Kelly Johnson 1915
The Family ~1954
Siblings: Ivor, Charles, Alice, Kelly
The optimism inherent in this title is not "natural." By nature, I am the world's worst pessimist. But in those moments when I remember who I am -- A CHILD OF THE KING -- I can rise a step above. I wish I could say I am always fully aware of the wonderful position we have in Him. But alas, I sometimes forget, and revert back to the pessimism of worldly realism. However, in this reflective work, I am planning to keep my eyes on Him whose victory is ours as well as His.
I do not plan to write this to be preachy or even religious. On the other hand, I do not plan to hide or ignore the spiritual factors involved in my life. I trust they will communicate something of value to the reader.
CHAPTER ONE: Early Childhood
This autobiographical enterprise came into my mind out of a conversation with one of my three sons. I was waxing eloquent in recalling some event in my early life when he broke in, "You just ought to write that down." I'll never know whether he said it to end a dull conversation, or to encourage me to write down some memoirs for posterity. I've finally persuaded myself to believe the latter, so here goes.
But where does one's life really begin? I recall someone saying that a life begins with the grandparents. But I know so little about mine. I vaguely remember my paternal grandfather's death. His name was James Johnson. He was a confederate veteran who had lost one arm in the Battle of Fredericksburg. The story I remember was that, as a teenager, he unhitched a mule he was plowing near Anniston, Alabama, and ran away from home to join the Confederate army.
His wife, my grandmother, was named Eloise. She had died before I could remember. I believe she was a school teacher and named my dad after a favorite Scotch poet named Fergus McIvor. (This is hearsay only). I never heard until late in life that Johnson is a Scandinavian name. Somehow (I don't know why) I got the idea our Johnsons came from the Carolinas to Alabama, and if there was any Scandinavian background, it had pretty well worn off before I had any touch with them (early 1900s).
Maternal grandparents were John Wesley Willis who married Polly Kelly and settled in Shelby County before I was born. I have not traced back any further. I have sort of guessed that Grandpa Willis must have had some kind of Methodist background (since he was named John Wesley) and that Grandma was of Irish extraction (since her name was Polly Kelly). I do vaguely remember seeing my grandpa Willis baptized as a Baptist in the Coosa River. My Willis grandparents spent some of their last days in our home, and died when I was an early teenager.
My dad, Fergus McIvor Johnson, was known as Mack. He was small of stature, but very athletic in his youth. He was a hard worker, very outgoing in personality, and somewhat sentimental in nature. He never experienced a silver spoon in his mouth. He struggled economically all his life. He married my mother, Sally Mae Willis, when she was 16. She was very stable in disposition; she was quiet and soft-spoken; she kept things on an even keel in our home; she managed the purse strings (usually in a Bull Durham tobacco sack attached to her person). She was an outstanding mother, a good cook and an excellent nurse. When the doctor, who made house calls, came to see any of us children who was sick, he would pretend to use his stethoscope momentarily, then turn to my mother and ask what was the trouble. By time she had finished her answer, he had a prescription written and was on his way.
Neither of my parents were perfect, but they were a perfect match. They complemented each other to the nth degree. No one could ask for better parents.
Into that home, six children were born. The first was stillborn and never received a name. I, Willis Kelly Johnson, was second, born January 6, 1914. A third, Edith Eloise (named for our paternal grandmother) was born in 1916 or 1917 and after a short life went to be with the Lord. Her cause of death was listed as diphtheria, but came during the "flu" epidemic of 1917-18. Alice was born on September 19, 1919, and now lives with a son (Rex) in Sylacauga, Alabama. Ivor (Fergus McIvor, Jr. -- How glad I am I didn't get that name) came on April 7, 1922; then Charles completed our family on June 19, 1925. The four of us were birthed at home with the attendance of the family doctor.
I was born in a two room house which my father had just built on 40 hilly acres he had just bought near Easonville, Alabama (now under water from Martin Dam [update: old farmstead was spared when dam was built]). It was four miles south of Pell City in St. Clair County. He tended a one horse farm in days when the going was rough for small farmers. The "ONE HORSE" in our case was a mule named Patsy. I remember the buggy in which we rode to town or to church. I remember the small barn, the chickens, the pigs, the cow. I remember the chores, though we moved away before I was old enough to get too much under the load.
One outstanding memory: the day I first rode our mule alone away from my dad's watchful eye. It happened like this: My uncle operated a grist mill (a mill that grinds corn into corn meal). It was about a half mile away. My dad shelled a sack of corn and put it and me on old Patsy, and let me "go to the mill." My uncle was there to help me alight, take the corn, grind it into meal, put us both back on Old Patsy and send us home. I was 5 or 6, I think. What a thrill!! Greater than when I first took the car out alone.
Early school days at Easonville were uneventful. As I recall, there were three rooms. Grades 1 and 2 met in the first; grades 3 through 6 or 7 in the next; and the rest through high school in the third. Though teachers had to teach multiple ages, they gave a lot of individual attention. Because of this, and because my dad gave me some special tutoring, I was able to complete grades 2 and 3 in one year.
When I was in the 5th grade, my dad sold his 40 acre farm (for how much I do not know). I did hear him say in later years that when he paid his debts, he cleared $11. He began working for a friend who owned a couple of dairies. We had to move 50 miles away (to Jacksonville, Alabama). We made that move NOT in a truck, but in two horse wagons. It was late on a December day when the wagons were unloaded; we learned we had moved into the wrong house. Someone had just died of a highly contagious disease; by the time we had reloaded and gotten into another house, it was dark and the temperature had dropped below freezing. I recall wood fireplaces, wet wood, broken window panes, a tired family. This was the beginning of a hectic year when we moved 11 more times before settling down in Sylacauga, Alabama. The following years our family became more stable, but my teen-age years found me still groping.
CHAPTER TWO: TEEN-AGE YEARS
My teen-age years were typically turbulent -- a mixture of the ecstatic and the catastrophic. I struggled with extreme timidity. I had a passionate desire to be well liked, but suffered an unreasonable fear of meeting new people or facing new situations. I was helped in those years by the touch of some wonderful encouragers -- both in church, and especially, in public school. I will mention only three names without further discussion. (1) Mr. J. P. Creel principal of Mignon High School (now B. B. Comer High School), (2) Miss Katie Lee Smith, public school history teacher, and (3) Mr. Hines, science teacher (Biology, Chemistry and Physics). They were excellent teachers and outstanding encouragers.
I developed a close and long lasting relationship with a peer named Horace Beckett. He died in early middle age. I wish I had taken the opportunity to tell him just how much he meant to me during those years. Because of the depression times and cultural practices of the textile South, most people dropped out of school at age 16, so that there were only 9 in my high school graduating class of 1931. Troublesome years, but God was in them. I see it now. But P. T. L., the best was yet to be!
During those high school years, I went through some spiritual experiences that would set the course of my life. My church life began to become real. I had joined the Methodist church in Easonville during early childhood, but do not remember having any vital Christian experience. I joined during an old time Methodist revival because my favorite cousin, Tom, joined. It was spiritually meaningless to me. But a conversation I overheard between our dads (Tom's and mine). Uncle Dick: "Mack, are you going to let Kelly be baptized? I don't think he and Tom knew what they were doing. They're too young." My Dad: "I don't know Dick. Only the Lord knows I guess. But I'm not going to stand in the way of the most important step my son will ever make. So I'll just wait and see, and pray." So I was sprinkled and became a Methodist. I wasn't a Christian, but I never forgot that overheard conversation. Its memory was to be a part of God's leading in my life. Our family was not faithful in church participation during the hectic years referred to. After moving to Sylacauga, I began to attend Mignon Baptist Church with school friends.
I will spell out one very meaningful incident. Our school had chapel every day. I don't think anyone had ever heard of the separation of church and state. I'm sure I hadn't. Mr. Creel, our principal, had someone read verses from the Bible often. Once he decided to read the Book of Esther over a period of several weeks. At the end, he gave a test. I was intensely interested, and had READ THE STORY THROUGH MORE THAN ONCE. On the test, I was the only one in our high school to score perfectly. The principal embarrassed me no end when he called me up and "honored" me before the school. The next Sunday when I attended the Youth group (BYPU) at the Baptist Church, the leader, Albert Smith, who was also a student at the high school, embarrassed me further by revealing my "exploits" and calling me "an outstanding Christian young person visiting with us from the Methodist church." He asked me to lead the closing prayer.
I had never led a prayer in my life. I'm not sure if I'd ever prayed in my life. I was humiliated. My mind was blank. I was too timid to refuse, too confused to explain. I don't know what I said, but I mumbled something and scooted out of church before preaching service vowing never to attend that church again
No. One should never embarrass people like that. He should not have asked me to lead in a prayer, since he did not know me that well. BUT I'M SO GLAD HE DID!! In the days and weeks ahead I came to my senses. I said to myself, "Why CAN'T you pray. You claim to be a Christian. You are a member of the Methodist Church. You relish Bible stories. You DID outscore everyone on the test. Why can't you pray?" I looked around me. Here were others my age. They prayed. What did they have that I didn't have? It was this frame of mind that began to overwhelm me. Subconsciously, I became a seeker.
Several months or possibly a year later, another incident happened. I was attending the same church. A "revival" was in progress. In connection, there was an afternoon "Children's Service." (But certainly, at 14, I was NOT A CHILD). My neighbor Rex (about 10 or 11) was playing with me in the yard. His mother was visiting with my mother. "Rex," his mother said, "It's time for you to go to Children's Service." The church was in walking distance. Rex answered, "I don't want to go. I want to stay and play with Kelly." My mother interrupted, "Kelly, you can go along with him." My reply, "But Mamma, it's for CHILDREN." "Well, young man," she continued, "It won't hurt you. Go along with him." Reluctantly, I agreed, not in my heart, but because I knew it didn't pay to argue with Mama.
On the way to church, my reluctance became resentment and resentment became anger. I blamed Rex and began to beat on him, and make him miserable. At one moment, he turned and threatened to go home. I knew that was not the thing to do. I would have to face the music. "OK, I'm sorry," I said and we made our way to church. But the anger was still there. I hated Rex. I hated his mom. I almost hated my own mom. I hated everybody. That day, the evangelist preached on God's love, and talked about Jesus giving His life for sinners like we are. My anger was still there, but God's love was there, too. Suddenly, in the midst of the struggle, when the invitation was extended, I went forward. The pastor, Brother Ingram, reached out a big hand (he had the biggest hands of any man I knew). He said, "Kelly, do you love Jesus?" I didn't plan to say it, but the words burst out, "With all my heart." The handclasp became a hug, and the world around me changed. I loved Rex and couldn't wait to tell him I was sorry. I loved his mom, my mom, everybody.
I didn't know what happened that day, but I know now that the world has not been the same since. I decided I should return to my own (Methodist) church, but somehow did not find the joy I needed. Soon I returned to the Baptist church, and a few months later, joined and was baptized. Praise the Lord for these experiences.
I must not leave my teen days and these spiritual peaks without praising the Lord for one other person, and one other organization. The person is Brother J. L. Ingram, my pastor. He was not a dynamic or sensational pulpiteer, but he was a man of God. He was always there for me when I needed him. He loved to bird hunt. I visited him during my college days when he was in a later pastorate, and went bird hunting with him. I still treasure memories of precious conversations as we sat to rest from time to time. He literally walked my legs off, though he was in his 60's and I under 20. The organization was (is) Training Union (now Discipleship Training, first BYPU: Baptist Young People's Union). I have had the privilege of college and seminary training, but can truthfully say that Training Union has enriched my ministry more than both. I sorrow to see the decline of interest in it today.
God, in His goodness, overruled the pitfalls of my teens and provided the foundation I needed. I survived. P. T. L! But the best was yet to be.
CHAPTER THREE: CALLED TO PREACH
It had not seriously entered my mind, but one day my pastor, Brother Ingram, bluntly, but lovingly placed it there: "Kelly, is God calling you to preach?" Maybe He wasn't before, but that question was His first audible step. It stimulated me. Unlike so many others I have heard, I did not struggle against the call. I really was pleased to know He might want me on His team. Could He possibly use me? With all my timidity and feeling of inadequacy? Could I ever learn to speak in public? Could He use even me? I even hoped He could. I later learned that my weakness has probably been my greatest asset.
I said I did not struggle against God's call. That did not mean there was no struggle involved. I finished high school in 1931 and got a job in the "cotton mill," first as a "learner" for two or three hours a day at 8 cents an hour, and after high school, 55 hours a week for 16.5 cents an hour. Low pay? But in those days, many would give their right arm for such a job. You've heard of the "depression" haven't you? To complicate matters for me, my dad developed heart problems. A congestive heart forced him out of the ordinary job market. I had three siblings younger than I. Dad's part time employment was inadequate. I had already worked a year still mulling over the question, "Was God really calling me to preach?"
Then, in 1932, I was offered a work scholarship by the textile mill which would make it possible for me to enter College. What should I do? I thought of my family. I thought of God's call. I made a decision. I would keep my job and cancel or postpone college. But then my father enters the scene. We were walking on the road between our house and town. I told him of my decision to turn down the scholarship. He stopped, faced me and said, "Kelly, God has called you to preach. He has opened a door for you to go to school. If you turn down this opportunity because of my health, I'll just have a heart attack and die. No, you trust the Lord to lead you and to help me get some kind of income, and He will take care of BOTH of us."
And He did. My dad nursed a congestive heart and lived 22 years. I was out of college and seminary, and had spent 15 years in the pastorate before he died. That wasn't the only time his faith and my family's support boosted me through trying days.
Now comes four years (1932-36) at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham. There's no way I can do justice to those years. A few recollections: I met Dean Burns who made one year miserable for me as I took "Shakespeare" under him. I met Dr. Chapman and Religious Education. I met Dr. L. O. Dawson, who taught Old and New Testament, and was a real mentor. I met Dr. Thomas who guided me through four years of classical Greek -- a good preparation for New Testament Greek in seminary.
The door opened for me into student pastoral experience in my fourth year. Siluria Baptist Church was "half time," i.e. they had preaching services only two Sundays a month (2nd and 4th). I later became pastor of Four Mile Baptist Church also "half time" (1st and 3rd). These churches were in Shelby County, south of Birmingham.
I must tell you here how the Lord used my NAME to get me called. At the beginning of my senior year, the college agency helping students to find places of ministry received a request from Siluria: "Do you have another Brother Johnson?" (John Johnson had served them as a student pastor for a few years. He was resigning to go to Seminary.) "We do not have a John Johnson, but we do have a Kelly Johnson," they replied. Our precious Lord worked out the details, and I served them for two years. The other case was similar. Four Mile had had L. E. Kelly as pastor and requested another Brother Kelly. Kelly Johnson was the best they could do. I praise Him that someone gave my name a good sound. I pray that I can keep it so.
Besides some English and Math and History and Religious Education, I learned something about how to make ends meet at Howard. I received my AB degree in 1936 and continued to serve the Shelby County churches for an additional year as we moved into the next chapter.
CHAPTER FOUR: AND THEN THERE WAS LOUISE
When I entered Howard College, God led me to South Avondale Baptist Church. It was near the place where my work scholarship provided my living quarters. Besides, Dr. A. Hamilton Reid, who had earlier served a church in my home town, was pastor. I was asked to teach Intermediates (youth). A beautiful girl named Louise Crawley was the department secretary. A Howard student she had dated casually had left his hat at her house. In order to get the hat delivered to its owner, I agreed to walk her home to get it. That did it. Over a period of months an attraction grew. Her mother was a good cook, and my living arrangements did not provide Sunday dinner. I hope I was not a pest. The courtship lasted through the 4 years of college plus the year I continued to serve the Shelby County churches while Louise continued to work at her dry-cleaning pickup job.
We finally managed to save enough to pay off my moderate college debts and buy a marriage license. On July 23, 1937, we were married in her home by Dr. Dawson, my college Bible teacher who lived just up the street from Louise. An interesting footnote: We both wanted Dr. Dawson to perform the ceremony, but we liked our pastor, Dr. Reid, and didn't know how gracefully to bypass him. Again the Lord works in wonderful ways. Our church decided to send Dr. Reid, our pastor, to the Holy Land, and we arranged the ceremony while he was gone.
There's no way I can describe my feelings about Louise. Maybe later, as I look back, I'll say more, but for now it's sufficient to say, "She's the mostest." After a revival meeting at Four Mile, we left for a three year honeymoon at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas. How thankful to have been touched by the old school of saints who were on the faculty at that time -- Dr. Scarborough, whose heart was afire for souls; Dr. Conner, one of the greatest theologians of all time; Dr. B. A. Copass and Dr. Leslie Carlson, who made the Old Testament live; H. E. Dana, Jeff Ray, J. M. Price, T. B. Maston not to mention Baker James Cauthen, who left the Chair of Missions during our middle year to go to China and later to lead the Mission Board for almost half a century. Seminary was not heaven, but it was right up there in my book. This, in spite of the fact that God did not open doors for me to preach until my very last year. I did sweep floors in Ft. Worth Hall, and Louise served as secretary for two professors (Dr. Dana and Dr. Maston.)
During my last year at seminary, I was able to pastor -- in three churches, two quarter-time and one half-time. The first was Day Baptist Church in Grayson County. It had closed its doors earlier, but the state convention and association sent seminary students out to hold revivals in dead or near-dead churches. Billy Haltom, a fellow-student, was sent to Day Baptist Church. It met for services in a school known as "Bug Tussle." Billy couldn't sing, so he called the seminary to ask if I could come and lead the singing. Eagerly, I took off, rode the bus to Tioga, walked four miles to Bug Tussle and led the singing for the rest of the meeting (it was a two week revival). On the last Sunday of the meeting, Billy was scheduled to begin another revival, so I got the chance to preach. That night, after the services, as I was asleep in one of the homes, I heard the party line phone ring followed by commotion and a car start up and leave during the wee hours. The call was an emergency. Someone's barn had caught fire, and everyone went to help fight the fire (or watch it burn). At the breakfast table next morning, after apologizing for the commotion, they said, "Oh, by the way, we decided to re-organize our church and called you as our pastor last night." "I didn't even know you had a business meeting," I said. "We didn't. We called you at the fire. We'll have a business meeting later and make it official." I wonder if any other pastor has been called at a midnight fire.
The second seminary pastorate was at Peden near Eagle Mountain Lake. It and the church at Bug Tussle were quarter time. That left 2 Sundays free. Three unmarried seminary students and I went out to Watauga and preached for a week in an outdoor meeting. God blessed wonderfully, and with 40 members we organized the First Baptist Church of Watauga. It's still alive and doing well. We were able to secure Dr. Scarborough to preach the organizational sermon. (In those days, we didn't worry about doing it right. Just do it.) Anyway, God blessed and I served these three churches during my last year in seminary.
This may be a good place to insert a couple of stories about some FIRSTS.
My FIRST FUNERAL: I was student pastor at Siluria and Four Mile. I was preaching my first revival meeting at Shelby. The pastor could not attend since he had to work in the coal mines. A new family had moved into the community. The family included an elderly person who passed away. The church heard about the death, and I, along with a few church members, went to visit after a night revival service. We expressed our condolences, had prayer, and left, not hearing a word about funeral plans. Two days later, a funeral procession passed by the house where I had just had lunch. The man of the house asked if I would like to attend the funeral, suggesting that, since they were new in the community, there might not be many attending. I agreed, so we got in his car and soon caught up with the procession. (In those days, many people still used buggies and wagons.) When we got to the church, I asked someone who was conducting the funeral. "I don't know. Let me ask someone," he said. Presently he came back with the answer: "You are." I quickly went inside, found a pulpit Bible, turned to John 14 and Psalm 23. I don't remember how, but we got through it.
MY FIRST WEDDING: I was still pastor at Siluria. We had a joint men's prayer meeting (Methodist and Baptist men) every Saturday night. As we were starting, a couple came looking for the Methodist minister to ask him to perform a wedding ceremony for them. He was out of town. Deeply disappointed, they started to leave. One of the men spoke up, "We do have a minister here. He's a Baptist." "Could you do it for us," the man asked eagerly. "I'll do the best I can if you'll let me go across the street and get my ceremony." I scurried away to pick up my Hobbs Pastor's Manual, came back and performed my first ceremony. Please note that it was not only the first ceremony I performed. I had never witnessed a marriage ceremony, and I wasn't married yet. THE FIRST ONE I EVER SAW, I DID.
CHAPTER FIVE: ALABAMA PASTORATES
In May, 1940, Louise and I received degrees from Southwestern Baptist Seminary. Through God's grace and a dear friend, Albert Smith, I was immediately called to a church in Alabama. River View Baptist Church on the Chattahoochee River had services three Sundays per month and shared its pastor with Beulah Baptist Church in nearby Lee County for one Sunday. But River View very soon voted to go full time, and we spent three years in a great church that helped us shape our pastoral ministry. Our firstborn, Mark (b. 1941), came to us there, and we were introduced to parenting.
From River View. God led us to East Tallassee about 60 miles further west. During our eight years there, our other two sons, Timothy (b. 1944) and David (b. 1949) filled our nest. God enabled us to complete a new building in 1949. Lasting friendships were begun which would be cultivated further in later years.
In 1951, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where I became the pastor of downtown Second Baptist Church. We were one block from the State capitol and surrounded by residential property that was being rapidly taken over by business and commerce. We were under constant pressure to consider relocation, since both First and Second Baptist churches were in the inner city. These factors played a part in our decision to go west which will be touched on later.
Incidentally, my closest neighbor Baptist Church was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church -- about four blocks away. Shortly before I left Montgomery, Martin Luther King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I am sorry I did not have the opportunity to meet Dr. King before I moved from Montgomery. (OF COURSE THAT WAS BEFORE EITHER ONE OF US BECAME FAMOUS.)
CHAPTER SIX: THE CALL OF THE WEST
Alabama will always bring warm remembrances of the meaningful experiences in my early pastoral life. They helped make me what I am, and will always be precious to recall. But I must turn to the continuing calls upon our lives by the God who has always led.
The call of the West had begun gradually in my life, but became prominent while I was in Montgomery. Several factors stand out. (1) The pressures Second Baptist Church shared with First Baptist in a rapidly diminishing residential area, but also reaching a growing number of suburban members. We were studying the advisability of relocating in areas of population growth. Upon early investigation, every location spotted was "too close" to another growing Baptist church. (Incidentally, Second Baptist DID later relocate in an eastern suburb (now Eastmont Baptist Church). It seemed to us that Montgomery was thickly planted with Baptist churches. (2) During those years, the Lord opened a door for me to go to Arizona with a group of pastors for revival campaigns in a pioneer area. I landed in Clifton, 75 miles from the nearest Southern Baptist church (compared to one mile or less between churches in Montgomery. (3) Even more important was the relationship with Ervin and Lucille Boyle from the Oregon-Washington (now Northwest) Baptist Convention. We had met them in seminary in 1940: we as newly-weds from Alabama, they as almost newly-weds from Tacoma, Washington. We were close during three years at Seminary. We separated upon graduation -- they back to the Northwest, we to Alabama. But we kept in touch. Ervin became the editor of the Pacific Coast Baptist (later the Northwest Witness). We got on its mailing list, and between the ministry of that paper, and the personal nudges of the Boyles, finally heard the call of the Lord to leave the pressures of Montgomery and come to the pioneer challenge of Calvary Baptist Church of Renton, Washington.
Thirteen plus years at Renton, where our three boys went through high school, were filled with mostly positive experiences There, I got my first taste of denominational involvement: associational, state convention, New Orleans Seminary trusteeship, etc. Our horizons were broadened.
The call to move further toward the missionary edge of ministry led us to accept the call to Armstrong Avenue Baptist Church in Burnaby, B.C., Canada, in February of 1968. Moving on faith, we left the comfortable Renton pastorate for the opportunity to lead a small congregation of God's choicest saints. For the next three years, with the help of the Baptist Foundation of Texas and the Lord, I saw him work through a degree of commitment I have not witnessed elsewhere. I really wanted to stay, but the harsh reality of putting food on the table led me to put out a fleece. If the Lord wanted me to stay, I would put my house and my car up for sale and live on depreciation. But if He really wanted me to stay I would not get a nibble from a search committee (I had not gotten one for more than three years).
CHAPTER SEVEN: BACK TO OLD PATHS
Evidently, God had other plans. Within days after I prayed the prayer referred to, I was approached by three church situations: one from Alabama, two from the Northwest Convention. The two from the Northwest were not persistent, but the one from Alabama would not back off. It was East Tallassee, a former pastorate. My initial answer was a flat NO. I would not go back to a previous pastorate. Each Sunday afternoon for weeks, the search committee called back. I gave excuses: "I was not the 40 year old they remembered from 17 years ago; I was committed to the pioneer areas; they could surely find someone much closer to home."
But the final plea that convinced me that God was in their call was not from the search committee, but was a letter from a dear old saint of the church. "Dear Brother Johnson," she wrote, "nothing would please me more than for you to become our pastor again. But I hope you won't come. Our church is facing problems, and it looks like it's going to die. I don't want to see you get hurt. So, I hope you won't accept." God interpreted that letter to me. He said "They need you. You have some experiences those old Bible-Belt churches need." So I tore myself away from the faithful warriors of Armstrong Avenue, and made the 3,000 mile trek back to Alabama. There WERE some selfish benefits. The people at East Tallassee were so gracious. We were able to get back into Social Security and Annuity Board coverage. I was able to be close by and see my mother pass on to her reward. But the important thing is I sincerely believe I saw a mission accomplished in the East Tallassee church. I can now see His hand in it all.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE CLOSING YEARS
Deep down, I always knew I would come back to the Northwest. When East Tallassee began to show definite signs of stable progress, for the first time in my life, I sent out some resumes, virtually all to the Northwest. I really was anxious to get back to the challenge of the Northwest.
Nine Lakes Baptist Church is a granddaughter church of Calvary Baptist where I had spent 13+ years. I had a part in its birth as a mission and as a church. I was involved with the association in the Home Mission Board purchase of the property on which it was built. At 62 years of age, I became the pastor of Nine Lakes. I hoped to stay until I was 68 or older. But the Lord spoke to me through two voices. One was through a deacon who asked one night: "Preacher, what are you going to do when you retire?" (I wondered if my need for retirement was getting to be that apparent). But mainly it was that President Carter led Southern Baptists to upgrade a retirement volunteer ministry. The need for short term interim pastor ministries were evident on several fields.
I wrote Eugene Grubbs at the Foreign Mission Board for information. He took the ball and ran with it. First, I was asked to serve a year in a remote area of Iran. Evidently, they heard about it in Iran and started a revolution to keep me out. Seriously, when the Iran door closed, I was invited to become interim pastor of the Clark Field Baptist Church in Angeles City of the Philippine Islands. I became "pastor" to a wonderful missionary minded American Air Force congregation. But Louise and I became "Mama" and "Papa" and "Grandma" and "Grandpa" to the sweetest bunch of Filipinos you could ever find. We enjoyed a completely new relationship with the Foreign Mission Board. We had considered volunteering for missions at seminary when Dr. Cauthen stopped teaching about missionaries and became one in 1939. From 1940 to 1979, I promoted and supported Foreign Missions zealously as a pastor. Now we were on the field and receiving some support from them. Praise the Lord for a fruitful year!
Less than a year after returning to Federal Way, the Foreign Mission Board invited us to spend another year as a volunteer. This time, we accepted a call to Zama Baptist Church, another military congregation -- this one planted in the densely populated area of Japan between Tokyo and Yokohama. How different. It had been easy to live on Social Security in the Philippines. Not so in Japan. But through the goodness of God, and the support of some precious friends (including some of the military congregation who slipped us an occasional steak from the commissary), we made it fine. God gave us some exceptional spiritual victories.
Besides, we were introduced to the Japanese culture where our youngest son, David, with his wife and family were soon to become Southern Baptist career missionaries. David had been a Foreign Mission volunteer since his college days. The specific need that fitted him had just not come up. Because of my knowledge of and interest in Japan, I was able to have a tiny part in getting them together. Soon after our year in Japan, as an Interim Pastor in Seattle, I heard from missionary Calvin Parker during a World Mission Conference of a Japanese request for a Genetics-Biology teacher at Seinan Gakuin, the Japanese Baptist University. David had been teaching that very subject for ten years at Concordia College in Minnesota. When David shared this with the F.M.B. representative they said that the job descriptions of David and the Japanese request were a perfect match. Within a short time, the appointment was made, and David, Robin, Jennifer and Wesley were on their way. Serving at the University in Fukuoka, they are now in their 11th year. [Note: Completed 21 1/2 years in 2008 and now teaching at Samford University.] God is SO good!
These two Interim pastorates overseas were highlights in the rich 80s and 90s decades of our lives. In addition to these two years, I have served as Interim Pastor in eleven Northwest churches. It has been like "icing on the cake" -- similar to but different from being pastor. Some things you can't do as well as an interim. Some things you can do, better. It's sort of like being a grandparent. You can "love 'em and leave 'em." Each church has a personality. They all have good and bad points. But I believe God loves every one of them and has a message for each of them -- just as he had a message for each of the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2 and 3).
Approaching 85 years of age, I realize we are approaching the sunset. Due to physical factors, both my own and Louise's, it has been necessary to slow the pace somewhat. I have recently noticed steps are getting steeper, stairwells are getting longer, lights are getting poorer, it's further to the ground (and even further back up), and how much better a lounge chair feels. Even so, my health is reasonably good. Louise has suffered some setbacks, including a congestive heart, arthritic knees, severe hearing loss and other concerns. In general it has taken more and more of our energies just to look after each other.
But wait! The thought has just occurred as I share our experience of physical slowdown. THIS TOO IS A BLESSING. MAYBE OUR GREATEST. He has blessed in childhood, in youth, and adulthood. He has given me a great calling, a good ministry, an outstanding family, a satisfying retirement -- all blessings better than I deserve. And, to top it off, He is, up to this point, slowing me (us) down in the most desirable manner. Let me illustrate: So many I know reach retirement (whatever or whenever that is) alone. So many wonderful spouses have to say "If she (or he) had lived until (blank date) ...." How good He has been to let me enjoy a fiftieth, sixtieth and now a sixty-first anniversary. Yes, I can see grace in it all. I am experiencing another graduation. Graduations in the past: from student to pastor, to interim, to missionary -- and now He says I am promoting you again: I am promoting you to being a loving CAREGIVER to the one who means so much to you. So far as this life is concerned, this is the apex of His blessing. Louise and I praise Him that we are called to be caregivers for each other. For how long, we do not know. The future, as always, will surprise us with things we have not imagined.
But no matter whether that future
leads us into new experiences with things that are temporal, or if
it be just to cross that river "from whose bourne no traveler hath
e'er returned," in either case, THE BEST IS YET TO BE.
Dad went to home to his Father on September 26, 2002 and I'm sure heard the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." He modeled the Christ-life for all who knew him, including this his youngest son. I'm still discovering his influence. In Wayne Flynt's book, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (1998, Univ. of Alabama Press, p. 453), speaking about a racist essay that appeared in the Alabama Baptist newspaper in the post-war years, he states:
Such opinions were common among white Alabamians in 1948, so what is remarkable is not so much the essay as the reaction. Rev. Kelly Johnson responded that while most Baptists did oppose racial intermarriage, they did not support denial of political rights, decent jobs and education, or social justice. White southerners must honestly face their own prejudices and resolve them, or they invited solutions imposed from the outside.
Upon reading this section, I sent a
letter to Dr. Flynt relaying the following story which dad told me
about later. Dr. Flynt forwarded this story to the Samford
Archives for preservation. Here is what I related:
I am writing
just to say that I was pleased to buy a copy of your book Alabama Baptists and was even
more pleased to find a reference to my father in it (Kelly
Johnson, p. 453) and in a way that made me proud. He was always
one who tried to work against prejudice in his own quiet, but
forceful if necessary, way. He related personally a story to me
about when he returned to Alabama in 1971 (he pastored in the
Pacific Northwest from 1954-1971, then from 1978?-retirement). He
had returned to [...church name omitted...] Church where he was
when I was born in 1949. He missed the upheaval of the extreme
racial tension in the 60s, but shortly after returning to [...city
name omitted...], he was looking over some old church minutes. He
said he found records of a business meeting in the 60s where the
subject came up, "What shall we do if a Negro wants to come in our
church?" The official policy voted on by the church was that he
would be asked to leave and if he did not he would be forcible
removed. Upon reading this, dad said he faced a crisis and came
very close to calling the deacons and giving them the ultimatum
that this policy should be changed or he would leave immediately.
However, instead, he decided to stay and to try to work within the
church to change the folks' minds. But, he wrote a note, signed
it, and placed in with the minutes saying, "If this ever happens,
I am leaving with him!" I have often said that the true pioneers
of civil right were not those like me who were raised being taught
that discrimination was wrong, but those like my wife and father
and mother who were raised being taught it was right, but whose
faith demanded a different conclusion. Dad passed away in 2002,
but thanks for helping to keep the spirit of his integrity alive.