The story of Ahimaaz is our own: eager messengers overwhelmed by the weight of the message. Radically saved at the age of 21 & having spent more than two decades in full-time ministry, you'd think we had God figured out by now! But He's recently jumped out of the box we put Him in, forcing us to re-examine our views on gender equality, politics, what to do with homosexuality & more. And like Ahimaaz, we'll no doubt stumble some in delivery. But, guys, we need to talk...
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Sunday, July 17, 2011
Gary's Testimony By Leslie Johnson
Life in the Delta
Billy & Gary (right)
Gary Johnson was born in 1961 and raised in the Mississippi/Arkansas Delta during the height of the Civil Right’s Movement -poverty, racism and violence as much a part of his life as hunting deer and trapping ‘coon. Complicating matters further, Gary, his brother Billy, and four of their cousins were all abused by their maternal Grandmother. All the parents were completely unaware that Grandma - who had been exposed to and participated in the practices of witchcraft much of her life - regularly tied the young kids up, threw them into closets, and terrorized them as they lay down for naps. One of her favorite methods was to put quarters on their eyelids - telling them they’d die if they opened their eyes - and then stand outside the bedroom window dressed in waders, holding an ax and scream. The unsuspecting parents were, of course, devastated when they found out what had been happening. In fact, Gary’s dad - the son of a very violent father from the mountains of Kentucky and a Cherokee mother - was going to kill Grandma. But Gary's mother pleaded with him to quickly move their young family to avoid any bloodshed. Gary's dad heeded her words and so V.O. and Frances Johnson and their two young boys resettled 200 miles away in a small town called Lake Village, Arkansas.
For a while the family ran a store, living in a trailer park, always struggling to make ends meet, and this is where Gary discovered the confusing world of Christian denominationalism. He laughs and says, "We were whichever bus got their first - I was Baptist one week, Pentecostal the next and the following week I'd be Catholic!" And while he certainly noticed all the differences from one denomination to the next, Gary felt they had one message in common: "God was unapproachable and distant, and definitely not very happy with me!"
Gary and his family soon moved to the woods - driving into LakeVillage for school and work - but very much at home in the outdoors. Gary - who eventually reached the height of 6 foot 4 1/2 inches and weighed in at 320 pounds - loved sports, football in particular. And when he wasn't at school or practice, he was busy chopping wood, hunting and trapping. In fact, the family's existence was very much like something out of a Daniel Boone movie - no hot water, getting up when the moon was high to run the dogs and hunt raccoon. And Gary actually earned spending money by selling the skins of bobcats, raccoons and minks.
The after-effects of childhood abuse were also very much a part of Gary's life. Though by nature Gary was very jovial and playful, he never hesitated to resort to his fists whenever he felt threatened. This only worsened after Gary started drinking at 12 and doing drugs when he was 16. And when he was old enough to get into bars, he soon discovered that many drunks try to prove their manhood by taking on the biggest guy in the bar. And, invariably, that was Gary. He's been in more fights than he can remember and had guns pulled on him more often than he can count - remember, this was the Delta 25 years ago and everybody had at least two shotguns in their trucks and many carried pistols in their glove boxes. Someone even pulled the trigger once, with the gun pointed right at Gary's temple, but miraculously it never fired. During all this hard living, violence and confusion, Gary always had a tender heart towards God...he just thought God didn't love him. Many are the nights he'd pull his truck over to the side of the road and, with tears streaming down his face, scream out, "Don't forget me, God! Please, don't forget me!"
Having graduated from High School in 1979, Gary originally planned on working a year or two before fulfilling his dream of going to college and playing football. But time passed quickly and his dream of playing college ball along with it, increasing Gary's bitterness, frustration and anger. And then one of his friends suggested they head out towards New Mexico and West Texas, where he had some connections, and make good money working on oil rigs. But their timing couldn't have been worse - the rigs had just begun capping off wells, and there were no jobs to be found. Gary's friend soon returned to Arkansas, but Gary decided to stay and found work in a factory. But before too long, he had hooked up with a drug runner and was hired as a bodyguard, accompanying him on regular runs from New Mexico into Mexico and back again. He also worked protection for the drug runner's father, who was apparently involved in some shady business dealings. Like something right out of The Soprano's, Gary would accompany this man to bars and strip clubs where he would meet with his "business partners."
Gary's drinking and drug abuse escalated. He lived in a tiny little trailer, mattress on the floor, and kept two mayonnaise jars beside his bed. The one on the right was filled with "speed" to get him going. And the one on the left was full of "downers" so he could rest at night. And in between, he drank and drank hard, being particularly fond of Southern Comfort. In fact, he overdosed after drinking a 1/5 at a party one night. Someone said, "Nobody can down a 1/5 of Southern Comport!" And Gary stupidly responded, "Oh, yeah?" and killed it. Unfortunately, he had already spent the evening drinking, smoking weed and popping pills. And he has no idea how he made it back from the party to his trailer. He only remembers laying on his back - completely paralyzed - drowning in his own vomit. He was unable to turn to the side and unable to call for help. But, just like the gun that didn't go off, Gary awoke the next morning to find himself rolled over onto on his side.
And like the drinking and drugs, Gary's violence was rapidly increasing. Gary says, "All my dreams were gone. And I found myself in the underbelly of society. It wasn't that I was particularly brave. I just didn't care. I was scared, angry and always in 'attack mode'." He had become explosive. And after he smashed a car windshield and tried to pull a Mexican gang member out through the hole as the car was driving off, the drug runner Gary worked for said he was beginning to draw too much attention. He fired him, gave him a couple hundred dollars and urged Gary to return to Arkansas before he got himself killed. A few days later, Gary headed back to the Delta.
Jesus Is Calling
Gary had only been gone 6 months, and nothing had changed in LakeVillage..but everything had changed in him. He got a job and tried to go back to the same routine of working, hanging out and partying - but he was miserable and couldn't hide it. He had only been back a couple of weeks when two of his old friends picked him up for a "good time". They were all getting drunk, smoking reefer and were headed to an open-air concert in Memphis. Gary was angry the whole day, stepping on blankets and picking fights as other patrons were trying to listen to Pat Benatar and the other bands. And after a day of misery and confrontation, Gary and his friends finally headed back that night after stocking up for the ride back home: 1/5 of Crown Royal, 2 or 3 cases of beer, and a few bags of weed.
Gary says, "I remember it so clear. I was so mad. I hated everyone, especially myself. “And then one of Gary's best friends, Ajax, turned to him in the car and made the most astounding statement, "Gary, I don't know why I'm telling you this, but Jesus loves you, man." These simple words of Ajax (Alex Reginelli, an Italian Catholic friend) penetrated the hard, angry heart of Gary Johnson like nothing before. And boy, did that make Gary mad! "Ajax, you better shut the @#$*# $#&*!!!" Gary shouted back. But it was too late; those life-changing words from the deep, gruff voice of Gary's friend were sinking in for the first time in his life. Gary says of that night, "When Ajax said 'Jesus loves you, man,' thick conviction hit that car!" Now remember, Ajax had a joint in one hand and Crown Royal in the other - but the same God who used a donkey to talk to Balaam, used an Ajax to talk to Gary! Ajax turned back around and they rode in peace for a while. But before too long, he did it again. Turning around, looking right into Gary's eyes as he sat in the back seat, Ajax said once again, "Gary, man, I don't know why I'm telling you this...but Jesus loves you!"
That was it. Gary exploded, "You better pull this $&!!$#& car over and let me out right now!!" There were other friends following them, and Gary rode with them for a while before returning to the car with Ajax further down the road. The next day, Ajax and his other friend came over and they all started partying again - drinking beer and smoking dope. And about that night, Ajax did it again. He said, "Now Gary, I don't know why I'm telling you this - but Jesus loves you, man!" Gary shouted, "That's it!!!! You had better not say another word to me about Him - if He loves me, He's gonna have to tell me himself!!!!" And Gary reached over and cranked up the acid rock radio station as loud as it would go...and the radio went completely silent. Everyone's hair stood on end as the presence of God filled that room and the gentle melody and words of Kris Kristoferson's Why Me Lord? suddenly began to flow through the airwaves of Memphis' famous acid rock radio station:
Lord help me Jesus I've wasted it...
So help me Jesus, You know what I am
Now that I know that I've needed you...
So help me Jesus my soul's in Your hands
Try me Lord, if You think there's a way
I can ever repay, all I've taken from You
Maybe Lord, I can show someone else
What I've been through myself
On my way back to You
Gary fell on his face, weeping and repenting and giving his heart to Jesus for the first time in his life. He says it didn't feel like he was there very long, but the next thing he knew it was the following day and he looked up from the floor to see Ajax just sitting there watching him. "Ajax, what am I supposed to do now?" Gary said.
"I heard you're supposed to tell somebody," replied Ajax.
So they hopped in Gary's truck and drove up town where they saw two girls they had partied with many times before. Gary pulled over and excitedly told them what Jesus had just done for him. And the girls said, "Hey! That's great! What time are you going to be at the club?"
Gary said, "Uh, I don't think I can go to clubs anymore...Ajax, can I?"
And Ajax assured Gary that, no, he couldn't go to the clubs any more. Then Ajax said, "Hey, I know one girl who's a Christian. Let's go see ask her what to do now."
And this is how Gary and Ajax learned that a former hippie was coming to LakeVillage to speak and give his testimony. This young man, Joe Shelton, had been a rock musician for 10 years with many famous groups and was now an evangelist with a remarkable testimony of his own. So that night, Gary, Ajax and several other friends piled into a little, old church where they learned about salvation, grace and the amazing love of Jesus.
It's at this point, people always ask, "Whatever happened to Ajax?" Well, Ajax and several other friends of Gary's all got saved over the course of just a few days. In fact, the Spirit of God swept through that little town, bringing many former drug users, drug runners, violent and miserable men and women to salvation in Christ!
Joe recognized his important part in this tremendous move of God and decided to stay and start a church. And guess who named it? Why, Ajax, of course! "We all have 'faith' and this is 'fellowship'...let's just call it 'Faith Fellowship'" he said matter-of-factly. And so Faith Fellowship was born in Lake Village, Arkansas more than 20 years ago.
Well, needless to say, Gary's life was never the same. He moved to northeast Mississippi where he enjoyed traveling with Joe and sharing his testimony in churches, camps and even schools across the South. He also became involved in the work of the Salvation Army where his remarkable gift of ministering to people in crises situations really flowed. In fact, it was prophesied several times that Gary would see "arms with tracks running up and down them" and minister to alcoholics, addicts and many others in bondage in the under-belly of society. And the Lord spoke more than once that He had made Gary "a big man" for this purpose - that he could walk into these places and immediately get people's attention and even respect because of his size. (Remember, Gary stands 6 foot 4 1/2 inches and is a mountain of a man - but his mom is 5'3" and his dad was 5'7" at the most!)
The word of the Lord has come true many times over. A few years later, he married a young woman who had recently returned to Christ after years spent in sin - that's me! - and we began our life together. It has been 25 remarkable years of marriage and I have never ceased to be amazed at the gifts of God that flow through Gary. He can speak into a situation and within three minutes get to the heart of what has kept a person bound for years. Why? Because it is the anointing that breaks the yoke (Isaiah ). And God has sent this anointing into inner-city projects, to death-row inmates, alcoholics, addicts, and "at risk" adolescents to break the yoke of bondage, depravity and sin upon their lives.
And what of Ajax? Well, he married a very sweet lady named Phyllis and they had two wonderful boys. Ajax passed on to glory a couple of years ago, but Phyllis and the boys remain in Lake Village. And remember the Grandmother that abused Gary and her other young grandchildren? She fully repented several years back and even went to a Christian crusade with Gary, me and the kids in 2002! She went on to heaven a few years later - but before she passed away, it was a beautiful demonstration of God's grace and forgivness to watch Gary at her bedside, singing some of her favorite hymns for her and holding her hand gently.