When 6-year old Samantha McCall was asked at school to draw a picture of her family, she drew herself, her brother and parents. But also included in her masterpiece was an image of her pastor, the Rev. Wilma R. Johnson.
“She viewed her as part of her family,” said Samantha’s grandmother, Julie Rambo, a deacon at New Prospect Baptist Church in Detroit. “That’s the kind of person she was. She had that effect on people.”
The Rev. Johnson, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church and a pioneer for women in the ministry in Detroit, died Friday after a 12-year battle with cancer. She was 64.
Born on Dec. 23, 1951 in Millville, N.J., the Rev. Johnson was introduced to her future husband by her cousin at a fraternity party in 1984.
“I had this preconceived notion about what a Baptist minister was like — with long dresses and someone who would beat you over the head with a Bible. But she wasn’t like that. I fell in love with her,” said her husband, David Johnson.
The couple married and moved to Kansas City where David Johnson worked in the automotive industry. They moved to Detroit in 1989 and joined Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. There, the Rev. Johnson was named associate pastor for Christian ministry, a position she held from 1990-98.
On March 1, 1999, the Rev. Johnson, was called to become the senior pastor New Prospect, the first woman to lead that congregation.
Rambo and her husband, MacArthur Rambo, chairman of the deacon board at New Prospect, recalls the church’s search for a new pastor and the overwhelming vote of confidence the Rev. Johnson received.
“We had 152 applicants to be exact. And she was among the most qualified based on our criteria,” MacArthur Rambo said. “We wanted someone with a seminary degree and experience and she had both.”
She was also the only woman among the candidates.
“After looking at her credentials and hearing her preach, the church voted and she was selected. There was some discussion (about her being a woman) but not much,” recalled Julie Rambo. “We have a lot of educated, biblical scholars here and they helped” educate some. “She was just the most qualified.”
Among her credentials include a Bachelors degree in business administration from William Tyndale College in Farmington Hills, a masters in pastoral ministry from Marygrove College and a doctor of ministry degree from Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. She has a Leadership Institute certificate from Harvard University.
In 2004, the Rev. Johnson was diagnosed with lung cancer and immediately informed her congregation. She later had surgery to remove a portion of her left lung. Through her battle, her church was with her, friends and congregants say. She even included them in one of her two books, “Unshakeable Joy: The Call and The Response.”
In it she shares details of her cancer treatments and the physical and emotional effect the disease and treatment had on her. Select congregants in turn shared how her battle has encouraged or inspired them spiritually.
Julie Rambo, a member at New Prospect for 30 years, said the Rev. Johnson introduced the church to issues and causes such as participating in an organ donor program and cancer awareness month, which is October. This month, a Christmas tree in the lobby of the church is covered with pink paper cutouts of cancer awareness ribbons inscribed with the names of survivors and those who donated to the cause. Near the top of the tree is one that reads “Wilma Johnson.”
Friends say the Rev. Johnson touched thousands of lives in metro Detroit through her Christian ministry and personable, compassionate demeanor. Among those who knew and respected her was radio talk show host Mildred Gaddis.
“We affectionately referred to her as Pastor J,” said Gaddis, host of the Mildred Gaddis Show on 1200 WCHB-AM where Rev. Johnson’s voice often could be heard with her early-morning on-air inspirational messages. “She was my pastor for more than a decade. I admired her passionate love for Jesus Christ. She was generous with her love and her resources.
“I recall on one Sunday when she gave $10,000 worth of gas away because she wanted black gas station owners to survive,” said Gaddis.
Sharon Lawson recalls meeting the Rev. Johnson 10 years ago when Lawson became principal at Pasteur Elementary School, a Detroit Public School across the street from the church.
“I was outside hanging up a flag and she walked over and introduced herself and the first thing she asked was what is it we can do to help you at the school,” said Lawson.
“One of the things the church did was to set up an after-school program for us. It’s three days a week and they go over there and stay –some until 6:30 in the evening. And they give them a hot dinner — not just little snacks — but a hot dinner.
“If the kids saw her they would run up to her and hug her. They knew her and respected her.
“You know how you meet someone who is just so calm and so easy to talk to? That was her,” Lawson said.
Lawson recalled the church helping the school raise $33,000 to take students to Florida to see the launch of space shuttle Endeavour in 2011.
“They found out what we were trying to do and stepped in. We got the money together with donations from alumni and others, but it was with the church’s help that we managed to get enough money to get there to see the Endeavour,” Lawson said, adding that the church also helps when students’ families are going through hardships.
“If a student’s family was burned out and lost everything, the Rev. Johnson and her group would be there. They would do things in the background and it was never for show. I just loved her so much,” Lawson said.
Among the Rev. Johnson’s closest spiritual advisers, David Johnson said, is the Rev. Charles G. Adams of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church.
“Her love for Dr. Adams, I cannot express,” David Johnson said. “When Dr. Adams chose her to be a full-time minister, she asked me ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ She learned quickly that she was supposed to support Dr. Adams and lift up the members. She was truly his daughter in Christ.
“I guess as a minister she was not just a minister, she was a true shepherd; the kind that made sure the congregation came first. If you’re going to be a servant, you should be a servant, and not have this blown out ego about being in front of everybody.
“I count my self blessed to be on the journey with her,” David Johnson said.
In her book, the Rev. Johnson writes: “I would not have chosen cancer but I believe my cancer was included in all the things God has called me to do and to go through. God has never left me and He is always there to help me complete every task, and with his help, I will finish every race. God will always be there to help me fulfill His plans for my life.”
Besides her husband of 32 years, the Rev. Johnson is survived by two sons, David and Brian, and a grandson, Ellington.
Services are planned for Oct. 14 and 15 at the church, 6330 Pembroke Ave. in Detroit. Services times have yet to be finalized.