The Odd Vernon Johns


vernonjohns

I would like to introduce – or reintroduce you if the case may be – to a rather peculiar man named Vernon Johns.    He was a man who few know of, but for those who do; a man certainly unlikely to be forgotten.   Vernon Johns was an odd bird, yet his story deserves retelling.

Vernon Johns’ story begins in Darlington Heights, Virginia, in 1892.   Vernon was the son of former slaves, with an incredibly colorful history.    His grandmother on his mother’s side was taken as a white plantation’s owner’s black wife.    When another man tried to force himself upon the woman, the white husband found out, and killed the attacker.     The plantation owner ended up being the very first prisoner of the Virginia Penitentiary.    

A bizarre side note of history exists alongside this piece of the story.    Vernon’s grandfather was sentenced to an extreme penalty, not just for the murder, but for a more grievous offense.  The court record mentions that part of his offense was in his response.  His response to the attack showed that he “treated his black servant as he would a white woman”.   As a result, there was no chance of leniency.  This stands as a testimony to the ugliness that was the south in the decades following the Civil War.  

Despite a grandfather notorious in Virginia, the real bad guy in Johns’ family tree was his father’s father, who attacked and horrifically killed his master with a farm tool.   With the ugliness of racism again rearing its head, his grandfather was hung from a tree without trial.  Some reports has the man laughing like a mad man when they hung him, and there are legends to this day that the man’s spirit haunts the spot in the woods where the crime was committed. 

As you can imagine Vernon grew up poor, but through a bit of good fortune or providence, along with a strong mother and father, he excelled at school and eventually attended and graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary and College just about 100 years ago.   Three years later he completed his seminary studies at Oberlin College and entered the ministry.  As a young and fresh pastor, Johns lead churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

In the early 1950’s, Johns was named the pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  Dexter Avenue Church was known for the relative affluence and conservatism of its all-black congregation. In a small way it became the token black congregation of Montgomery.  The church stood in the shadows of the federal and state office building of Racist Alabama and was sometimes held up as an argument that racism ‘wasn’t really all that bad’.   Those who found their place in the pews of the Dexter Avenue church each Sunday, were those that were able to overcome the chains of racism in the south, at least as far as the south allowed it.

It was said that Vernon Johns had an oratorical style that could capture one’s attention for hours. His parish recalled sermons that gripped the entire congregation for an hour, and rarely could one hear a pin drop.  It was said no one breathed during his passionate sermons, and that most of them didn’t realize exactly what he said until a couple of hours after church was done.   Monday’s usually started with someone asking “Did Pastor Vernon really say that?”

That passion came from a deep seated frustration.  It was a frustration with his church.   Everywhere he looked, he saw black men and black women afraid to speak up or out.   He saw his flock as afraid to risk their comfortable way of life in fear that racist Alabama would suck them all in.   He saw them as happy to sit quietly, enjoy their modest wealth and what that could buy, and offer the occasional “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” to their white neighbors.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to burn down the city in revolt.   He didn’t want them to storm the capital building.   He didn’t want them to march on Washington.  He only wanted them to say no, every once in a while.   He wanted them to be a different voice.    They, unfortunately, seemed to want none of that.

Johns urged with all the power and passion of his pulpit that the members of his flock break out of their complacency and acceptance of an ugly way of life.   He called on them to take a stand against segregation and discrimination.   He wanted them to just say no.

 Preaching what others called radical notions of social change and black independence, he called upon them to use their economic power against the white establishment to provoke the change that he argued for.   He reminded them, that it was not just, nor was it holy, for them to find comfort in what they had when others struggled and died.  He wanted them to say “no” to that gap.

As much as he tried, he never could get his parish to do that.  He used to joke that it would drive him mad one day.   Although it didn’t, many thought it had as his measures of attention-getting became more and more extreme.    Vernon Johns became harder to miss along the way.

He was determined not to allow his money to create the chains that kept his brothers and sisters down, and in that determination he was intentional about every cent he spent.   To stress his point, Johns, grew and sold vegetables to his community to encourage his flock to support their neighbors and not white-owned stores.  He wanted his parish to say “no” to those who thought they were being Christian and holy simply because they were opening their back doors to black customers.

He looked at his congregation and soon saw that they were no different from the very ones that he pointed fingers at each Sunday.   They talked like their white neighbors, they acted like their white neighbors, and they even dressed like their white neighbors.    Johns was often quoted as saying:  “You pride yourself on your expensive wardrobe while your brothers are naked. And you pride yourself on your fancy tables while your brothers are hungry.”  He prayed for the day that they would realize this, and just say no.

In response to what he saw as hypocrisy, he surrendered his shirt and tie.   In words that challenge me today almost 70 years later, he would stand off with his fellow preachers; and demand to know why they felt like they needed to dress up the blunt, straightforward, radical, for every day, and for everyone message of the Gospel in a fancy suit and tie; when it should – in the end – stand on its own.   To add an exclamation point to that belief, he started dressing like a sharecropper, much to the embarrassment of his family, children, and flock.  Imagine the statement that would be made if all of a sudden, instead of the respectable Scott you know and love, Sunday saw me indistinguishable from the average homeless person on our street.   Somewhere along the way, Vernon Johns wanted them just to begin saying “no”.

Once resource I discovered online, told how Johns once went and extended stretch with only one sermon, preached again and again.   For that month of Sundays, every sermon he preached mentioned the words of Jesus in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

    to proclaim release to the prisoners

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to liberate the oppressed,

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

His sermon would only be those words, along with the question: “When is Jesus’ mission going to be yours? When are you going to say “no”?

Along the way, he increasingly got angry at their hypocrisy, and made a great many enemies of his congregation along the way for pointing it out.   One moment in his ministry adds the exclamation point to the harshness of his response.  For some time there was a young man whose membership was held in the church, who lived a thug life.   He cursed the church, his family, and everyone in the Dexter Avenue community.   He robbed, he stole, and he became an embarrassment to all in the community.   

Late one evening the son died in a knife fight and the family – apparently chief among the hypocrites of the church – wanted the boy memorialized almost as if he was a saint.    In a move that didn’t speak much to his pastoral responsibilities or his loving heart, he told the family that the son didn’t amount to anything, never went to church, threatened all in, and cursed it with every breath and as such did not deserve a funeral service in the building.

 The family persisted and the church leadership forced the pastor to lead a service in the church.  In the height of both arrogance and conviction, on the day of the ceremony, Johns marched right up to the pulpit – dressed as a sharecropper –  and quickly delivered this eulogy (and I quote it in its entirety);   

“This boy lived a trifling and worthless life. He went around Montgomery daring someone to cut his throat. Saturday night somebody obliged him. He lived like a dog; he died like a dog. Undertaker claimed the body.”

Finished, Johns immediately turned around and left much to the shock, silence, and awe of his parents. 

Although crass and unthinking he was passionate about his belief that his parish was in the wrong, and he grew more and more tired when they refused to listen.   Believing that progress would be made only when the “more white” black families of Alabama stepped up for the truly hurting, he pushed and pushed and pushed.     Each time the finger was pointed he got someone else mad.   Finger pointing is not the way to secure any pulpit, especially if you are over the top like Vernon Johns.   There are better, more politically astute, more sensitive ways, of changing the church and changing the world.

Finally the church had enough.   They decided to fire Johns.    Johns didn’t even want to believe that.    Instead he continued to live in the parsonage.  When it turned winter, the church turned off the gas and electricity, and Johns stayed.   Johns burned old books, magazines, and newspapers for heat.  Eventually he left Alabama and moved back to Virginia.  

The church immediately tried to replace him, and this time they were going to do it right.   They conducted an exhaustive and lengthy search and eventually stumbled on a new preacher.    This preacher dressed right and spoke with perfect English.    He looked like the rest of the congregation, and he held himself up with pride.   He was well educated, could speak of the finest books, art and music, and he was a preacher’s kid to boot.  He knew the etiquette of a fine upstanding, polite, black church. 

The church was taken with the smoothness, the youth, the eloquence and total package of this new preacher.     They decided that he was pleasant and safe, and he would make the perfect replacement for their crotchety former pastor.    The immediately offered the safe pastor a job.   

The next Sunday, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first sermon at the Dexter Avenue Church.

In the end… many historians say if Johns was better at brand management, or managing his image and publicity, we would have been celebrating Vernon Johns Day.  As fate would have it, things ended much differently.    We remember and indeed celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and not Vernon Johns’.

Ultimately, Vernon Johns died 15 years after he left Dexter Avenue.    But his story didn’t end when he left that frigid parsonage.   Instead, we learn that when he heard about the new pastor at Dexter Avenue, he went back to Montgomery.  There with an ally from the church he met and talked with King.  In that conversation, he introduced King to the call of civil disobedience and the call for Social Holiness.  Slowly King began to understand what social justice, liberation, and civil rights could look like.    He saw this as a full expression of the Gospel Message.  As he did, Vernon Johns found a man, with the eloquence and skill needed to find momentum.   Vernon Johns also found a man who was willing to say “no” and say it over and over again.

There is a quote that gets tossed about quite a bit when it comes to Vernon Johns.   It is by Curtis White who says;

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.”

What about you?  Martin Luther King Day, is now almost a month past, and has anything changed?   Was the sum total of your remembrance, posting a quote or picture to Facebook, or perhaps sleeping in when you had the day off of work? I ask are you willing to say no?   Are you willing to stand up for what you believe in?  Are you willing to lose everything, and to take those steps that make you seem a bit odd, and certainly make you seem out of place?  Are you willing to put on the clothes of a sharecropper to make a point?

Jesus said he was sent to preach good news to the poor,  to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind.  He told the religious, cultural, economic, and political leaders of his day, that he was there to change things.  He was there to liberate and free the oppressed.   It was his mission.    I cant help but each of us need to ask just precisely when it will be ours too.

Odds are there is a fight in you, that you want to join.  Odds are that deep inside when there is something that makes the hair on your next tingle.   There is something that makes you say “no”.    As the greater family of faith, we need to figure out how to give that “no” wings.

On Martin Luther King Day, we were reminded of the difference made by one man, while at the same time we must come to grips that people like that come just a handful of times for each generation.  They are the cliché one in a million.

Odds are that we will not be the next Martin Luther King Jr, the next Rosa Parks, the next Jonathan Daniels, the next Gandhi, or the next Mother Theresa.    These people are remembered because their lives were so profoundly different than our own.    When we see someone whose life testifies to something so different than what we find as common, we have to remember, and we have to celebrate.

We may not be the next Martin Luther King, but I believe – I know – that I can be the pastor before.  I know you can be – I can be – the person who makes the path straight. I can be the person before.   I can be the next Vernon Johns.    All I need to do is trust in the mission of our faith and take the first step, and trust God for the rest.

 I need to trust in the fact that I can be different.   I can help one man eat.    I can help one person see.   I can provide for clothes for one man.   I can help heal one man.    I can break the bonds that tie one man.     I can make the mission of Jesus my own.

I can stand up and call out the hypocrisy around me.
I can stand up and point out the injustice here.
I can stand up and say no.

I can pray and I can hope that I will indeed change the world.

We all can.

I can stand up and put hope aside.  I can stand up and say no, and know – and trust – that someone, who comes after may be more eloquent, more informed, and perhaps more able to change things.   Maybe the world will hear.

We can be the silent heroes that are needed so badly today.

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5 Comments

  1. This is a fantastic piece and a wonderful story!

  2. Reblogged this on Thoughts From The Heart On The Left and commented:
    Add your http://jesseleeproject.org/2013/02/16/the-odd-vernon-johns/#reblogthoughts here… (optional) Friends, this is an awesome piece and one that truly explains the power of the Gospel

  3. pastorscott2007

     /  February 26, 2013

    Thank you! ~Scott.

  4. Jennifer Cobb

     /  February 25, 2014

    Vernon Johns is my earthly hero!

  5. Karyn

     /  April 29, 2016

    Love this, been searching the net for any info on Mr Johns and this one was the best. Thank you for the telling the true story of Mr Johns ministry at Dexter. I am from Darlington Heights and my father John Roebuck was close friends to Mr Johns. He married his daughter, Elizabeth. My father was a WWII veteran and was greatly influenced by Mr Johns, mostly because they lived right down the road from each other.

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