Johnny Johnson loved the Lord. It was the church that failed him.
Johnny lived a full, generous and adventuresome life. He was widely known and deeply loved. When he died recently, hundreds of people would say they lost their very best friend — because that’s how seriously and authentically Johnny took friendship.
He loved the arts and he supported LGBTQ-related causes with a passion. A bank vice president, he advanced a range of civic and community causes. Nothing made him happier than dressing up to host Gay Bingo in support of RAIN Inc., a non-profit that stands with those with HIV or at risk of it. He was about to step into the role of president of the Board of Directors at RAIN when heart trouble arose.
Johnny attracted people with his infectious charisma. His laugh was as big as his tall frame. He lived with courage and authenticity. He overcame the demons that might have dragged him down and was active in the recovery community. In short, if you ran into Johnny, he made your day better. He made our city and region better.
His faith never wavered and, over the last decade or so, his joy grew exponentially in the fold of his faith family, a rag-tag, diverse bunch of unlikely pew-sitters and activists seeking to answer Christ’s call to build a world of loving justice, equality and equity inside the walls of the church and well beyond. Whether sporting one of his famous Easter bonnets or speaking his wisdom at a meeting of church elders, Johnny made Caldwell Presbyterian better. His legacy lives on within our hearts.
All of the blessings he brought to the church at large were lost for a time, however. He told his story this way.
“I was born in the church and always taken to church on Sunday mornings,” he said. “That continued into my adult life. Church was just what you did on Sunday. I eventually came to terms that I was a gay man, and I wanted to embrace that.
“But the church was not embracing that. There was no sermon I ever heard on tolerance toward gay people like me. This was back in the ‘80s and people were dying left and right of AIDS and the church was silent. I got very angry, and I left the church.
“I didn’t leave God. I still prayed occasionally, but I did not come to church. I did not support the church. Years later, a friend invited me to a church. I came kicking and screaming … and I cried for the entire hour. This church is Black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, and I think my gayness is really an asset. I am free to be me.”
Yes, many congregations have come a long way since the days when the church at large lost thousands and thousands of God’s children in failing to love them all. Most major Protestant denominations have made their policies more inclusive, and many faith traditions are more open today. The work is ongoing, however, to activate these changes in policies to create congregations that reflect the full diversity of God’s imagination.
As a pastor whose faith and congregation are enriched incomparably by the Johnny Johnsons of the world, I pray that 2021 will be a year when we make giant strides in building churches where all are not just welcomed but embraced, where the wounded are made whole, where the fight against racism comes alongside the fight against homophobia, where poverty and homelessness are eradicated and where unity overcomes division.
God’s church and our city will be better for it.
As for my congregation, we will remember Johnny, who looked me in the eye amid the physical anguish of his last days and said with clear eyes and voice that he was ready to go to God. Medically, he died from complications from heart disease, but Johnny’s heart never failed. I pray God’s church in all of its forms will follow his steadfast example.
Rev. John Cleghorn is a pastor at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in the Elizabeth neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. Worship, study, service and activities are online during the pandemic at caldwellpresby.org and on YouTube. John’s book about building more diverse congregations is due out March 2, titled “Resurrecting Church: Where Justice and Diversity Meet Radical Welcome and Healing Hope.”
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