NEWS FEATURE: Runner Turned Preacher Keeps Running

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. _ Earl Johnson knows what it is to run _ literally and figuratively.

As a student, Johnson ran on the track team at Central High School in Phenix City with teammate and future Olympian Harvey Glance, and later at Alabama A&M University, both under the direction of Coach Joe Henderson.

As a young adult, Johnson kept running _ but it wasn’t on a track. He says he was running from God’s call to the ministry.

As Jonah in the Bible did, Johnson said he learned the hard way _ you can run, but you can’t hide from God, whether inside the belly of a whale or an air-conditioned office.

“I was always a very spiritual person and I always had a desire to have a close walk with God,” he said. “Even as a teen, I fasted and prayed. I didn’t want to consider the ministry if it was not God’s calling.”

Johnson now has decided it was God’s calling. The part-time pastor is getting ready to return to Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham so he can become a full-time minister.

And that’s got him running yet again.

After he finished at A&M with a degree in telecommunications, Johnson worked at various jobs until going to work as a contract specialist at the Redstone Arsenal.

Two years later Johnson felt God calling him to the ministry, but he ignored it.

In 1992, Johnson felt run-down and sick for several months with an illness doctors couldn’t diagnose. Family members believed he was suffering from a spiritual sickness called “running from God.”

“I was so sick I thought I was going to die,” said Johnson. Doctors said he was suffering from stress, a hernia and ulcers. Despite treatment, he failed to improve.

He finally surrendered to the call.

“It was like a big burden had been lifted off my shoulders,” he said with a smile.

Almost overnight, Johnson said he regained his health and strength. Ever since, he’s been making tracks up and down the road from the divinity school in Birmingham to Huntsville, where he lives and works, to near Pulaski, Tenn., where he is pastor of First Baptist Church of Bodenham.

He often travels to Nashville to visit sick church members in the hospital, or to his church on weekdays to perform funerals for members of his congregation or their relatives.

He logs about 35,000 miles per year on his car _ including at least two 100-mile trips per week to his church.

“God has taken care of me in all my travels,” he said. “I’ve never had one bit of trouble.”

Johnson said he was fortunate to have Coach Henderson as a role model. Henderson, he said, made a “big impact” on his life. “I’m very grateful to the man who was a father figure to me and others who ran track _ Joe Henderson. He is a man of integrity, and part of my desire not to quit (the ministry) is what he instilled in me as an athlete.”

Despite the pace of his schedule, Johnson said he wants to make sure his children _ Chris, 15, and Brittani, 10 _ know they are an integral part of his life. At least one Saturday night a month, he schedules “Family Night” with them and his wife, Linda. He attends most of their school functions and coached his son’s basketball team to the league championship.

Johnson met his wife-to-be while the two were students. Linda Johnson is a teacher.

“At times I’ve felt like a single parent, but Earl has been very supportive,” she said. “I didn’t marry a preacher, but I feel very blessed to have a husband like Earl. I love him, so I had to take the whole package.”

“She’s been very supportive of my ministry,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t have done it without her.”

After moving back to Huntsville after living in Atlanta for three years, the Johnsons began attending the 2,000-member First Missionary Baptist Church, where Julius Scruggs is the pastor.

“First Baptist and Dr. Scruggs were two of the best things to ever happen to us,” said Johnson, who grew up in a small, rural church. “I wasn’t sure about going to such a big church, but the congregation has loved and nurtured us, and has helped keep us focused and heading in the right direction. Dr. Scruggs was the reason for my drive to further my education.”

In January 1993, Johnson became an associate minister at First Baptist under Scruggs’ tutelage. He began preaching there and at other area churches.

Although it meant losing a faithful member, Scruggs recommended Johnson to be pastor at First Baptist Church of Bodenham.

“It was difficult taking my children from (First Missionary), because it was deeply rooted in our hearts,” Johnson said. “But we’re a family and we get to spend a lot of quality time together in the car driving back and forth. It was much harder on Chris because he was older and had to leave his friends.”

DEA END BETOWT

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