Thousands remember the Rev. G.L. Johnson
Thousands filled Peoples Church in northeast Fresno on Sunday to say a final goodbye to the Rev. G.L. Johnson, the church’s longtime pastor who touched so many lives.
Whether they were church members, fellow pastors or family members, each felt a strong connection to the man many called “a pastor to the people.”
“Any number of pastors could be up here talking about G.L.,” said the Rev. Powell Lemons, pastor of Bethel Christian Center in Fresno. “He had a way of making you feel that you were his best friend.
“While his parish was Peoples Church, his field was the world.”
The Rev. Johnson’s influence extended far beyond the Valley, said George O. Wood, who came to Fresno from Springfield, Mo., where he is general superintendent of Assemblies of God, USA.
“We have lost a giant of the faith,” Wood said. “Fresno not only has lost a pastor beloved by his congregation, but also by many other congregations.”
The Rev. Johnson, who retired in February 2008, died June 29 after battling bile duct cancer. He was 83.
He became pastor of Peoples Church in 1963, at the time a small nondenominational congregation of about 150 at Cedar and Dakota avenues. And he set Peoples on a path to become the area’s first megachurch — at Cedar and Herndon avenues — with about 5,000 members.
So many wanted to pay respects that the sanctuary, which seats 2,100, was filled a half hour before the start of the 6 p.m. service. About 400 others watched on screens in the G.L. Johnson Chapel, choir room and smaller chapel. People also could watch live online at peopleschurch.org.
“Thousands are watching here, Fresno County — and the world,” said the church’s current pastor, Dale Oquist.
Oquist asked attendees to raise their hands if the Rev. Johnson influenced them to make professions of faith in Jesus or helped them in their Christian faith.
A sea of hands shot up.
Later at the pulpit, Wood shared that his wife, Jewel, whispered “wow” after seeing so many upraised hands.
“Pastor G.L. was a wow,” he said. “He was a wonderful friend.”
Then, Wood glanced at the Rev. Johnson’s portrait, displayed next to his wooden pulpit, which was brought out of retirement for the service.
“I see this photo — and I just want to hug him,” Wood said. “He modeled what it was to be excellent to his church, his family, community and world.”
The Rev. Johnson ministered to thousands and earned the confidence of fellow clergy members and civic leaders.
He also traveled throughout the world, including South Korea, Russia, Romania and China, to teach at pastors’ conferences.
Bill Glass, founder of Champions for Life prison ministry and one of four people asked to give a eulogy, couldn’t attend due to health reasons. He sent a letter, read by Oquist:
“My two major heroes are Billy Graham and G.L. Johnson. Graham was the greatest preacher since Paul [the apostle] and G.L. was the greatest pastor I’ve ever seen.”
Chyresse Hill remembered in her eulogy always meeting her well-known grandfather between the second and third services on Sunday.
Poppie, as she called him, led her by the hand to his office so they could chat.
“It’s a huge loss, but our faith in Christ means we will see him again,” said Hill, who is expecting a child in several weeks and already has selected the middle name — Johnson.
Many fellow clergy members and civic leaders were on hand for the service, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, retiring Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell, Bishop John-David Schofield of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin and Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson.
“G.L. was the spiritual leader of Fresno, but also a spiritual mentor of mine,” Dyer said before the service. “He was someone I could call anytime — night or day. Even though I didn’t attend Peoples Church, he considered me one of his flock. He will be sorely missed. I don’t think he will ever be replaced.”
Church member Christina Dictos Jones said she attended the service because the Rev. Johnson meant so much to her.
She snapped a photo of Johnson’s portrait and wooden pulpit with her cell phone.
On her way to the back of the church, Jones shared her own story of her relationship with the church’s longtime pastor: “He was always there for me and our family. He called me ‘Nina’ — and he was the only one I let do that. I didn’t like that name. But, for him, it was OK.”
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6304.
PHOTO: ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/THE FRESNO BEE
Soloist Kim Lichti, left, sings “My Help Cometh From the Lord” as the orchestra is directed in the background at the start of the memorial service for pastor G. L. Johnson at Peoples Church Sunday evening.