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Preacher Belts 'Em Out for the Lord


The pastor--tall and dapper in a double-breasted white suit--stands before his flock and intones, "Praise the Lord . . . are you all as nervous as I am?"

Not your usual message from the pulpit, but the Rev. Cheviene Jones is no ordinary preacher. He's here this Sunday afternoon at Bethel AME Church in South-Central to sing and dance. In the name of the Lord, of course.

The congregation is accustomed to hearing its pastor talk to them about many things--the importance of approaching life with a plan, why talent must go hand in hand with discipline, the issue of friendship in the context of O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings.

But this is not a church service. It is a concert. The pastor, who was once a professional musician, is performing to raise money for the church and its people projects.

It's standing room only, not an empty seat among 800.

"Sing, shout, clap, stomp, praise the Lord as you see fit," entreats program co-chair Clarence Bush, one of the warm-up acts. He needn't have urged.

The pastor, it can safely be said, has charisma. He wows them with "The Lord's Prayer," delivered in a voice that flirts with tenor, bass and baritone over a range of two-plus octaves, building to a booming "Amen."

To thunderous applause, he sings "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." He brings some to their feet with "The Savior Lives in You," which, he notes, is "the gospel according to Jones."

He's really warming up now, dancing in place, high-kicking, clapping. "Is everything all right?" It is. "Praise the Lord."

Jones, 52, is no stranger to show business. He used to be in it. Indeed, he once played bass guitar on the Playboy Club circuit. Then, in 1974, a messenger appeared to him in winged helmet and beckoned him to serve God.

Jones answered: "No way, no way."

About six months later, he heard the Lord's voice. The message was ominous, Jones recalls: "If I didn't preach, he had no reason to keep me here."

So he packed up his guitar and enrolled at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, where he might just have been the first student with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a series of underground club gigs, a stint as an engineer--and a French chef's name.

He explains the name: His father, a chef before becoming a pastor, worked with a chef Cheviene (pronounced sheVEEN) at Radium Springs, Ga., a resort "where rich people would come in the '20s and '30s."

At 5, little Cheviene was singing in church, in a voice he believes was "a gift of God." At Morris Brown College in Atlanta, where he minored in music, Coretta Scott King helped hone that gift.

But, on graduation, Jones the pragmatist signed on as an engineer with Western Electric, which made Ma Bell's telephones. "So boring," he says, "so predictable." After eight years, music was on his mind.

"People like Cannonball Adderley told me I could play," says Jones, who reckons he became "pretty good." First, with a funky rock group called the Kickers and the Pickers, later with a jazz septet, the Prime Ministers, then with the Chevy Jones Trio.

Then came that fateful messenger.

Until then, he'd never considered the ministry. As the eldest of five children of a preacher, he'd learned that "people hold the pastor and his family to a higher standard than they hold themselves. They want to put you in a glass house. They forget that their house is also made of glass."

As his father moved from church to church, city to city, Jones had always been "the new kid on the block," the perpetual outsider.

But throughout his life he accumulated experiences that would serve him well after he accepted his calling to do the Lord's work: The racial prejudice of the old South, which made him motivated and disciplined; his civil rights activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, of course, five years as a musician.

Says Jones: "I have a tendency not to be as judgmental as some people who spent all their time in the church. . . . I try to be compassionate, having lived on the other side of the track. I never was a drug addict, but I was around them. I was around pimps and prostitutes . . . I was around people who did contract killings."

He enjoys calling himself "a country boy from Georgia," but his flock isn't fooled.

"Oh, honey, he is terrific," says Lucille Harris, who joined Bethel AME in 1963. "A wonderful minister. The best we've ever had."

The pastor's dollars-and-cents savvy isn't lost on her, either. (His credits include graduate studies in business administration). Soon after arriving as pastor 22 months ago, he did the first fund-raising concert, raising about $12,000 for college scholarships and youth- and family-oriented church programs. Last Sunday's concert, with admission by donation, brought in about $14,000.

"A gifted man, multitalented," says Joseph Moss of the Men of Bethel. Moss sees nothing bizarre about having his pastor up there singing and dancing.

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