Thursday, February 22, 2007

When my father switched from being a Baptist minister to a Methodist minister, a few people were surprised. Most people who knew him well knew that he had been ecumenical in his approach to ministry all along, so it was no big deal. His allegiance had never been to one denomination, but to the God of Love they all shared. Brother Johnson loved everybody and everybody loved him.

There were a couple of factors that influenced the direction of his change, probably more, but these were the ones that were more obvious to me. First, his mother and her family had been Methodists, and in his opinion, they were all supreme examples of what Christians should be. His paternal grandparents had been Episcopalians in Virginia, his father-in-law was a Presbyterian, so he had been exposed to a broad range of theology and found merit in all of them.

Second, he had served as a Protestant Army chaplain during WWII in England and France and had cultivated deep and lasting friendships with other chaplains of different denominations. He recognized and acknowledged that they had more in common than they had in differences.

There was no "major falling out" with the Baptists. His decision to become bi-vocational during the 60's caused some consternation for the senior deacons at Plantersville, but he had a family to support and there was no good reason, as he saw it, why he should not use his teacher's license as a part-time substitute teacher to supplement his income. If the church could not afford to pay him a living wage, as they claimed, he could pick up the slack quite easily, and didn't mind doing it. He viewed it as a form of tent-making, like the Apostle Paul did in order not to be a burden to those he served. The deacons demanded he make a choice between teaching or preaching. To their surprise, he chose teaching.

Immediately afterwards, he was approached by Lee County School Superintendant Leroy Belk and offered full-time employment, and by the Rev. Appleby, an old friend and District Supt of the North Miss. Methodist Conference, who offered him a part-time church circuit.

My daddy was in his early 60's when he was going through this transition. He and Mother moved out of the Baptist parsonage, and into a small apartment until they could build a house on the vacant lot that he had bought years earlier next door to the parsonage. He went to summer school at Ole Miss to renew his teaching credentials. The next year, he went to Emery University to earn Methodist minister's credentials.

Until he was 67 years old, he taught school full-time in county schools and Tupelo city schools (he was the first white teacher at Carver High School) and pastored small country churches in Itawamba, Union, and Tippah Counties, all the while, living in Plantersville and commuting. When he retired from teaching, he continued to pastor Methodist churches until he was almost 80 years old. He claimed it was some of his happiest and most productive years.

One of the things that impressed me the most about him during this time was that rather than being bitter about the way he'd been dismissed by the senior deacons at Plantersville, he continued to minister to them. He was the one they called when they were sick, in the hospital, needing a driver to take them to Campbell's Clinic in Memphis, etc. They requested he officiate their funerals. They still considered him their pastor! So did many of his former church members.

Yes, Daddy had been hurt by the brusque action of the deacons. My brother, who was a teenager at the time and still living at home, was so soured by their uncharitable attitudes that he quit church altogether, and has had very little to do with organized religion since. He was working in a grocery store owned by one of them, and he heard first-hand some of the mean, petty expressions of their sentiments toward our father. He couldn't understand how or why Daddy continued to care for them as he did. He was in favor of our parents moving out of Plantersville, "shaking the dust off their sandals," and leaving it behind permanantly.

But Daddy loved Plantersville. His own father had been a Baptist minister, and as a child, he had been subjected to moves every two or three years. It was a terribly unsettling thing for children, he said, being uprooted so often, and he would not do that to his own children. Bigger churches with better salaries called him several times, but he chose to stay in Plantersville.

When my first marriage ended in 1969, I moved from Nashville back to Plantersville. My childhood memories of the place were all good, wonderful really, and I wanted my own children to grow up there. They did, and most of their memories of the place are good, too. My father was more than a grandfather to them, more like a surrogate father (in addition to his teaching and preaching), and the man across the street was another one.

Cecil Johnson and Silas Johnson were not related, even though they made some effort to connect their ancestry, to no avail. (Tracing the roots of Johnsons is like tracing the roots of Smiths or Joneses, believe me, I know, I tried.) Cecil probably had as much influence on the kids growing up in Plantersville as Silas had as a pastor. Each had their sphere of influence, their calling, and each gave selflessly to help those within their particular circle. Neither of them was perfect, their faults were not hard to spot for those who knew them well, but their overall effect helped to make my hometown special. Plantersville, as a town, suffered when there was no more Cecil, no more Silas, no more of that "greatest generation."

There is an effort underway in Plantersville to restore some of the neighborliness and support that we enjoyed, even took for granted in our youth. Thanks to Gloria Holland, its current mayor, plans have been made to build a Boys and Girls Clubhouse. Contributions are needed to match a $20,000 gift promised by one of the town's residents. One of the purposes of this rambling remembrance is to ask all who can to contribute to this effort. Give in honor of someone still living, in memory of a dearly departed someone, just give. This is Gloria's note to George Kelly in December:

Here's the address for anyone wishing to make a contribution to the future Plantersville Boys and Girls Club. It's tax deductible.

Mike Clayborne
P. O. Box 105
3213 West Main Street
Tupelo, MS 38802

Please make sure it is designated as mentioned above so that we can get credit. We have one year to match the $20,000 donation or we don't get it. I would love to have it done before then, and even more.

Go to George's blog for more information.

My other purpose is that sometimes nothing satisfies like a stroll down Memory Lane.


mornin' said...

I learned many things about your dad that I didn't know. Of course, he was gone from the church scene in P'ville by the time Terry & I moved there. What I remember most vividly is how much David Hall respected him. When I was church secretary Bro. David talked a lot about his conversations w/ Bro. Si.

This is a wonderful post & I appreciate the effort you made to string the words together.

Zoilus said...

I also learned a great many things about Silas that I didn't know before, although I did know the broad story of his leaving the PBC. What I really didn't realize was how much that impacted Paul and his view of "organized religion."

He was much more than a surrogate father to me; he was my father, for all intents and purposes, and I'm proud to have known him.