The Rev. Dr. Isaiah Jones, Jr. was my father-in-law and one of the deans of gospel music as we know it. I’m not sure how many songs he wrote in all, but the most famous one is “God Has Smiled On Me.” It’s not quite as popular as “Jingle Bells” or “Hotel California,” but in many Protestant circles, it’s one of those songs that you just picked up along the way without ever seeing the words on paper. It transcends denomenation and generation.
I was with Isis and the baby at a Presbyterian church in the Bronx last Sunday, the day he passed. During the service (before we got the news), what song do they strike up during the service? “God has smiled on me, he has set me free….” Isis called her father to let him hear the church singing it–left it on his voice mail. She figured he would enjoy that, since he had been in and out of the hospital over the last couple of weeks. When we left the church, she called him. An aunt answered and broke her the news. A day and a half later, she was on a plane to LA. I’ll be out there Saturday, the funeral is Monday.
The funeral is going to be a pretty major affair. Dad was one of those people who knew all the movers and shakers, but never quite made it into the limelight himself. Sure, he traveled the world, got his share of honors and awards including a Grammy nod, but his name is not as familiar, even to gospel music fans. Still, all of those “big name” people certainly worked with, learned from, knew, loved, and admired him. At 68, he was one of the elder statesmen of gospel music; those who have come after and thrived owe him a debt of gratitude for helping pave the way.
What I’m going to miss most is just talking to him. There really aren’t that many black men who have been to seminary, hold inclusive views, and have the time to just chat it up. He certainly knew the Bible, yet we were able to put the Bible down and talk about our real experiences as well. We used to relate it to the law of attraction, telepathy, healing, yoga, astral projection, and other aspects of spirituality Christians generally don’t want to deal with. Among other things, he gave me a whole lot of books, including several volumes of Bible commentaries, which gave my book shelf some serious credibility. It was always respectable, but thanks to those tomes, it looks like a legitimate preacher’s library.
He had a way of being used by God. Just one example was his being present for the birth of our son, his only grandchild. The baby was due on Sept. 29. He really wanted to be there for the delivery, but had some conflict. So he booked his ticket for Oct. 8th and just planned to spend a few days with us. The baby came late, so Dad ended up being right in the delivery room with me and Isis, which is what he wanted. Things always had a way of working out like that for him.
And now, as much as it hurts, he’s dead. Right now, 2 things are getting me through. One, it hasn’t really sunk in for me. Once I fly across the country and those family members meet me at the airport, it will sink in. Second, I really do know that he is all right. For me, the pain of separation is (sometimes) lessened by the knowledge that Dad still exists in the spiritual form. All the little insecurities and secrets and grudges and regrets that are a part of this earthly life, they are no more for him. Maybe he was greeted on the other side by his parents and brother who proceeded him in death. Most importantly, I think he would want us to know that God is still smiling on him as well as each of us.