By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Rev. James W. Jones, pastor of Greater New Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Carthage, has spent a lifetime teaching people how to get to heaven.
But for the past year, the longtime civil rights crusader and minister has been learning how to survive in "hell."
That's the word Jones uses to describe the five days he spent in a coma after double bypass heart surgery and a stroke a year ago. Hell is what he said his family endured emotionally as he lay in intensive care for two weeks.
Hell, Jones said, is no longer being able to lead the civil rights movement against racial inequality, a movement he started in Cincinnati two years ago today.
"I've been through hell," Jones recalled in a recent interview with The Enquirer. "My wife tells me more about what I've been through than I can remember."
"I think God clouded my memory so I wouldn't have to know how bad a shape I was in," he said. "It probably would have frightened the heck out of me, if I would have known everything."
In the living room of his Roselawn home, Jones sat on his couch and talked about his health, his recovery and his plan to one day return to community activism.
Physically, the 67-year-old is not the same man who at one time stormed City Hall demanding justice for African-Americans. The stroke he suffered nearly 16 months ago has slurred his speech, stolen some of his mobility and damaged his eyesight.
Mentally, the passion to fight discrimination still burns inside him.
"I hope I live to be 150 (years old)," Jones said. "But I don't know if I can accept slowing down. It's not in my nature."
Here for a reason
Jones was admitted to Bethesda North on Good Friday 2002 to undergo open heart surgery - a procedure doctors told his family would only take a few hours if all went well.
Doctors found that in addition to a double bypass, Jones needed a heart valve replacement. During the nearly 14-hour procedure, Jones suffered a stroke. For nearly 30 minutes, the blood flow to his brain was blocked.
Doctors were able to complete the operation, but the pastor would lie in a coma afterward.
But his wife, Ann, didn't lose hope.
"We were bound, determined and prayerful that he would come around," she said. "His whole life has been about communicating with people. The idea of him just laying there not able to communicate...we couldn't accept that."
Jones would awaken five days later; nearly blind, unable to speak or move the right side of his bodyHe would stay in intensive care at Bethesda for two weeks before being transferred to the Drake Center for three months of intense physical therapy.
Today, Jones can walk on his own and see images fairly well. His speech remains slurred, but gets markedly better the longer he talks.
Ann Jones said her husband has come a long way in a year. She said she believes that God kept him alive for a purpose.
"There are millions of people who have gone through this same thing and they didn't make it," Ann Jones said. "He's here for a reason."
I will fight until I die
Jones said that reason might be to continue his fight for racial equality. Jones, founder of the First Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and chief organizer of the boycott against downtown, said the African-American struggle for justice in Cincinnati is never far from his mind.
Had his health not failed him, Jones said he would be right in the middle of the city's racial issues, screaming for change.
"There is still one heck of a battle left to be fought in Cincinnati," Jones said. "I hope I live long enough to convince my brothers that the battle is far from over.
"I realize it's a time for me to take it easy," he said. "But I've determined that I will fight until I die."
Jones stays informed on current events by listening to the radio and television and getting updates from close friends still involved in the boycott. He said he is disappointed that Mayor Charlie Luken still hasn't agreed to meet with boycotters to settle lingering issues.
He said he's sad about divisions in the boycott movement that he says are the result of some people's selfish desire for recognition.
Jones declined to speculate about whether the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati would have split if he had not taken ill. But he did say, if leaders of the boycott called him to duty tomorrow, he would be there ready to act.
During a boycott forum on April 7, leaders of the movement honored Jones with an award for more than 30 years of civil rights activism.
"I'll never be able to express what that meant to me," Jones said of the award. "Sometimes you think that you are going to go all your life and people not realize that you were real and sincere about what you tried to do.''Jones said he is also thankful for his church congregation, which has stood by him during his illness and still calls him "pastor."
"They could just throw me aside, but they haven't," Jones said. "They continue to provide me with a feeling and a role of usefulness.
"As long as they do that I'm happy," he said. "To be needed is the greatest honor I have."
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