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Thousands gather in joyful tribute to the late Rev. Arthur T. Jones

TAMPA — Thousands had learned from him and found inspiration through him. Some had been brought to God by him and become pastors because of him.

And on Friday, more than 2,000 people affected by the Rev. Arthur T. Jones brought Ehrlich Road to a halt as they flocked to his funeral at the church he started 24 years ago: Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Tampa.

It was a high-energy celebration, with a small orchestra and drums and a gospel choir more than 100 voices strong.

At the beginning of the service, which stretched for four hours, the traditional hymn To God Be the Glory took flight with a woman's soaring soprano. The congregation jumped to its feet. People clapped, swayed, waved and said, "Amen!" "Hallelujah!"

The Rev. Wayne G. Thompson, of First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg, told the crowd to expect a worship-filled service. They were going to have a great time, he said.

Even if, at times, that was difficult. Because the church without Jones is like a body without a head, said Bible-Based's the Rev. Anthony White.

Jones, 65, died May 4 from complications from multiple myeloma, a type of cancer. He left a wife of 43 years, Doris Jones, four children and a large, thriving church that loved him.

More than 50 clergy came to his funeral Friday, many from other states. One had traveled from Africa. During the service, they called Jones a visionary and a man who did not compromise his faith.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that when God was looking for a king, he did not form a committee; he found David. "And when he was looking for a pastor in Tampa," Buckhorn said, "he didn't form a committee. He found Art Jones."

Jones started Bible-Based in 1989 with his friend, the Rev. Earl B. Mason, and soon retired from a 24-year career at IBM. What started as a Bible study in his home grew to a church with more than 5,000 members and five congregations.

Music was always a large part of Jones' ministry. He wrote and recorded many gospel songs with the Florida Mass Choir. And on Friday, one of the most moving parts of the service belonged to the choir. By the end of an exuberant medley, most people were standing, swaying, clapping and singing along.

Jesus is mine! Jesus is mine! Everywhere I go.

As the medley wrapped up, the Rev. Thompson tried to get the congregation to sit down, but the choir relaunched. More dancing and singing. Even Jones' grieving family members were smiling.

"Wow," Thompson said finally, as the buzzing congregants took their seats.

After a few more speakers, one of the Rev. Jones' sons shared memories of a father who worked long days and traveled often, sometimes with the choir and sometimes to Africa, where the church had founded two schools

Still, after God, Jones' priority was his wife, said his son Arthur Timothy Jones II.

During the reverend's last days, he lost sight, the younger Jones said. Sometimes, it didn't seem as if he heard his family gathered around him.

During one visit, the younger Jones was not getting any response from his father, so he called his mom and put her on a speaker phone.

"Sam?" Doris Jones said over the phone.

"Yeah, baby," he replied.

"Did you eat any breakfast?" she asked.

"Yes, I ate," Tim Jones remembered his father saying.

The Rev. Jones always responded to two things, his son said: "His covenant partner and his creator."

Natalie Jones approached the microphone after her brother. She had not planned to say anything, but she had a story.

As her father slipped away, Natalie, who has a beautiful voice like him, could not bring herself to sing. Then on May 4, when the two were alone together, she touched his arm.

He was breathing quickly. And a song came to her lips.

Pressing my way, she sang into the lectern microphone.

Sometimes through the storm, sometimes through the rain.

I feel like pressing my way.

"It was almost like daddy was saying 'You're going to be okay,' " she said.

As she sang that day, on what turned out to be the Rev. Jones' last day, his breathing calmed. She sang again, for her father.

And on Friday, she sang again for the church. This time, a bass guitar and drums joined her.

Press on, she sang, in a rich alto voice. Press on.

People rose to their feet and joined her song, lifting their hands in the air.

Press on, soldier. Press on.

Natalie walked to her seat, sat down and let out a sob.

Shortly after 3 p.m., after four hours of praise and worship and tributes and tears, the hearse drove away, past a long line of choir members in robes with outstretched arms.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Thousands gather in joyful tribute to the late Rev. Arthur T. Jones 05/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 9:33pm]
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