By ROY WAGGONER
Freedom News Service
He has to preach seated on a stool, but that doesn’t stop the Rev. Michel Johnson from leading his congregation at Caprock Baptist Church.
He tends to his flock, leads Bible studies, preaches sermons. But, in the midst of encouraging his congregants, he is battling a terminal illness that makes it difficult to breathe.
A bout of pneumonia could kill him.
In managing his disease, he takes 15 pills a day. Sitting helps him breathe while preaching. An oxygen tank is a constant companion and a hospice nurse checks on him at home.
He worked as an interim pastor at Caprock Baptist Church outside Odessa, Texas, about four years ago and served in an “intentional interim” role for many years at a variety churches to help through transitional periods. However, it was only after his diagnosis last year that Caprock asked him to serve full time, a position he started in October. Despite troubles in his own life, Johnson still felt called to help others with his ministry.
“I am so blessed to be able to go back into the ministry. I didn’t think that would happen,” he said. “I just felt called to this church like you would to any position. I tell people we’re all terminal, but we don’t always live like it.”
Johnson is a veteran and receives medical care from the VA Hospital in Amarillo for his condition, known as ILD. He thinks Agent Orange may have caused the illness, but he said he isn’t upset at the military or anybody else.
“The miracle is to serve as a pastor. This is really an opportunity to get closer to family and friends and other people all around me. Death is not the end for me,” Johnson said.
He spoke openly about his illness — something he said he wanted to do because his dad never really talked about another family tragedy growing up. His mother died from a terminal illness herself on Father’s Day in 1963.
“She taught me so much about how a Christian dies. I had no idea knowing that 44 years later it would happen to me,” Johnson said.
Using the stool for services isn’t the only marker that shows his ministry is different. His wife, Sandie, has to do all the hospital and nursing home visits for Michel.
“They made me a minister to do this,” she said, showing a picture of her MCH badge alongside her husband’s.
Sandie Johnson said the family deals with the situation largely through humor. She told of the time Michel had to baptize people. In the process, he left his oxygen tank off to the side.
As the pastor struggled to breathe, the music minister who is nearly deaf didn’t realize that the pastor needed oxygen. Finally, members of the congregation noticed Johnson struggling and pointed to him.
“We have funny things like that happen all the time,” she said.
In another case, a telemarketer called and asked Michel Johnson how he was doing. He answered “terminal,” which left the caller speechless.
“Not everybody can deliver that line,” she said.
Caprock Baptist is a small congregation and one with members that face a great deal of challenges, from sickness to disability.
“The church is a bunch of survivors themselves,” he said. “Life keeps coming no matter what, and what’s important is how you reach people, particularly with the good news of Christ.”
He said he hopes that his presence in the church will remind parishioners about the importance of life and encourage those who have their own struggles.
He said he finds he grows from the church just as much as the church members grow seeing him, a point Johnson’s hospice chaplain Jimmy Braswell brought up himself. Braswell visits Johnson at home about twice a month.
“I have never heard of any church taking on a minister after they were sick like this, and it strengthens him while creating such an atmosphere of nurture in the church,” Braswell said. “They need somebody to be with them, and they get to journey together and understand each other even more.”
Church deacon Paul Miller said the church has grown slightly under Johnson’s leadership. He said the church is excited to have him serve as pastor.
“I believe that as long as the Lord gives breath for him to stay, he will,” he said. “None of this has seemed to impact his mind or speaking. He’s very brave.”
Michel Johnson said there isn’t a definite timeline for when his illness will take its course, but he’s at the perfect spot right now.
“It’s the best place to be, and it’s still extraordinary,” Johnson said.
Sandie Johnson maintains a family blog at http://www.anoldsewnsew.blogspot.com