BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — The man who led one of this Bristol, Virginia’s most prominent African-American churches for more than six decades and preached his last sermon less than a month ago has died at the age of 90.
Rev. W.A. Johnson, who died late Wednesday, had pastored Lee Street Baptist Church since 1961, interim pastor Rev. Ronnie Wayne Collins told News Channel 11.
“He was a man of integrity, of vision and of carrying out the mission that Jesus Christ gave us to ‘go ye into all the world and make disciples,'” Collins said.
Collins said Johnson was active in the church up until just the last few weeks. He preached June 12 and entered the hospital June 15, his daughter Hope Ampudia said. She said while few people were aware of it, Johnson had been ill for about two years.
“His style in the pulpit was very positive — exciting,” Collins said. “He had the Bible in his hand, but he had it in his heart and it was just phenomenal watching him and the spirit of his ministry. He preached with power and authority. Anointing is what we called it.”
Johnson’s funeral arrangements are being handled by Clark Funeral Home and aren’t complete yet, but Collins said the church had what is called a “bell-ringing” ceremony at 1 p.m. Thursday.
“We invited community members and met at the church. I spoke briefly about Rev. Johnson’s life, we prayed, and then we rang the bell in his honor and put our flags at half-mast,” Collins said.
Teresa Brown hardly remembers life without Johnson in it. The Lee Street Baptist deaconess and longtime church secretary said she began attending as an elementary schooler, heading to Lee Street after attending early morning mass at the Catholic church.
She said despite his prominence, intelligence and powerful preaching, Johnson’s compassion for all people stood out to her above all.
“He showed up to visit my grandmother when she was sick and was never in a hurry to get away,” she said. “There was never a time when you called him that he didn’t show up.”
Brown said Johnson showed kindness to people who would “come in off the street and give him sob stories.”
“He would reach into his own pocket and give them money, and just listen to people,” she said. “We’d tell him to be careful and he’d say, ‘people are hurting, they need somebody to listen.’ He was right.”
Brown and her husband have been able to see their children, grandchildren and even their own 2-year-old great-granddaughter baptized by Johnson. She said people have called her about his passing from California, New Jersey, New York and around the country.
“He was not just my pastor, he ended up being my friend,” Brown said. “He’s got a legacy. Very intelligent man. I was talking to a friend today and said, ‘can you imagine the crowns that are waiting on him’ (in heaven).”
Ampudia said integrity was at the core of her father’s being. “Who you are behind closed doors, after you have taken off your mask, is the real person,” she said. “A man of God has one face — the face of the heavenly father.”
She said Johnson, whose favorite scripture was Philippians 3:14 (I press toward the mark of the high calling in Christ Jesus”), believed that Christ followers should reflect God’s own glory.
Rev. Lester Lattany of Friendship Baptist Church in Johnson City called Johnson “a powerful man of God.”
Lattany said the two of them preached in each other’s pulpits several times and worked together on numerous community celebrations, including Martin Luther King Jr. remembrances and youth events.
“He will be missed,” Lattany said. “He would be considered a giant in the field of preaching ministry and church growth.”
He remembered speaking to Johnson at the funeral service for Lattany’s predecessor at Friendship, Rev. C.H. Charlton, in January 2020.
“I said he probably started pastoring at 16, and he laughed and said I was close.”
Collins said that through his many years of ministry, Johnson visited a couple dozen different countries, ministering and planting churches — “doing things that a true man of God would do, a worldwide visionary.”
Asked to think of a Bible passage that would sum up Johnson’s life and personality, Collins mentioned 3 John 1:2. “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospers.”
Johnson’s biography on the Lee Street website says that he grew up in the Hampton, Va. area and graduated from both Virginia Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary.
In 1966, Johnson organized one of the first Head Start programs affiliated with Community Action Agencies in Virginia, with the Head Start program operating at the church for 25 years before it relocated. The church also opened its own child care center in 1990.
Johnson was moderator of the Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Association of Southwest Virginia from 1987-1989. He served as a board member of People Inc. and a trustee of Virginia Union University, another of his alma maters.