Driving through the neighborhood he serves as Executive Director of the Franklin Avenue Mission on the east side of Flint, Rev. Christian Jones sees the immediate realities of loss of jobs and lack of food that happened when the city lost its auto industry employers over the past few decades.
“There are families – men, women, and children – living in absolute, destitute poverty,” Jones said. “Homes are abandoned, burned out, and in some cases even lack running water. If the water is running, there’s little motivation for owners to renovate the pipes to mitigate the lead exposure of their tenants. Most of the schools have been boarded up and abandoned, too.”
The Franklin Avenue Mission serves this community through three key areas: The Franklin Avenue Diner, which served warm, well-balanced meals twice a week during the pandemic (a total of nearly 40,000 so far); the Clothes Closet and Personals Closet, which provide clothing and hygienic products to those who can’t afford them; and the new Luke Clinic will open this fall, providing free mobile prenatal and antenatal health services to mothers trapped in poverty.
Jones’ faith led him to devote his time and energy to the underserved and often forgotten residents of Flint. But his journey began over a decade ago on the campus of St. Clair County Community College.
“I started at SC4 in 2010,” Jones explained. “My father is a criminal justice professor at the college, which played a key factor in my decision to start there. It unquestionably made the most economic sense, and it allowed me to complete my associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees for a fraction of the cost of many of my friends.”
Jones has many great memories of his time at SC4 that go well beyond saving money, though.
“Being a student at SC4 was probably the most important and formative two years of my life,” he said. “It’s where I matured from being a high school kid into becoming an adult member of the community. I met my wife as a student at SC4. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had were introduced to me as a student and through student activities.”
“I had some anxiety at first as I wrestled with the fact than most of my lifelong friends immediately dove into the idealized university model,” he continued. “But when I realized that many of my new SC4 classmates were experiencing the same anxiety, it created such a beautiful environment that it allowed me to form some of the closest friendships I’ve ever had. It drew us together; we organically became family, and supported each other’s dreams, goals, and aspirations in a way I’d never experienced before, and rarely since.”
Jones spent much of his time at SC4 in the Fine Arts Building, participating in The SC4 Players and the student drama club, WSGR radio, and the music club. He also spent many hours in the piano practice rooms, both playing music and using them for studying.
“I think I was labeled as ‘general studies,’ or something like that,” Jones laughed. “But I primarily loaded my schedule with English, theater, and (SC4 Professor) Scott Fernandez.”
He has fond memories for many of the instructors and staff members in the FAB, whether he had them as a teacher or not.
“Stewart Reed, David Korff, Holly Pennington, Lisa Sturtridge, Karen Jezewski, Al Matthews, Paul Miller, Gary Schmitz, Ethan Flick.” Jones paused as he listed some of those who influenced him as a student. “And Alfred Gay, who happened to be an elder at my church growing up. They all passionately fought for and supported the growth of everyone who stepped foot inside that building and their classrooms.”
One instructor was particularly important to Jones, though: Tom Kephart, who taught acting, improvisation, and oral interpretation courses and was the artistic director for The SC4 Players during Jones’ time at SC4.
“He was single-handedly the most important instructor I had across all of my collegiate studies,” Jones explained. “He graciously led by example, taking interpretive risks, showing genuine vulnerability, and giving unwavering support for his students as he challenged us to do the same. He instilled more confidence, empathy, and appreciation for the human experience in his students than any other class I took elsewhere.”
Jones graduated from SC4 in 2012 and was the commencement speaker that year. He transferred to Oakland University, where he finished his Bachelor of Arts in Communication in 2014, then moved on to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, where he received his Master of Divinity degree in 2019.
“When I was placed in Flint after graduating from Concordia Seminary, my wife Krysti and I decided that if we wanted to make an impact here, we were going to stay for the long haul,” Jones said. “Some pastors talk about becoming mega-preacher millionaires, which is foolishness and is not Christianity. As a pastor, I cherish the times when families invite me into their realities to weep, to pray, and to sing songs with them. There is no greater privilege I’ve ever had than to simply be called someone’s pastor.”
Jones has even bigger plans for the Franklin Avenue Mission, including an early childhood education center, a low-income laundromat, and eventually expansion into Flint’s north side. They’re ambitious and service-centered goals, that all began when he graduated from St. Clair High School and walked onto the SC4 campus in Port Huron.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today if dedicated teachers hadn’t put forth their very best personal efforts to see their students grow into game-changers in their communities,” Jones said.
For more information about the Franklin Avenue Mission, visit their website at franklinavemission.com.