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Preacher Belts ‘Em Out for the Lord

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

“This is not show business,” he says. “This is still church. Even though it’s singing, it’s still singing about the Lord.”

Oh, yes, one other thing: At theology school, Jones focused on Old Testament studies (he is fluent in Hebrew) and has spent years researching an exposition of passages from the Old and New Testaments for a book, due out in the fall. It’s titled “Uncovering the Ark of the Covenant.”

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For the record, he also belts out a mean “Old Time Religion.”

Tarot, Magic and Mambo Gumbo

Hi. My name’s Jonathan and I’ll be your magician tonight.

And my name’s Zigee. I’ll be your fortune teller.

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We’re at the Cha Cha Cha in Encino where, on Sunday evenings, sleight of hand and tarot card readings are served up free with the Caribbean cuisine.

Tableside, magician Jonathan Matthews fashions a swan from a $20 bill and makes it gyrate in mid-air, defying gravity. Surely there’s a Mexican jumping bean inside? A Caribbean black bean?

Matthews just smiles and says, “I can also make checks bounce.”

His bag of tricks includes cards, coins and tableware that appear or disappear at the flick of a wrist, balls that reproduce like rabbits.

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Watch him tell you which card you’ve drawn. The cards aren’t marked, he explains: “They just look that way,” splashed with jerk chicken or mambo gumbo.

Performing up-close-and-personal is different from being in a theater where “if someone whispers to his wife, ‘I think she’s in the box,’ it’s not going to ruin the whole show.” Doctors and lawyers are easiest to fool, he’s found--too analytical.

Matthews can sense which tables to avoid. And he never interrupts anyone mid-meal. A patron’s had a few drinks? All the better. “I can say it’s an iguana in my hand and they’ll believe me.”

More than once, he’s played Cupid, making engagement rings appear during romantic dinners a deux .

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As Zigee sets out her crystal ball at a corner table, a hostess goes table to table, giving numbers to those who wish a reading.

Zigee is beguiling in a Bo Peep-meets-the-gypsy outfit that is “part Hungarian, part Spanish, part Neiman Marcus.” And zee accent ? It “comes when I put on the costume.” OK, she was born Jillian Gotlib in Indianapolis.

“I’m known as the good gypsy,” Zigee says. “I only give uplifting information, something people can use, that’s not going to scare them.” She doesn’t call herself a psychic, preferring to use her gift to guide. For example? “To teach men to stay romantic with the woman in their lives.”

Rings glitter on five fingers of the hands that hold the tarot cards. Zigee smiles enigmatically: “It’s a very good omen to lose a ring to a gypsy. Already, I’ve made five clients very happy.”

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The magician and the psychic are a big draw, say owners Lee and Norma Laine: “Everyone does music. Music is mundane.”

One diner did protest that Zigee was “the devil.” But, Lee noticed, she finished dinner before leaving in a huff.


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