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A Tribute to Rev. Dr. Alfred Bryan Johnson

Reverend Dr. Alfred Bryan Johnson was senior pastor, village pastor, ambassador to the global village, Biblical scholar, author, fluent in three modern languages, teacher of New Testament Greek, celebrated missionary, respected educator, effective community organizer, a good friend to many, caring son and brother, loving grandfather, father, and husband, but most of all faithful servant and witness of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Alfred Bryan Johnson’s chosen lifestyle was that of a non-pretentious ordinary person. He was of above-average height, but his physical stature was not imposing. These disguised the fact that, by the grace of God, Freddie was an extraordinary human being by any standard. The proof was knowing him.

Rev Johnson knew how to bear hardship like a good soldier. He treated success and achievement as blessings but kept them from getting to his head. He was resilient after being knocked down by life’s inevitable vicissitudes. He did so in stoic silence of personal pain, in avoidance of self-pity, with disarming humor crowned with that unique chuckle that was quintessential Freddie. One of his last memorable lines, after a stroke had hampered his movements, was, “It is through cane that I am able to walk”. This was entirely consistent with his account of arduous times as a Baptist missionary in the Congo when some days duties required teaching New Testament Greek and communicating with others in Lingala, French, and English. Rev Johnson said it was his personal experiences of speaking in tongues. Freddie always saw the funny side of life and linked it through the prism of Scripture. His humor was original, not copied and scripted although sometimes repeated.

Rev Dr. Alfred Johnson was my friend for close to 70 years. He was always Freddie to me. Our families lived on Molynes Road in Kingston, Jamaica. The Johnsons attended Tarrant Baptist Church and the Millers, St Andrew Parish Church. That was on Sundays. During the rest of the week, we visited each other’s yards regularly and without invitation. The Johnson’s had a real Table Tennis board. The Millers played on two tables of different sizes that did not match each other. So, we always went to the Johnson’s to play. Freddie excelled at Table Tennis as he did in most areas to which that he applied himself. As teenagers, at the end of each year there was an informal tournament, played over five sets, for player of the year, which Freddie invariably won, verified by memory of the once or twice that I beat him.

We attended Calabar High School together. We were in the same Form/Grade and the same Class in the Form/Grade. We played on the school’s cricket team together. I went to the University of the West Indies almost directly. Freddie later went to Calabar Theological College after sensing being called by the Lord. My family moved from Molynes Road, but the friendship between the two families remained and never changed. Several of the Johnsons, except Freddie, became members of Bethel Baptist Church in Half-Way-Tree.  So, did I.

Freddie was ordained a Baptist Minister and was posted to different churches, including as a Missionary to the Turks and Caicos Islands. I became a secondary school teacher in Kingston. Our paths diverged but personal and family friendships remained rock solid. Every so many years we caught up with each other.  Freddie was commissioned as a Missionary to the Congo after training in London.  Then, after returning to Jamaica for a while he was appointed Chaplain of Calabar High School, Pastor of the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church and Secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Missionary Society.  He then went to Calabar, Nigeria to teach after which he migrated to the United States.

Through the busyness of separate paths, sometimes in different countries and raising families, the intervals of our catching up became longer. Reports from family kept us abreast of each other. Freddie and I differed in another important respect, apart from table tennis ability. He was gregarious and had a tremendous capacity to connect and to keep in touch with people. I am a bit of a loner and somewhat introverted. I often sought his forgiveness for not keeping in touch. Freddie was always gracious.

The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. In September 2018 my wife, Sharon who is a development banker, was relocated to Washington D. C. Winston told Freddie. We did the biggest ever catching up but by phone. We threatened to visit each other but with settling in a new house and country and my commuting to Jamaica, our schedules did not mesh in 2019. I promised to visit in 2020. Then came Covid-19 which restricted our contact solely to telephone calls and emails, which were frequent.

This catching up was not sentimental nor nostalgic reminiscences of the past. We gave thanks for the love and support of our wives, Abegail and Sharon, and for our children. Our exchanges were mostly of the unimagined courses our lives had taken as we traversed our separate paths in serving the Lord within the geopolitical and sociocultural diversity of the world from our common origins as Jamaicans and Calabar Old Boys, who once lived on Molynes Road.  Although our vocations differed, he a Minister of Religion and I, a teacher, we both believed the Lord had called us to serve Him in these vocations and had not wavered or strayed from this belief.

As we conversed, we asked each other questions. Freddie, how come you served as a Minister of the Reform Church in America and the Presbyterian Church, having been ordained by Baptists. Errol, I was called to preach the Gospel not to baptize. We mused on the fact that it was African Americans from Virginia and Georgia, Rev George Liele, George Gibbs, and George Lewis, who brought and established the Baptist denomination in Jamaica starting in 1783. However, when Rev. Alfred Johnson came to the United States in 1985, just over 200 years later, service as a Christian minister with the Reform Church in America, the United Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church was easier, not only for him but several other ordained Ministers of the Jamaica Baptist Union.

Freddie blew me away as he recounted episodes of his experience as a Missionary in the Congo and in Nigeria.  Reading books and articles are not the same as discussing lived experiences with a friend. There was no need for political correctness. We could employ the Jamaican dialect to convey meanings outside of the scope of Standard English. We could be irreverent at times in discussing raw and real happenings in the past and of the present.

Rev. Alfred Johnson had lived in Iboland and was instrumental in the founding and pastoring of the First Baptist Church of Calabar. Calabar Old Boys bear the name ‘Calabar’ with much pride. Many have achieved fame in a multiplicity of fields, none more so that in Athletics where several have been Olympians, including having won Gold medals and setting world records.

 But Freddie lived, served, and worked at the source of our Name. He explained the topological similarity of the Bay at Rio Bueno and seaport on the Calabar River. The enslaved named the property Calabar because of this physical resemblance. English Baptist adopted the name Calabar for the Theological College they established on the property in 1843. It was common Jamaican practice to name institutions by their places of location. Later, the name Calabar became symbolic of West African heritage and Baptist connection.

As a boy I was sometimes called a Redebo, accepted it as part of my identity, and learned later to break it into Red Ibo, as I read and studied Jamaica’s West African roots. Freddie gave me the best insight into who Red Ibos were, having lived in the Cross River State and travelled across Nigeria.

Sometimes our conversation went off into shared experiences in places where we both visited particularly in the Caribbean: Turks and Caicos Islands, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Guyana. We shared experiences of Christian fellowship, collaboration, and inspiration with Brethren, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostal of different strips, Moravians and other denominations and other faiths. Freddie tried to get me involved with current causes in need of support, emerging voices that should be heeded, new talents should be appreciated, and abominable situations that had to be confronted.

Then came Zoom and with it the opportunity to see Freddie and participate in his 80th Birthday party on October 30th. What a wonderful and joyous occasion! The expressions and testimonies of all who spoke filled more gaps in my knowledge of what Freddie had done, what he meant to so many people, in so many different areas of service and at such different layers of society. What a reunion with so many mutual friends, even if it was in virtual reality. To God be the Glory! After making allowances for age with respect to recovery time, a few days later we were back to telephone contact. Freddie sent me the email addresses and telephone numbers of several mutual friends with whom I had lost contact but with whom he had remained in touch and who logged into the virtual celebration of his birthday.

What a shock to learn of his sudden passing. What an honor and special privilege it was to be given the opportunity to speak and express deepest condolences to his widow Dr. Abegail Douglas-Johnson; sons Andre, Allister and Alwyn and their families; brothers Winston and Edward and their families; on behalf of my wife Sharon, and the Millers: Audrey Dehaney, Marjorie Hamilton, Faith White, Gail Defoe, Jacqueline Daly, Keith Miller, Percy Miller junior, and Noel Miller.

Again, from the Eulogy, Tributes and Greetings I learned even more about the life, heart, and work of this incredible friend.  I was compelled to read his book ‘Ambassador to the Global Village’ from cover to cover to help fill in even more gaps in understanding. After taking it all in, it struck me that familiarity of friendship can veil and dim our recognition and appreciation of the greatness of friends and families.

I was brought to tears in realizing the unbelievable privilege and blessing that Freddie had bequeathed to me the last two years of his life. There is deep joy and inner satisfaction that come in answering the call to serve and to see some difference for good, the right, and the just result, even if there are no expressions of gratitude or public conferment of accolades. These joys and satisfaction come from the 20/20 lenses of hindsight that it was God who had called, led, protected, provided and was present as we as instruments accomplished His Will.  Freddie permitted me to share the greatest joys and deepest satisfactions of his remarkable life of faithfulness to his calling and God’s unfailing, unswerving, faithfulness to him.

Freddie was totally flabbergasted by several events and experiences that he never for one moment envisaged when he was ordained at the Jones Town Baptist Church or planned or requested or worked for. To him these could only have come through the Grace and Goodness of God. Among these was being the subject of a documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); carrying the Jamaican Flag at the opening ceremony of the Congress on Evangelism in Amsterdam in Holland in 1983 attended by representatives of more than 150 countries, but most of all children in some villages in the Congo comparing their complexion with his in realizing that a person of African ancestry could be a missionary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Rev Dr. Alfred Byron Johnson gave witness of the Living Christ Jesus as He works through us to do His Will in a world determined to deny His Will, His Word, and His Way. Freddie lived the only life that counts, the Life in Christ enabled by the Holy Spirit.  To God the Father be all Glory and Praise. Freddie has joined the cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews Chapter 11 who beckons us to keep the faith and finish the course.

Freddie we will meet on that Great Day.