Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Passing of a Great Servant of God

Several weeks ago we received word from our good friends, Ben and Emelia Andoh-Kesson that their good friend, Joseph William "Billy" Johnson had just passed away in a New Jersey hospital with heart problems. He had been in the United States, living with his daughter and her family in New Jersey, to receive the medical help he needed and did not have access to in Ghana, West Africa. We were saddened by this news.

Back in 2006 I wrote an observation about Billy Johnson. While he was visiting his good friends, Ben and Emelia Andoh-Kesson who are from Ghana also, Joseph William "Billy" Johnson came to our home on two different occasions. Brother Johnson was a patriarch in Ghana and was instrumental in bringing the missionaries and the gospel to West Africa. I would like to share with you once again a few things about Brother Johnson that will help you appreciate who he was. I will be liberally quoting from Maureen and Scot Procter who went to Ghana to interview Brother Johnson for Meridian Magazine a few years ago.

"Without priesthood power and direction, without the authorization of the Church, with no hope of receiving the priesthood himself, with no hope for temple blessings, he still felt compelled—even fired from his bone marrow-- to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Persecutions didn’t stop him. Disdain only sent him to his knees. The slow grinding of the years when he had ten congregations each bearing the handwritten signs “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” didn’t wear him down. Official letters from Church headquarters telling him that it wasn’t yet time to send missionaries didn’t daunt him. He knew from personal revelation that his “brothers from the West” would come for him, and though he sometimes cried and often prayed all night for courage, when they did come, he had 1,000 people who were ready for baptism..." "In the early 60’s, the Lord’s Spirit certainly began brooding on Africa. Not only did Brother Johnson form his congregations in Ghana, but also in Nigeria unauthorized congregations of Latter-day Saints began sprouting. Here it was that somebody saw an advertisement in The Reader’s Digest, there a friend from Europe sent a tract. Somebody else received a copy of the Book of Mormon. Seemingly unrelated events were coming together to bring a groundswell of interest in what must have seemed like a distant Church. What wasn’t distant was the Spirit which moved upon many people almost simultaneously with a divine orchestration that would someday bring a temple..." "... When we came upon Brother Johnson’s neighborhood nothing seemed remarkable. His home was in a typical African village, but that is where “typical” ended. He was as astounding as you’d expect the founder of a movement against great odds would be, and we felt the impress of his grand spirit as we interviewed him. Had we met someone like this before—ever before? Could Parley P. Pratt been more on fire than this African patriarch who had begged for the Church? We were not surprised when we learned that some of the early missionaries called him the “St. Paul of Ghana.” "... Brother Johnson is a visionary man, a man with significant dreams. God speaks to most of us in quieter tones, yet perhaps on the frontier of the Church, Joseph Johnson needed dreams to sustain and teach him." "Space will not permit a detailed account of how Church literature, the Book of Mormon, and the other standard works came into his hands. Upon receiving them however, the following took place: "He started his studies by reading a tract on Joseph Smith and the first vision, and said he, “I was convinced. I believed. I felt the spirit when I read the story of Joseph Smith, especially how the Father and the Son revealed themselves to him. That moved me a great deal"... He took his studies of the Book of Mormon with equal conviction, pouring over the pages. Then, he said, “One early morning of March 1964 while I was about to get up to prepare for my daily chores, the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me. I heard a voice from heaven speaking to me saying, ‘Johnson, if you will take up my word as I will command you to your people, I will bless you and bless your land.’ Trembling in fear, I replied in tears, saying ‘Lord by thy own help, I will do whatsoever thou would command me.’ "From that day on,” said Brother Johnson, “the Spirit of the Lord constrained me to propagate the restored gospel to my people. I started door to door and performed open missionary work preaching the new message we read from the Book of Mormon.” For the next 14 years Brother Johnson preached the gospel, organized branches of the Church (unauthorized branches, though not discouraged), and President David O. McKay encouraged him to be patient and that one day missionaries would come to Ghana. He had many spiritual experiences that increased his faith and made it possible for him to go forward with the work during this difficult time. Following is one of them. "One night, before the Church had come, he had been weeping for a different reason. He was discouraged and pained, wondering, “Will our brothers from the West ever come for us?” Then in a dream his brother, who had died four years before President Johnson had found the Church, came to him and said, “Do not weep. I have found your Church in this place, and I want to be baptized, but I cannot without your help.” To prove to President Johnson that he spoke the truth he sang for him “Come, Come Ye Saints.” Well, the missionaries came, the Church was officially organized in Ghana and Nigeria, and literally thousands of wonderful Africans have become members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "On the day of the Ghana temple dedication, Brother Johnson said, “We will always remember what the missionaries have done for us. My heart is burning with love and appreciation. When I started preaching with the Book of Mormon, everyone said, they won’t come. Leave the Church. I said, ‘I know they will come because the Lord has told me."... Patriarch Johnson said, “Temple work is the sweetest part of the Church to which my heart and soul have always clung. I want to meet my mother and father in the resurrection prepared to enter the kingdom of God. “There is a chorus of God’s love inside every member of the Church of today. We can’t express our gratitude for the blessings we have received.”

One Saturday afternoon when Brother Johnson was visiting his friends here in Tustin, Brother Johnson, his sister Bea, and Sister Andoh-Kesson came to our home to visit. Emilia had shown him our video, "It's Good to Be Alive", the night before, and he was anxious to meet a fellow patriarch from the United States, although a paralyzed one. He was not nearly as eager to meet me as I was him. The moment he "sprang" into our living room and ran over to me, I could feel his Spirit of love before he said a word. He couldn't hug me because of the wheelchair, but had he been able to, it would have been a powerful embrace. Jo Anne and I felt the Spirit very strongly as we visited with this incredible human being -- a blend of Paul, Wilford Woodruff, Parley P. Pratt, and Brigham Young -- rolled into one. At one point in the conversation he stood up, placed his hands on my head, and gave me a brief, spontaneous blessing. We knew we were in the presence of a man of God, and a man of incredible faith. We attended the fireside he spoke at the following Sunday evening which was wonderful, and then heard that he wanted to come by our home once again on Monday afternoon. We felt extremely grateful and humbled that he would want to do so. When he entered our home on Monday we again felt his great spirit and soon discovered that the purpose of his visit was to give me a special blessing – not just to visit. He anointed my head with oil, sealed it by the power of the holy Melchizedek priesthood, and gave me a powerful blessing of peace, comfort, well-being, and some things I can't mention. Tears were flowing as I felt the love of Heavenly Father communicated to me through the faith and goodness of this great man. He is a man from another continent, another race, another culture, and almost from another world it seems. A man of God! My pitiful words cannot adequately describe my experience with Patriarch Johnson. Jo Anne thankfully, shared the experience with me, and knows what I am trying to say. As Ammon said, "I cannot say the smallest part which I feel." Hopefully, I will be able to see "Billy" once again in the Spirit World. I am sure he is there preaching the gospel that he loved so much. I hope to be worthy to join him in that work someday.