He was bigger than life! I’m not even sure I know what that phrase means but if you ever met big Bill Johnson you know it’s true of him. Most of you missed the pleasure of meeting him this side of eternity so if you don’t mind I’d like to tell you some of his story so you’ll be prepared when you meet him on the other side. Few churches believe in and invest in mission work like Granny White. They make a commitment to a work and they are all in. I’d not been there long when one of the elders asked me if I knew Bill Johnson who preached in New York. Well, I told him I knew a Bill Johnson he was a preacher and a missionary but I’d not heard he had moved to New York - last I’d heard he was working with “One Nation Under God.” But as he described Bill Johnson I was convinced “his” Bill Johnson and “my” Bill Johnson were, in fact, one in the same.
Imagine my surprise when I went to New York to preach in a campaign for his congregation and met Bill Johnson. He was a huge black man. And he fit the description of the Bill Johnson I’d met in Alabama years before in every other way except the color of his skin. But I soon learned that there was no one like big Bill Johnson. Now, no offense in any way and if I miss this I’ll apologize quickly, Bill stood I’d say 6’5” and probably tipped the scales at 450. But he needed to be that big to contain his smile!
Bill hugged me the first time I saw him and every time after. Even when he made one of his many random calls to me I felt like he hugged me though the phone lines. And the first time he met me he called me “little brother.” I figure he probably called a lot of people that - but he’s the only person who ever called me that (other than my own brother, Carey).
Back around 1970ish when he graduated from Harding he got in his car and drove to Nashville and stopped at Granny White unannounced. He met with the elders and the church gave him a typewriter. It wasn’t long before they started supporting his work financially and they never stopped. Literally, never.
I think it must have been about 2000 when Scott Tillman, Jeff Wilson and I went to New York to help them celebrate their 25th anniversary as a church at Springfield Gardens. That was the trip when Jeff Wilson forced a carmel macchiato down me and the only time I’ve ever seen Scott Tillman afraid. When we met up with big Bill he took us to Junior’s. A place world famous for it’s cheesecake. Wow. It was in a fairly rough part of town but walking down the street I felt as safe as a baby with it’s mom. Nobody better mess with big Bill Johnson - he’d love ‘em to death!
I felt like everybody in New York knew big Bill. He took us up on top of the World Trade Center Towers. There was a huge line but several of the police officers knew Bill and one or two were members at the Springfield Gardens church so they pulled us to the front of the line and we were in! Talk about being an insider - we got to go places nobody else did. It was neat beyond words.
A few months later when those towers were hit among my first thoughts were those officers. We kept calling big Bill and as most lines were tied up or done in we kept getting his voice mail. In a neat twist of providence Bill called us back about the same time WSMV called to interview me to see how I thought this would affect the spiritual lives of Americans. I heard Kathy talking to Bill and asked if they wanted to talk to a man who preached in New York. They put him on live and interviewed him. Bill was right where I thought he’d be - in the middle of it all! He was near the base of the operations center. He said it’d taken him about 3 hours with his van full of bottled water but eventually he’d found an officer that knew him and they let him through. What an opportunity that day - our local NBC affiliate got a live interview with someone at ground zero and the church got a good name! Bill was perfect. I could see his big grin through the line but heard his heart hurting for his people. Turns out that the officer we knew had called in sick that day or else he would have gone down with the towers.
Bill had a singing voice that wouldn’t quit either. When he’d visit us at GW, while he could preach circles around many, what our people wanted was for him to lead us in a song or two.
In January of this year the church he helped plant appointed her first elders. About a week ago I sent him and email asking if he’d help with a little project I’m doing. I did not know he was sick. My deepest sympathy to his wife Faye and son Will.
I looked forward to hearing his “how are things little brother” when I’d see his name pop up on caller ID. What a man, what a servant, what a friend. He was a brother - one of a kind. I loved him deeply - his spirit was infectious and his energy boundless. I wish I could see him again - and our faith says I will! And he will be waiting with a big hug and a grin as big as New York!!