April 5 2010 12:00 AM

Activism, worship and science fiction

On a day that brought news of the death of a friend and spiritual leader, former Lansing Police chief Mark Alley could still manage a smile.

He remembered a time at the end of a service at Friendship Baptist Church when the Rev. Lester Stone did something slightly uncharacteristic: As the congregation began singing a final song, Stone cut them off.

“He was not a huge singer,” Alley said. “He would listen and you could tell he was moved by the music — but in terms of leading and singing, it wasn’t something he normally did.”

From Alley’s jolly recounting of the event, it is hard not to picture Stone, like a temperamental conductor, cutting off the congregation from the pulpit.

“We were singing and he stopped us, and got the microphone and basically said, ‘You’re not singing this right! With his booming voice … “ Alley said, breaking into a full laugh.

Stone, a local leader of social justice and civil rights causes, died Wednesday at 58. He had led Friendship Baptist since 1982.

Alley first came to know Stone around 1999. Alley was incoming chief around the time that Edward Swans, a homeless black man, died in a Lansing city jail cell. Stone led a “march for justice” to raise awareness about the incident — and in doing so, Alley said, Stone helped change the police department.

Deadly force policies were changed, there was more training of officers at the city jail, and video cameras were added to monitor detainees. And after it all, Stone and Alley became friends, and continued to advise each other about community issues. For five years, Alley has been attending services at Friendship Baptist twice per month.

“I loved his sermons; he gave sermons like few others,” Alley said.

Alley retired from the Police Department last month, and the last time he saw Stone was at his retirement party on March 11. When Alley’s father died, Stone made the trip to St. Clair and spoke at the funeral. Stone did so well, Alley said, that he planned on the pastor overseeing his own funeral.
“He was just a very special person to me,” Alley said.

Various media reports eulogize Stone’s many efforts in Lansing: He was part of a successful movement to rename Logan Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; he supported embattled former Ingham County Judge Beverly Nettles-Nickerson; and, in 2001, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Lansing City Council.

Rita Bunton, a member of Friendship Baptist since shortly after Stone arrived there, remarked that he helped many more. If you needed help, she said, Stone would go to your job, he would come to your house, he would visit you in jail.

“He was really just a stand-up guy,” she said.

The last time Bunton saw Stone was on Monday. He had gone to the hospital on Saturday in debilitating pain, missing this past Sunday’s worship service. (The cause of death has not been announced.) Stone was happy, sitting up in bed, and she and other visitors had ribbed Stone about how he was watching videos about insects. But when the two were alone, he asked her to pray for him.

“I’ve never heard him ask anyone to pray for him. And so I did,” she said. “When I got done, he said, ‘that was a beautiful prayer, sister Bunton,’ and he said, ‘I love you.’ That was the last time I saw him alive.”

Bunton found out that her pastor, who she came to after hearing that he had a voice like Martin Luther King Jr., had already died when she tried to call him on Wednesday — she said they spoke to each other everyday. Stone’s son, Lester Jr., answered.

“I said, ‘where’s Rev. Stone?’ He said, ‘he’s gone.’ He said, ‘My dad just died,” Bunton said. “It would not compute.”

Bunton has been a strong supporter of Stone’s. In the last few years, the church has been torn in half over control of Friendship Baptist’s affairs. Police have had to monitor recent Sunday services held at 7 a.m. by a group opposed to Stone. City Pulse covered such a service several weeks ago, witnessing Stone speak out against the alternative church within Friendship Baptist. Standing in the pulpit, his microphone cut off, he spoke ferociously, eyes wide, trying to stop the alternative service. After the service ended, talking to a reporter, Stone was calm, reserved and polite, though quite clear that he did not want the church’s affairs written about in the newspaper.

Through the tumult, Bunton said, he only wanted to show love and compassion to his detractors.
But, like Alley, Bunton could remember something about Stone that made her smile. She never understood it, but he loved science fiction. Anything that had to do with the genre, he would go and see it. And sometimes, science fiction, which can be as allegorical as the Bible, would make its way into his sermons.

“He would say, ‘there are powerful spiritual messages in it,’” she said. “He taught us so much, and he taught not by what he said, but the way he lived.”