My relationship with the Jennings family goes way back. I was in the 5th grade when some guys wanted to jump me for no other reason than because they could. I was an outsider to them recently moving from East St. Louis, Illinois. They said I talked ‘country’. I thought they talked country. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the way they called a soda a pop. That being said, these group of six youngsters wanted to satisfy their mannish desires by pounding me into the playground after school. To my surprise there stood a classmate who decided to defend me. I didn’t understand why this particular guy, because he had never said two words to me. But there he was. As they gathered to feast on my bones, he stood in front of me and said, “If ya’ll want to fight him, you’ll have to fight me.” Strangely enough, none of those 6 wanted to tangle with this chocolate-skinned, Afro-wearing tussle enthusiast named Ivel Jennings. I asked Ivel why he stood up for me. He said, “I don’t like you, but 6 on 1 ain’t fair. Based on this episode Ivel and I became fast friends.
We were total opposites. I was always a nice and peaceful soul. I liked people and tried to get along with most everyone. Ivel really was what I call, “Likes to fight guy.” But like in my situation, he had this sense of justice about him. He literally fought for causes as a way to solve problems. He beat up a kid two years ahead of us right in front of the principal’s office because he sold weed. He actually laughed as he was pummeling the kid saying, “That’s what you get for selling dope in school.” (Imagine the times)
Ivel and I hung out or talked on the phone constantly much to the chagrin of my mother’s husband. My step father at the time, was South Bend Police. He hated all the Jennings and often talked often about who they beat up or shot.
One day Ivel asked me to come over to meet his cousin who lived out of town. His cousin had a funny sounding Afrocentric kind of name. This big and burly man pulled up in a candy apple read king sized diesel pick up truck. It had four wheels in the back. He looked so cool and in control. He half smiled, shook my hand and went on his way.
Fast forward several years later; I’m an adult living and attending church in a St. Louis County suburb. One Sunday we have a guest minister by the name of Joseph Jennings. His story/testimony was something I had never witnessed before. Standing in the pulpit with blue jeans, and a black t-shirt that accentuated his incredibly intimidating muscular frame, Joseph talked about his life first in South Bend and later in California as a former drug dealer, pimp, gang leader etc. who had been shot 13 times. He lived with 3 bullets in his body that were not able to be removed. The last time he was shot, he thought he was going to die. He lay in the gutter bleeding out and though he seldom prayed, he asked God to save his life. “I said God, it’s not the dying that I care about. From all of the things I’ve done I deserve to die. But please, just don’t let me die in the gutter.” He survived and stayed true to his word to turn his life around.
What was so impressive about the way he spoke however, was the depth at which he kept it real. “I didn’t change overnight. I liked to smoke weed. But I promised God I would give my life to Him if he saved me from dying in that gutter! So everyday I would read my bible, while smoking weed!” His speech and his presence was so powerful. He would cut right to the bone describing what we call ‘haters’ today.
“Don’t want nothing, don’t want to be nothing. Don’t want nobody else to be nothing! You know what I call that? The spirit of the nigga!”
Needless to say he turned Abundant Life Fellowship out! I’ve heard many preachers claim that they don’t preach in a way to be invited back. Joseph Jennings meant that. He took a lot of religious theory and dogma to task and brought human frailties and God’s love together in a way that is rare.
Hard preaching aside, two things struck me about Jennings.
1) He was a total package of hard core manhood and yet he was tremendously warm and loving, especially towards the youth. He often said he’d much rather hang with young people than adults; and thugs as opposed to fake church folk.
2) He looked a helluva lot to me like Ivel’s cousin from back in the day. Once he told us what his street name was, Kambui, I knew it was him.
After service I asked him about that South Bend connection. Sure enough, I had met the minister almost two decades earlier when he was in his heyday as a hard core menace to society. He and I talked about Ivel, who was shot and killed himself when we were in 10th grade. Joseph came back to St. Louis several times to speak. I wouldn’t miss it. I was tremendously attracted to him as a man; His rough exterior yet tender heart; His love for people and the excitement he exuded from living this new life. Everything one needed to know about Joseph, was recognized through the sparkle in his eyes and the magic of his smile. He was like a pied piper. Many of us guys just flocked around him. He was a blessing to everyone he touched. But as a man especially, if you wanted to be about anything in life, you wanted to be around Joseph Jennings.
I learned recently that this soldier of love had completed his journey on earth. And though I hadn’t seen or heard from him in many years, I find myself feeling stunned and empty. I feel as if I lost a distant friend, a connection to my memories of Ivel and South Bend. A man who encouraged and gave me strength to carry on many a day. What can I say? I loved the man. I appreciate his service and all that he gave. Joseph Kambui Jennings was indeed a great man. He will be missed. Most of all, I am thankful that I met him, on both sides of his journey.
Grace, Peace, and Many Blessings to the Jennings Family~
Photos Courtesy of the Jennings Family, Above Joseph with Daughter Ayana Tamu Jennings