The following tribute was written by Faith McDonnell, Director of Religious Liberty Programs and of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. If you would like to donate to the Christian Rescue Fund, a fund dedicated to aiding Christians escaping persecution, please find the donation button below.
I was saddened to hear of the death of actor Dean Jones on September 1, 2015, and pray God’s comfort for his loving wife, Lory, and all those who loved him. Dean reached out to IRD in 1998 because of his concern for persecuted Christians around the world, and I was privileged to speak to him and correspond with him. His passing into Eternity is a great loss for those who remain, but we rejoice in his Homecoming. Rest in peace, dear brother, and rise in Glory to hear the Lord’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
On September 1, 2015, the world lost a great man and talented actor. Dean Jones, 84, died due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to news reports. But the world also lost a great defender and protector of the persecuted. Jones was a follower of Christ with not just a “personal faith,” but one who used his wealth and influence to serve the suffering Church around the world.
If Dean Carroll Jones, who was born January 25, 1931 in Decatur, Alabama, only had been a film and stage star, that would be enough for him to be remembered and lauded by the world. But in Heaven, hundreds of persecuted Christians will testify to his faithfulness in sharing in their suffering. Jones’ story leads all the way from Los Angeles to such places as South Sudan and Fairfax, Virginia. And even through the phone lines of the Institute on Religion and Democracy!
For dedicated Disney fans, Jones will always be Jim, the race car driver in The Love Bug, the 1968 movie about a Volkswagen Beetle “Herbie,” with a mind of its own. Or they may think of him as the allergy-prone FBI agent Zeke Kelso in That Darn Cat. Jones, who made 10 films for Disney, was inducted in the Disney LEGENDS Hall of Fame in 1995.
Jones also received accolades for his work on stage, particularly in the Harold Prince/Stephen Sondheim Tony-laden musical, Company. Jones originated the role of Bobby in the musical in April 1970, and according to Playbill, “earned a place in Broadway history” for his performance. Most of the star’s obituaries feature a link to his powerful solo for the original Broadway cast recording of Company, “Being Alive.” Jones left the show after only a month, though, because of personal problems including a failing marriage and depression over the emptiness of his life.
Fame and financial success didn’t bring the actor satisfaction. In a 1991 interview in People magazine, Jones revealed how MGM studios “was grooming him to become the next James Dean.” Jones, who had grown up in a Christian home and attended Asbury College (Wilmore, KY) before dropping out, said that “the angry young man period in Hollywood” really fit his personality. “I was very angry, very hostile. I was drinking and partying all night. I had hundreds and hundreds of affairs, even though I was still married.” Jones and first wife, Mae Entwistle, divorced in 1970.
Jones was on the run from God. He felt emptiness in the midst of great success, when he should have felt the most fulfilled. Combined with two close brushes with death — a motorcycle accident in 1968 and a car crash in 1970 — the restlessness in his spirit made him aware that God was still there no matter how far he ran.
Of his accident, obituary writer Mark Ellis relates that as Jones “lay in the desert with 13 broken bones, bleeding profusely, and a concussion, he knew he faced a critical turning point.” The haunting poem by 19th century British poet Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven” says Ellis, “played in his mind as a friend worked feverishly to keep him from bleeding to death.” The title of Jones’ 1982 autobiography, published by Chosen Books, Under Running Laughter, is a line from that poem, describing how man tries to hide from God.
When Jones and his second wife, Lory Basham Jones, surrendered to the Lord, their transformation did not stop with their own personal peace and salvation. Jones became a spokesperson for the Christian humanitarian organization Compassion International. He and Lory chose to pray on a regular basis for Uganda and ministered to persons living with AIDS. They became parents to seven foster children over the years, in addition to their own three children, Caroline and Deanna, from Jones’ first marriage and Michael Patrick Jones, his son with Lory. And they searched for ways to help persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
On a summer day in 1998, one of my IRD colleagues informed me that Dean Jones was on the telephone for me. “I think it’s the movie star from The Love Bug,” he said without a trace of humor to indicate if he was joking, “Oh yeah, ha, ha, ha,” I retorted, assuming it was either someone with the same name as the actor, or someone playing a trick. But as soon as Dean Jones said hello, I knew he was the genuine article.
Jones had been directed to IRD by the office of then Senator Sam Brownback for information I had about Christians in Sudan. We ended up talking several times, and then corresponding a few more over the next year. I tried to arrange a meeting for him with a Sudanese bishop who was visiting San Diego, but, sadly, the bishop’s trip was cut short by the U.S. bombing of the Al Shifa “pharmaceutical” factory.
Not long after that, though, Jones accompanied Senator Brownback to the south of Sudan, an area of brutal persecution of Christians under genocidal jihad by their own northern government. He met Christians from the Diocese of Yei and attended a worship service with them there.
Also in 1998 Jones founded the Christian Rescue Committee (CRC), now the Christian Rescue Fund, to help persecuted Christians, Jews, and other vulnerable minorities. Gary Lane, CBN News Senior International Reporter says, “I know CRC rescued hundreds, if not thousands, of persecuted Christians. Jones would have rescued millions if he hadn’t been limited by money and logistics.”
The most fruitful and ongoing partnership for Jones on issues of the persecuted church was with Christian human rights group Jubilee Campaign USA and its associated law firm, Just Law International in Fairfax, Virginia. Jubilee Campaign’s Executive Director, human rights attorney Ann Buwalda, declared that Jones was “dedicated to rescuing persecuted Christians and bringing them to safety.” Buwalda lauded Jones, saying:
For many years Jones collaborated with Jubilee Campaign in navigating the road to safety and resettlement for numerous believers forced to flee because of their faith, such as victims of the infamous Pakistani blasphemy laws. A few years ago and on account of his declining health, Dean gifted his Christian Rescue ministry to Jubilee Campaign USA. We named it the Christian Rescue Fund, and we continue to assist Christians fleeing persecution as a legacy to him. Dean’s compassion for the suffering church has been an inspiration to me, particularly as he stayed faithful to care for them despite his waning health.
Obituaries for the star noted that in lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Christian Rescue Fund.
Years after his first screen and stage successes, Jones was again starring in a number of stage and screen productions as well as in several Christian projects. He was ‘Cap’n Andy’ in Hal Prince’s epic $10 million touring production of Show Boat, “where he played to SRO crowds and rave reviews across the country.” And Jones’ advisor biography for the Dove Foundation says that his one-man play about Jesus’ disciple John, St John in Exile, “has been called a ‘masterpiece’ by several critics.” The foundation continues, “The late Alan Jay Lerner said St. John in Exile had ‘changed’ his life.” And it reports that “Director Dan Curtis calls Jones’s St. John, ‘The best performance I’ve ever seen.’”
A great legacy by any standard. But the words that describe the most important legacy of Dean Jones, his faithfulness to the Gospel and his defense of persecuted believers, are found in Jim Cowan’s song, “When It’s All Been Said and Done.”
When it’s all been said and done
There is just one thing that matters
Did I do my best to live for truth?
Did I live my life for You?
When it’s all been said and done
All my treasures will mean nothing
Only what I’ve done for Love’s reward
Will stand the test of time.