CARROLLWOOD — Rehearsing in a cramped room, the choir members pour mixed emotions into the old-time gospel song written by a man with a deep, raspy voice.
On one hand, worship leader Corey Edwards remembers when Thank God for the Blood, a song about healing and redemption, spent time on Billboard's gospel charts. It inspired him to learn to play the piano. Its lyrics kept him off the streets as a boy in West Tampa.
But the man behind those words, the senior pastor of Bible-Based Fellowship Church, now has a testimony that moves Edwards and his singers nearly to tears.
At 63, the Rev. Arthur T. Jones is fighting an ongoing battle with multiple myeloma. The gospel performer turned preacher has survived months of chemotherapy treatments and hospitalizations. He relies on a walker and is unable to stand at the pulpit.
As they hit the tune's low notes, choir members are all too aware of his condition. But Jones has taught them to have faith in God, and that's what they want to express this weekend at an event to commemorate his contributions to gospel music.
Christian leaders and musicians from around the country will convene Sunday for "The Man, the Music, the Message: A Tribute to Rev. Arthur T. Jones." Many will also participate in the Gospel Music Workshop of America, a weeklong convention that expects to bring 15,000 to downtown Tampa.
It's a convention that Jones first brought to the area more than 30 years ago.
"He needs healing, and the song we are singing is so true, it is so right," Edwards says during rehearsal. "Only the blood of Jesus can heal Rev. Jones."
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Jones grew up singing in choirs and going to church in Tampa with his grandmother. By 1974 he was a member of the Tampa Mass Choir and, with friend Milton Biggham, set out to form the Florida Mass Choir.
The 200-member powerhouse included singers from churches in Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They performed at venues across the nation and caught the attention of gospel music producers who helped the group record its first commercial album, May the Holy Ghost Lead You. The choir sang gospel classics like Jesus Is Mine, and Florida Mass went on to record multiple albums until its dissolution in the 1990s.
In 1976 Jones, a Middleton High School graduate, helped bring the Gospel Music Workshop of America to Tampa for the first time. Thousands of artists descended on the city.
"He was a trendsetter," said Jones' youngest son, Tim. "He put Tampa on the map for gospel music."
For years, the father of four divided his life between music and his job as an engineer for IBM, ignoring his calling to the ministry, he said.
Then, in 1989, he started a Wednesday night Bible study out of his North Tampa home. More than a hundred people attended. Three years later, Jones and friend the Rev. Earl B. Mason purchased 6 acres off Ehrlich Road with plans to build a sanctuary for Bible-Based Fellowship Church. It opened in 1993, and Jones eventually became a full-time pastor.
Today, Bible-Based welcomes more than a thousand people each Sunday, works with local nonprofit groups and operates five schools in Central Africa.
Jones traveled there often, until late last year. On Dec. 1, he went into Tampa General Hospital unable to walk or stand on his own.
Doctors gave him a surprising diagnosis: blood cancer.
"It was unimaginable," he said. "It knocked me out."
He remained at TGH for several weeks before being transferred to Moffitt Cancer Center, where he began radiation and chemotherapy.
His wife, Doris, slept in a chair beside his hospital bed. His children knelt beside him and prayed. They read Scriptures together in the middle of the night. Other ministers preached to his members each Sunday.
When Jones' congregation learned of his condition, they sent cards and left messages.
He sent a message to them as well: "I told them the best they could do was to pray and stay together."
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The gospel artists appearing at his tribute concert are friends, Jones said. He knows them from way back when.
The James Sisters, Patrick Lundy, Edna Tatum and Bishop Albert Jamison are among dozens taking time out from their activities at the Gospel Music Workshop convention to honor the man they call a gospel pioneer.
Mass choirs from across the nation will also perform songs written by Jones.
"His songs have encouraged people," said Jamison, chairman of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. "Who knows how many people in their sicks beds turned the radio on, heard one of his songs and because of it was able to make it through. Now it's time for us to be a blessing to him."
Jones' children consider the event an opportunity to lift their father's spirits and encourage him as he continues to heal. He is not in remission but said his white blood cell counts are up.
"We want to celebrate his life while he is still here," Tim Jones said.
Cancer is a tough opponent, his father said, but it is no match for the power of God conveyed through music. Gospel songs come straight from the Bible. The lyrics are promises for a better tomorrow.
"I am being healed," Jones said. "God just wanted to refresh my testimony. Soon I'll have another story to tell."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.