Lasting Legacies: Memories of Tracey Jones on His 90th Birthday
General Secretary of the Board of Global Ministries
by Deborah Jones Breitenbach
Today, as I watch Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on television competing for the Democratic nomination, I cannot help but think about the many men and women, including my father Tracey K. Jones Jr., who helped create the world in which this new reality is possible. Today, Senators Obama and Clinton, both of whom credit their Christian upbringing and values as sources of their call to lead our nation, are not only viable candidates but also the hope for the future of our country. Who could have seen this just 50 years ago, except through the work, integrity, courage, and hopefulness of so many for a world that is in some ways finally here?
I am reminded of a sermon of my father's and the text he used as its basis: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us turn with perseverance to the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Heb. 12:1, 2). This "great cloud of witnesses" helped lead The Methodist Church through turbulent years of change in the United States, despite opposition both within and without, with integrity, faith, and perseverance. They also help me today to understand "the call" that my own parents heard and answered so many years earlier.
My father, Tracey K. Jones Jr., was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1917. He was the son of Tracey Jones and Marion Flowers Jones, a YMCA mission family in China. He spent his boyhood between Syracuse, New York, and Canton, China. Educated at Ohio Wesleyan, Yale Divinity School, and the University of California language school, he spent the first year of his professional life flying from Delhi, India, to Chungking, China, to work as a liaison between American and Chinese troops in 1945. He helped to train 2000 Chinese interpreters assigned by the Chinese government to help the American forces in China. He was in Chungking when the Japanese surrendered.
"In late 1945 my work with the US-China Civilian Laision group came to an end," my father says. "I was in Nanking, the capitol, at that time. I remained in the city and became a part of a the small first group of Methodist missionaries assigned there to work with the Methodist schools, hospitals, and churches in that part of China. Martha [Canton, my mom] and Judy [my older sister] joined me in the summer of 1946." I understand they were there first as a family and then only Dad. He watched the Communists march into Nanking and stayed six months after Communist rule was established.
Finally, in 1950 he joined my mother in Hong Kong (she was there with my older brother and sister for nine months alone), and then they all came back to the States. In 1952 they went to Singapore (and I was born during this assignment.) His personal Nanking diary, which I read for the first time as a 40-year-old adult, opened a window into the world of danger, uncertainty, and suffering that I had never imagined or connected with my father's work.
After serving as a pastor for Wesley Methodist Church in Singapore from 1952 to 1955, our family returned to the States and settled in New Jersey, and my father began his two decades of service to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the World Council of Churches. Among other accomplishments, he led the Middle East Peace panel of the National Council of Churches in February 1980. He served as General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries for almost 12 years, directing the work of thousands of United Methodist missionaries in hundreds of countries. He helped to steer a changing church through the difficult days of the Civil Rights movement, the changing role of women in our culture, and the changing role of "our mission today," also the title of his book.
After retiring from the mission board, he became a visiting professor at Drew Theological Seminary and worked on many new projects, including Habitat for Humanity and the establishment of a homeless shelter in Sarasota, Florida, where he and my step mother Junia have settled in retirement, that still serves the most troubled and destitute in their community.
In our home, however, as I grew up, I knew my parent's friends as a warm, generous, and serious group; it was not until many years later that I realized how unique this group really was. I spent Sundays, holidays, and vacations with the families of Rev. Charles and Julia Germany, Rev. Gene and Margaret Stockwell, Rev. Eugene and Idalene Smith, and Bishop James and Eunice Mathews. My father's friends were from all parts of the globe and of many backgrounds. Diversity was not a word I knew or had heard then, but I had always seen it through my parent's lives. The visits of some of my parents most trusted friends, from Singapore and Hong Kong, are still memorable today.
Even my parents' Montclair friends were far from the norm, I now realize. Rev. and Mrs. Catchings, two of my favorites, were leaders in the Fair Housing work my father was doing and in their efforts to bring calm in the crisis in the newly integrated schools through which I lived. My parents' friends were Asian, African-American, African, Latino, and Caucasian, despite the fact that my friends, their parents, and all my classmates were white. Their childhood friends were Shanghai American school grads, missionaries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and India, and current business and church people from all around the world. While Montclair's schools were integrated, my classes were not, the result of "tracking" and years of segregated schools, and I have only realized as an adult that I lived in two worlds, that of my parents and that of an average "white" teen in mid-20th century USA.
Now, when I read an editorial from New World Outlook (September 1980, p. 7), written on the occasion of his retirement, that described Dad's tenure as general secretary as a time when "the traditional understanding of the church's role in mission [had] changed in major ways the institution he headed [had] changed correspondingly to a greater emphasis on the poor, the handicapped and the increased participation of women and ethnic minorities," I realize how important my father's work and the work of many others was and how much flexibility, compassion, faith, and integrity it took to do it. And, it was a change that "was not achieved without opposition," as the editorial describes. I have memories of slashed tires, harsh words, and threatening letters that meant little when I was young, that now remind me of how much I had taken for granted as right and "normal," but which were not, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s.
This "cloud of witnesses," those I knew and the many whom I did not, did in fact turn their faith and their talents to the important work that today seems so long ago. Yet, when my 17-year-old son, John, asked Dad about his World War II experience as part of a "Greatest Generation" project (a popular assignment in schools today), Dad first made sure that John understood that the "greatest generation" was not one generation; it was every generation, especially my son's, for they too have to create the future for our country and our world. He encouraged him to be sure to do what every generation before him had done: try to make change and do what is right with imagination, compassion, and courage.
Today, at 90, Dad is still a man of principle and faith. His gift of roses and daily visits to the medical unit of the retirement community in which he and Junia live is now his ministry. He knows not only all of his neighbors, but also the staff, including the teenage waiters in the dining hall. He is part of a book group and a men's discussion group that debates education, health care, and morality in our modern world. Both he and Junia work hard to continually reinforce how our two families are in fact one and to keep up with their grandchildren and new great-grandchildren. Dad walks and swims every day (always the athlete), reads, prays, discusses the issues of the day and his hopes for the future, and supports a wife who is a powerful leader herself.
Dad's own words from the last sermon that he ever preached in July 2002 at Silver Bay Association, a mile from where I now live with my own family, include the advice for others on which he has lived his life, from the earliest days when, inspired by John R. Mott, he set out for China, to his more recent ministry in Florida: "A new period in history lies ahead. Where can we turn for guidance and hope? We can, I believe, turn to the memories of a great cloud of witnesses that surround us. They are memories of men and women of faith who over the past century knew how to use their prosperity in the service of others, and in adversity, knew where they could find the patience, courage, and creativity to do something that would bring a blessing into the lives of others out of the tragedies that had touched their lives. We do well to remember, celebrate, and honor those lives. We will also do well to remember that they are the kind of lives each of us, young and old, should live, and the kind of lives our nation desperately needs today and will need in the future." (Silver Bay Association, 2002)
What a legacy has been left to us.
The Rev. Dr. Tracey K. Jones was general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries for twelve years, 1968 to 1980. He observed his 91st birthday in mid-March. This tribute to Dr. Jones and his enormous contributions to the church and its mission is by his daughter, Deborah Jones Breitenbach, Silver Bay, New York. The directors and staff of Global Ministries join the Jones family in honoring a church leader of compassion, enthusiasm, and vision.
Date posted: Apr 11, 2008