The Rev. Dean Jones walked the streets of Tacoma, at night, for 16 years.
In a blue clergy shirt and a minister’s collar, and with an open ear for anyone who needed to talk, he beat well-worn paths along stretches such as Pacific Avenue, Puyallup Avenue and what was then K Street.
He became a fixture at bars and taverns, often sipping Coca-Cola or hot chocolate while people from all walks of life unloaded their burdens on him. But he didn’t stop there. He walked in the shadows — down the alleys and through the figurative cracks — looking to reach those to whom society so often turns a blind eye.
When he finally gave it up in 2002, Bob Hill, then the co-owner of The Swiss Restaurant and Pub — one of the many night spots Jones frequented — told former News Tribune reporter Bill Hutchens: “His work is just amazing. I’ve seen people’s lives change just from talking to him.”
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These days Jones, now 84, lives outside Boulder, Colorado. Earlier this year he published a humble and plainly written memoir, “Violence, Homelessness and Running,” released on Parson’s Porch Books.
“I just wanted to talk about what I’ve done,” Jones said by phone from his home in the Front Range of the Rockies. “For one thing, it’s good for your family. It’s something you can leave.”
Jones long ago left his mark on Tacoma. And Tacoma left its mark on him.
It’s a different kind of ministry. It’s the ministry presence. That means that you’re there, present with someone. You’re talking to them on their turf, and you don’t preach at them. You have to respond to them in terms of what the situation calls for.
Rev. Dean Jones
It was 1986 when Jones arrived here to launch the City of Destiny’s version of Operation Nightwatch, a ministry that started in Seattle in 1967, designed to connect with those who weren’t exactly church-going types. In addition to Jones, the nonprofit relied on a collection of volunteer clergy from churches throughout the area.
Through ups and downs and various incarnations, Jones would be Operation Nightwatch’s steady, guiding force in Tacoma until his 70th birthday. When he retired and left town, Operation Nightwatch left with him.
“You get to know people,” Jones said of the work and the unique calling of Operation Nightwatch. “It’s a different kind of ministry. It’s the ministry of presence. That means that you’re there, present with someone. You’re talking to them on their turf, and you don’t preach at them. You have to respond to them in terms of what the situation calls for. … You don’t come in with a predetermined game plan at all.”
An ordained minister from the Church of God with a history in academia, including a doctorate in sociology from the University of Washington, Jones took his experience working with Operation Nightwatch programs in Denver, St. Louis and Portland and applied what he’d learned in creating Tacoma’s version.
By night, Jones was a last-chance savior of sorts or just a shoulder to lean on. By day, from his home near the University of Puget Sound, he was a runner. To raise money for Operation Nightwatch — which was often short — Jones completed fundraising runs, including running 50 miles from Mount Rainier National Park to Union Station downtown at the age of 65. (Hence the “running” reference in the title of his book.)
But it was the personal connections Jones made during his time in Tacoma that truly reveal the impact of his work.
And many of these stories ended up in his book.
There’s Georgia and Jerry, the couple whom Jones met in what he describes as the “downtown Tacoma night scene” of the time. Addicted to cocaine and heroin, respectively, Jones writes of driving the couple, through the night, to a detox center in Eastern Washington.
“It’s all too easy to use labels,” Jones writes in his book. “This couple was heavily addicted to drugs. But they were much more than addicts. They were real people with feelings and dreams and love for each other.”
It’s all too easy to use labels. This couple was heavily addicted to drugs. But they were much more than addicts. They were real people with feelings and dreams and love for each other.
A passage from the Rev. Dean Jones’ book “Violence, Homelessness and Running”
Despite his best efforts to help them, Jones concludes in the book. “I do not know the final scenes in the saga of Georgia and Jerry.”
There are success stories, too, like Jim, the young drug-addicted musician whom Jones would see with his brother as they “wandered the streets in tattered jeans.” Jones writes of taking Jim to his mother’s house and, eventually, coaxing him into treatment.
As Jones might say, it was all in a night’s work.
I asked Jones what he misses about spending nights pounding the pavement of Tacoma.
“The people,” he told me, simply.
“I learned that everybody is different. I think that it’s important to treat people as individuals.
“Everybody merits attention, and everyone is worthwhile.”