not bitter. He loved his enemies. Joining Billy Graham’s team was tough, but Billy stayed by my side and shouldered the burden with me. If Billy could take a stand, why can’t more white churches take a stand against racial injustice?

“Perhaps one of the greatest honors of my ministry career was the Howard O. Jones Chair of Evangelism established by Crown College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the late 1980s. I had been a regular speaker at Crown’s chapel services in the 1970s before becoming an adjunct faculty member and teaching occasional classes on evangelism, preaching and racial reconciliation between semesters. So it meant a lot for that school and then-president Gary Benedict to bestow that honor upon me.”

The School of the Cross

Throughout their ministry, Howard and Wanda prayed together every day. “Our life’s verse on our honeymoon was Jeremiah 33:3: ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things that you do not know.’ I would pray, ‘Lord, let your word come to Howard Jones.’ That is the secret for a meaningful relationship with Christ.

“I looked forward to Wanda’s and my prayer time. I never felt intimidated about praying with my wife because I knew the power of prayer in my life and Wanda’s life. My kids say they remember hearing their mother and me pray. Now they do it with their own children. Prayer was a delight. When children see parents enthused about God and prayer, it makes a mark on their lives. It is important for them to see the reality of Christ in their parents’ lives.”

Howard’s life changed dramatically when Wanda was hos-pitalized with Alzheimer’s disease. “I’d go see her every day at four o’clock. After Sunday worship, I’d go see her. She looked so pretty. She had a habit of looking at me very closely. She would fix my collar and tie.”

The experience helped him put suffering in perspective. “You don’t know how to enjoy and appreciate the impact of how God can use you unless you are tested. Only then can you tell other people: Look at Paul, Peter and, of course, our Lord. When we are converted, we are enrolled in the school of the cross. In that school, Jesus teaches us all things concerning being a Christian. We never graduate until we pass. It’s in those tough places, times of sorrow, that we are blessed and bless others.

“God has been good to us.”

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