Service at Zion Hill will be tribute to longtime pastor

by W. Winston Skinner


Willie J. Johnson

Gloria Menchan had talked to her pastor, Willie J. Johnson, last year about having a “Seven Last Words from the Cross” service at Zion Hill Baptist Church on Good Friday.

“We talked about doing the service,” recalled Menchan, herself a preacher’s daughter. She had seen the service – which involves different ministers giving messages on Jesus’ words while on the cross – at another church. “I told him a little bit about it,” Menchan said.

Johnson asked Menchan to come up with a list of ministers to participate and told her he would invite them.

When Johnson died unexpectedly in December, Menchan’s first reaction was to drop plans for the Good Friday service. Ultimately, she reached the conclusion that the service must take place – and that it must be a fitting tribute not only to Christ but Willie J. Johnson, who served Christ so faithfully.

“He wanted the church to be full. This will be an awesome thing for him,” Menchan said.

The Good Friday service, which will recall Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, will be held at the brick church on Pinson Street in Newnan on Friday at 7 p.m. The service will also be a tribute to Johnson and his 39 years of service at Zion Hill.

The clergy who will be speaking “all came out of this church,” Menchan said. They are Larry Evans, Nathaniel Russell, Ada Long, Donald Barber, James Stegall, Stephanie Keith, Adrian Smith, Tony Calhoun and Valentin Mbong.

Committee members have worked to get the word out about the Friday service. A letter was sent, and committee member Delores Gay created post-card sized fliers that have been distributed to promote the event.

Ida Johnson, the minister’s widow, said the church has observed Good Friday over the years – often in conjunction with nearby congregations. She remembered a midday service was held one year.

Menchan said there will be a notice in the program for Friday’s service about its being dedicated to the memory of the longtime pastor. All the ministers will be wearing black or white robes, and black-and-white memorial pins will be distributed to attendees noting the Good Friday gathering’s theme and paying tribute to Willie Johnson.

“Every part of the church is going to be lit up for him,” Gay predicted.

Members of the committee planning the event reflected on the lasting fruits of Johnson’s dedication and service. “Rev. Johnson has meant so much to me,” Gay said.

“This is the first family I met besides my in-laws,” Gay said, recalling her coming to live in Newnan. “They became my family.”

“Rev. Johnson was just like a family member,” agreed Allean Mahone. “He was always there when I needed him – also when my family needed him.”

Gay remembered the power of Johnson’s preaching. “If you ever heard him preach,” she said, it was clear that “he loved the Lord,” she said.

Marshay Harris-Russell is the newest member of the church serving on the planning committee. She particularly recalled how welcoming he was when she began attending Zion Hill. “He was always happy to see us,” she said.

“He was a God-sent man,” Mahone said. “He was sincere and honest.” She said she grew spiritually “under his leadership.”

“He never had anything bad to say about anybody,” Harris-Russell said.

“He touched my life,” Gay said. “He changed my life.”

Johnson’s pulpit chair at Zion Hill is draped with his pastoral robes. Communion and holy days always had a special resonance for Johnson, and the Good Friday service will fulfill the pastor’s love for God – and for the family of God at Zion Hill.

When Ida Johnson was asked how she felt about the tribute service, she quoted from verse of Scripture – John 19:30 – words of Jesus from the cross: “It is finished.”

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