A Sept. 19 Metro column incorrectly referred to jazz pianist Errol Garner as Earl Gardner. (Published 9/21/2005)
A memorial service was held Saturday for John Mark Lyon, 79, whose earthly journey took him from choirboy and junior deacon at Mount Bethel Baptist Church in the District to a drug- and alcohol-addicted thief, incarcerated at the old Lorton Reformatory and locked up at St. Elizabeths Hospital, before being reborn into something of a cross between streetwise life coach and spiritual guide.
An overflow crowd had gathered at Washington & Sons Funeral Home in Lincoln Heights to pay its respects.
"Everyone in here who has benefited as a result of Mark's life, raise your hand," said the Rev. Art L. Gault of New Southern Rock Baptist Church. All hands shot up.
I knew Mark as a philosopher, a man self-taught mostly from books he'd read during various stints in prison. He'd usually call after I'd written about troubled race relations in a way that struck him as shortsighted and naive, although his critiques were never mean-spirited.
"Black people have too much white in them and white people have too much black in them for us to be talking about a 'race problem,' " he once told me. "We're all human, which makes us crazy, and we're all American, which makes us think we're smarter than we are. The problem is ignorance, arrogance and insanity."
A photograph of Mark, looking professorial in suit and tie, was displayed on a table, along with a folded U.S. flag and a wooden container containing his ashes. A holographic picture of Jesus hung on a wall above where a jazz trio had set up.
The atmosphere was a mix of nightclub and tent revival, and when the trio finished playing an Earl Gardner rendition of "Misty," Rev. Gault wondered aloud if it was okay to say "Amen."
"Amen," the congregation answered.
Mark, who died Sept. 7 after a lengthy illness, was born in Red Oak, N.C., and picked cotton and tobacco on his grandparents' farm. He was not yet a teenager when his family moved to Washington. He is believed to have taken his first drink of booze around the age of 12 while working at a dry cleaners run by an aunt and uncle near Seventh and U streets NW. Drafted into the Army during World War II, he served in the Philippines, and by the time he returned home, his problems with alcohol and drugs were all too obvious.
Mark would often tell stories about his efforts to recover in ways that mocked religious convention. He said that in 1972, a nun had come to St. Elizabeths, where he had gotten a diagnosis of chronic alcohol brain damage. She instructed him to raise his hands, and she placed her hand on his head and prayed.
A few minutes later, he said, the nun asked how he felt.
"Well, my arms are tired, for one thing," he answered. When the nun asked if he believed Jesus had died for his sins, he replied, "No, I spent 45 months in Lorton for those."
But there was more to the story.
Paul Austin was also at St. Elizabeths at that time. "Mark showed up in real bad shape," Paul told me. "His hands were swollen, and he was bent like a quarter moon. Bad as he was, though, he was always quoting stuff from the Bible and the Koran, and he did a whole lot of praying."
In his work as an addictions counselor at the Old Soldiers Home, where he lived after sobering up, Mark employed a brand of moral psychology that stressed adherence to principles of selflessness and sacrifice and a belief in a higher power, which are shared by virtually all religions.
At the end of the service, the jazz trio struck up Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," one of Mark's all-time favorites, and the congregation filed from the chapel grateful to have taken part of the ride with him.