Preston Jones on a Steady Presence in an Unsteady World
Amid the Starbucks and Barnes & Noble gift cards received on a birthday, there was another present that set my mind drifting. Not so much the gift itself as something penned inside. The gift was a new devotional book, Touched by the Truth. I use devotional books but rarely anything less than five hundred years old. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is hard to beat. But this book included contributions from someone I know. I turned to his section and saw a handwritten message: Preston, Miss you!! Have a great year! Pastor Rob.
Rob Zinn, senior pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, California. My family started going there in 1979, after a church split elsewhere. Rob had recently become senior pastor, and Immanuel was quickly growing from a church with a weekly attendance of a couple hundred to a couple thousand.
When I was in the eighth grade and a problem kid, Pastor Rob called me into his office and told me that if I repeated what I had done on church property (something stupid and illegal), then he would call the police and prosecute me to the fullest extent of the law. He would do so, he said, because “I love you.” In other words, he wanted me to stop being a fool.
The next year I became a Christian and Pastor Rob baptized me. I became a radical street preacher who suddenly knew the Bible better than everyone else. Pastor Rob put up with it.
Pastor Rob’s sermons were often fiery and sometimes controversial. Once he was preaching against the theory of evolution, and he wanted to say that scientists advocating the theory should “stuff it in their ear,” but his mind said eyeball, and it came out “earball.” Intense and intimidating as he often was in those days, no one who knew him doubted his motives or underlying compassion.
Pastor Rob’s sermons shaped how I came to see and approach the world. When I went overseas during an enlistment in the Navy, his words echoed in my mind. There are regrets I’ve carried into middle age, but there are many more I could have picked up in the Philippines and Thailand had it not been for Pastor Rob’s influence. For that alone, I’m so glad I grew up in his church. It saddens me when, speaking with students, I find that so few have had someone in their lives who was willing to speak plainly and courageously to them about right and wrong.
When I got out of the Navy in 1990, Pastor Rob was still at Immanuel, doing what he had always done. People came and went, moved in and out of town, but he was always there. Through the 1990s the San Bernardino area became a much more dangerous place. Many people left. Pastor Rob stayed.
I got married in 1993 and my wife and I left southern California, but there was a kind of life comfort in knowing that Pastor Rob was always in the same place.
When, over the years and into the twenty-first century, I would visit family and friends in California’s Inland Empire from wherever I was living at the time—northern California, Quebec, Texas, or Arkansas—Pastor Rob was at Immanuel: preaching, baptizing, visiting. His message from the pulpit was consistent. There was never a doubt that he worked to live what he preached.
Like everyone, Pastor Rob is imperfect. Unlike most, his life has been lived under a microscope. On a few occasions I heard him apologize publicly for failures of temper. This was a sign of strength.
As is true of most people who place themselves before crowds, probably not a day has passed in more than forty years that someone hasn’t had something critical to say of him. Certainly not a day has passed in more than forty years that his influence for the good hasn’t marked thousands.
Pastor Rob has been something steady in an unsteady world.
In some ways—in some significant ways—my own thinking about things has ended up in places different from Rob’s. But this doesn’t mean failure. Aristotle came to disagree with his teacher Plato on some key matters. I tell my students that this was a mark of Plato’s success. Good teachers try to give their students a strong foundation, and wherever students go from there, they are indebted to those teachers for their start.
Now at 52 years, I’m able to see the individuals whose long-term impact on me has been greatest. Charles Grande, a teacher at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California. He was the first person I knew who was both Christian and intellectual. Cheryl Riggs, a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. The second scholarly Christian I learned from. Bill Logan, a youth pastor at Immanuel Baptist who, I now see, expended tremendous time and energy in an effort to keep me on track.
Pastor Rob is high on the list. I’m just one of so many who would place him there.
After the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino was attacked by terrorists in December 2015, leaving 14 people killed and 22 seriously wounded, I streamed the vigil held at the baseball field downtown. I saw Pastor Rob on the stage with other local leaders. He didn’t speak at the vigil, but he spoke to me. Preston, he said, don’t stop. Keep going. Be something steady in this unsteady world.
After writing the paragraphs above, I learned that Pastor Rob had announced his retirement as senior pastor at Immanuel. A landmark down. An anchor raised. Sadness but gratitude.
Pastor Rob, Miss you!! Have a great year! Thank you!
Preston Jones teaches history at John Brown University.
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