I didn’t know who he was before November 21, but I do know Shawn Jones should not be dead.
Who is Shawn Jones?
When Shawn Jones, Senior Pastor of New Thing Empowerment Church, began singing that fateful night in Pensacola, FL., I’m certain he wasn’t planning to die. Leading his musical group, Shawn Jones & the Believers, he led the congregation in a rousing adulation of the faithfulness of Jesus in their signature number “Worthy is He.”
As the song reached a fevered pitch, Jones appeared to become overheated. He took a few gulps of water before deciding to sit down and continue the performance. Shock and urgency swept the room by the time Jones passed out. At just 32 years old, Shawn Jones passed away. While the informal cause is a heart attack, the official cause of death has not been released 1.
A Foreshadowing of Events
Shawn Jones was, undoubtedly, a man of strong religious convictions. In the wake of his death, many are left grappling with wonder of how such a young man who appeared physically healthy could die so suddenly? the story of his life’s work remains consistent: he loved God and doing the work that he was commissioned to do, often to his own detriment.
On August 27, 2016, Jones shared a riveting testimony during an anniversary service in his home state of Alabama 2. Jones said that he chose his faith in God instead of medical care after suffering a stroke at a revival service last summer.
Jehovah Rapha, God Our Healer
Jones describes his harrowing medical episode as a testament of God’s faithfulness and omnipotence. “I was in Baltimore, Maryland, running a revival. As I finished preaching, sat down in the seat, pastor got the mic, gave it back to me and say gimme just a little bit more,” he begins in this video.
He describes how while singing during a service in Baltimore, he suddenly was unable to hold the microphone. The microphone slipped from his hand several times despite repeated attempts to maintain his grasp. He continues: “I looked at the pastor and he said ‘you alright?’ I said ‘yeah.’ I walked over and handed him the mic and sat down. Hands start tingling, fingers got numb, hands start hurting. The first thing the devil said to me, ‘you having a stroke,'” he recalled.
We Walk by Blind Faith
Jones dismissed the crisis as an attack of the enemy and did not request medical assistance. During his testimony, he remarked, “”How many know when you at your lowest when the enemy sneak in. I start having all kind of thoughts ‘God I’m out in Baltimore all by myself.’ But something in the back of my head said, ‘I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me now.'”
Jones’ episode didn’t end with the service in Baltimore. He describes continued impact of the stroke after the revival, including impaired speech, numbness in his limbs, and trouble operating his car. Despite his family’s pleas to seek medical attention immediately, Jones again chose faith over medicine. He chose to go to church service on Sunday and delay a visit to the doctor until Monday, three days after the stroke.
He’s a Doctor in the Sick Room
Anyone with even a minor exposure to religious faith would not be surprised at Jones’ story. For many, faith is the primary informant of most opinions and decision making. The words of Isaiah 53:5, “with his stripes we are healed,” are quite literally placed above any sort of medical opinion. We sing with deep conviction that God is a “lawyer in the courtroom and a doctor in the sick room.” We invoke the power of Christ by “pleading the blood of Jesus” over our lives. Certainly, Jones lived by this creed and even in death, his untimely departure is seen as another part of “God’s will” that is greater than our own.
Research shows that like Jones, many people understand and navigate their illness experiences through the lens of their religious beliefs and values. Studies indicate what we already know: for many, God is the ultimate – and only – physician trusted in their lives. Even when they aren’t religiously opposed to medical treatment (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions), they still choose faith over medicine. They echo sentiments of “It’s in God’s hands” or “I know God will provide – I don’t need that treatment.”
The Dark History of Medicine & Black Americans
As an African-American male, I have no doubt that Jones’ avoidance of medical care was as informed by his lived experience as his faith.
The mistreatment of Black bodies by the western medical establishment should be secret to no one. From the Tuskegee Experiments to Henrietta Lacks and all of the atrocities before and since, Black bodies have repeatedly been unwilling experiments at the hands of doctors. In Medical Apartheid [Amazon], Harriet Washington details how Black folks have “historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections.” For decades, we’ve been victim to racist pseudoscience like eugenics and social Darwinism. With the receipts of our horrific medical treatment, no one should be shocked that we don’t trust medicine.
Still, with a host of doctors who look like us and intentionally perform culturally-sensitive care, it begs the question of why we continue to ignore medical treatment as a tool of God’s healing.
For many, our path towards healing begins and ends with prayer and supplication. We anoint our heads with oil, we tarry at the altar, and we pray without ceasing for healing of our bodies. We make bold declarations of our total healing in Jesus’ name with an expectation of immediate – and with no human intervention – response from God.
This expectation is driven by a misunderstanding of how God operates. Yes, the woman at the well touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and became healed, but Jesus is no longer physically walking this earth. Yes, Jesus was a miracle worker in His ministry but his humanity is as important to note. We know that we should go on to perform the same and greater works than He did in His time in flesh. He performed multiple healing works in his ministry while clothed in flesh. Those he helped were not healed by osmosis but by the physical, human treatment of the hands of Jesus Christ. Why then do we now believe that God only performs miracles in the absence of human intermediaries?
Did God not create the doctors and give them the knowledge to heal? Is not still a miraculous healing if it comes through medical care and treatment? Could it be that what we claim as faith is actually deep-seated fear? A fear that accepting and participating in human interventions is seen as a doubting God’s complete and total omnipotence. A fear that is quite literally killing us.
The Cost of Choosing Faith
Jones’ choice of faith over medicine has cost a wife her husband and three children their father. A church has lost its leader and a family their son, brother, uncle, and cousin. Many rationalize that he died in the best way possible: in service of the Lord. It is a common refrain of those who die in church. But what does this say of our witness about God who resurrected Jesus from the dead? Or of Jesus, the savior, who raised Lazarus? How can we believe these things yet simply accept deaths like Jones’?
To testify about medical crises as a spiritual attack that requires divine intervention is detrimental to the body of Christ. I would argue that his stroke was not an attack of the enemy, but a cry from his body for care.
Caring for your temple is not demonic. Accepting medical diagnosis as fact does not a doubting believer make. Seeking medical care does not signal a fall from God’s grace.