At 6-foot-2, with a thundering voice that could be heard to the heavens on Sundays when he famously hymned “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross”, Rev. Dr. Sterling Lee Jones commanded the corner of Mack and Van Dyke for nearly 50 years as pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. The 77-year-old, who was simply known as S.L. Jones, passed away Sunday afternoon at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, according to a church spokesperson.
He leaves to cherish a wife of 24 years, Gwendolyn Jones, one daughter, Evangelist DesMonika Jones, one son, Pastor Jerel Johnson Sr. (Pastor DeShawn), six grandchildren and a church congregation that once numbered in the thousands at its peak.
Born September 28, 1941 in Vicksburg, Mississippi to Jim Jones and Artie Lee Bins-Jones, he graduated from Mississippi Baptist Seminary and holds a Doctorate from Natchez College. Jones came to Detroit in the 1960s and was elected pastor of Mt. Zion MBC on August 20, 1969, after the passing of Rev. R.W. Wright in 1968. The late Rev. T.C. Simmons conducted Jones’ installation services on February 8, 1970.
As pastor of Mt. Zion, Jones took the east side of Detroit church to new heights over his 49 years of service. Under his leadership, many ministries and programs were created, including Monday night bible class, a youth department, Nurses Guild No.2, Just a Sister Away, the Caregivers Ministry, the Artie Lee Jones Honor Roll, the S.L. Jones After School Program, and many others.
His greatest accomplishment would be building what some would consider the first “mega-church” in Detroit. On March 18, 1951, Mt. Zion moved to the southwest corner of Mack and Van Dyke under Rev. R.W. Wright, then Jones took over, until the building at 3535 Van Dyke became too small to hold the ever-growing congregation. On June 2, 1988, ground was broken for a $6 million edifice directly across the street at 3600 Van Dyke. The new church was platted on five acres of land, with 18,500 square feet of lower level space, complete with a dining hall, full kitchen, and classrooms, a 5,000 square foot balcony, and a seating capacity of 1,888. The towering church steeple can be seen from blocks away.
Two years later, on June 10, 1990, grand opening services were held for the marvel that was Mt. Zion MBC. Jones led the march of his congregation from Kettering High School to the new church. On October 26, 2003, the church was able to burn its $1.5 million mortgage, holding a ceremony to commemorate the achievement.
Jones’ health began to fail him in the late 90s and was placed on dialysis for 12 years, until he received a kidney transplant in December of 2006. He suffered a stroke in August of 2015 and was confined to a wheelchair ever since. He could never completely recover to be the giant of a man who would hoot and holler during his Sunday sermons and walk the church pews. Jones delivered his final sermon at Mt. Zion June 5, 2017. He last visited the church he built and bears his name, on Father’s Day of this year. The corner of Mack and Van Dyke was dedicated in his honor as “S.L. Jones Drive” in May of 2013.