Ralph Johnson, a man whose ministry continues
By By Lloyd Albritton
I received a communique recently from a most unexpected and surprising source. My brother, Ronnie, called and passed it along to me. He told me that while visiting his daughter's home in Atmore, he received a phone call from a man who both of us have known and revered since childhood. The man's name is Ralph Johnson.
Many in the Atmore area know who Ralph Johnson is. He has been an ordained Assembly of God preacher for almost sixty years and has preached more funerals and performed more wedding ceremonies than perhaps any living human being. I have never known Brother Ralph Johnson in a personal relationship, but I have attended many funeral services throughout my life which he preached, including the funeral service of my own grandfather and many other relatives and friends. Always a big man with a powerful oratory, I have heard it said many times of him that one cannot attend a Ralph Johnson service without crying, for he often brings even himself to tears of sentimentality when he speaks of the things he treasures most, i.e., God, family, and old friends, who are many.
In the year of 1967, I became engaged to my high school sweetheart, June Dortch, a wonderful girl from the Bratt community whose family attended the Shiloh Freewill Baptist Church in Bratt. As her family began to plan a church wedding, June and I reported to their Pastor for our pre-marital interview. Discovering that my religion was Mormon, this minister told us that he could not in good conscious perform this ceremony because he considered my religion to be a cult. Consequently, Brother Ralph Johnson was called in to perform the ceremony and he married June and I in the Shiloh church on September 16, 1967.
Which brings me back to the message relayed to me from Brother Johnson in his telephone conversation to my brother. "He said to tell you that you owe him some dividends from his services to you on September 16, 1967," my brother said. "He also said that he reads your newspaper column in the Atmore Advance and that he wants to speak to you about it, and that you should come by to visit him to discuss this matter."
This communication from Brother Ralph Johnson struck me similar to the feeling one might have if God Himself had called. "Does he want to chasten me for all my misdeeds in life," I speculated. Or, perhaps he disagrees with something I have said in my column and wants to bring me to task about it. Filled with such trepidation, I considered the truly righteous man I knew Ralph Johnson to be and I knew that whatever his summons was about, he would deliver his chastenings with unfeigned love and kindness and I felt compelled to report without delay. Consequently, I visited Brother Ralph the following day at the Atmore Nursing Home, where he has been confined since December 2002.
I entered his room and found him lying on his back conversing with another resident in a wheelchair beside his bed. Walking to the foot of his bed and seeing his initial expression of puzzlement, I simply announced, "I'm Lloyd Albritton." Brother Johnson's face immediately lit up with a great big smile and his arms reached out as he boomed in the voice so familiar and unchanged, "Why Lloyd, come over here and give me a hug, you rascal you!" Befitting the magnanimous personality for which his is famous, Brother Ralph Johnson's warm and genuine embrace clothed me with a feeling of peace and love, as all my anxieties over this dreaded encounter were immediately swept away.
I sat in the chair at the foot of his bed and we laughed and talked of many things. Brother Ralph's keen and perceptive mind seemed not affected one iota by his 88 years of life and his current ill health. Though he has lost much of his former physical robustness, his presence loomed as large as ever. He did indeed ask me to report on my life and marriage and he listened aptly. He said he was aware that June and I had divorced some years ago, but was satisfied with my report that we had shared 28 years of happy marriage and had produced three wonderful children. "And so, my services to you were not in vain, were they?" he beamed with delighted satisfaction.
Finally, Brother Ralph broached the subject for which he had called me to visit. He said, "In all my years in the ministry, I have visited prisons and jails and many homes and have tried to bless the lives of those in need, but since being here in this nursing home for the past few months I have come to understand the lonliness of such confinement. This is a good place," he hastened to add, "and all the staff are wonderful and helpful and the food is good and well prepared. But, there are so many old, infirm people here whose lives are so very lonely and wretched. Many of them have Alzheimer and many others are just old and their minds and bodies are wasted away."
Brother Ralph then pointed to a small stuffed animal he had hung on the wall of his room. "All of the old people here love these stuffed animals," he said. "Many love to just sit and hold and cuddle them. Some of the ladies hold the stuffed animals close to their bosoms as if it were a baby child, reflecting the female propensity for nurturing. Sometimes, I ask these ladies if I can hold their babies and they hand it to me gently and proudly, as if it were a living child."
Then he paused and said, "Will you write in your column about this need? There seems so little folks can do to ease the suffering of these old, infirm people, and this seems like such a small thing, but will you tell the people of Atmore in your column about it? I know that many of them have these stuffed animals stored in their back rooms and closets. If they would bring them here for these old people, it would be so comforting to them to have them."
Brother Ralph reached over to his side bureau and touched it. "All my earthly possessions are in this little drawer now," he said, his voice cracking and tears coming to his eyes, "and they are my treasures, for they give me comfort in this time of my life. Those here who no longer have their memories do not have such comforts, but they do find great peace and comfort in holding these little stuffed animals."
As I left the presence of Brother Ralph Johnson and walked down the hallway to the exit door, I saw so many of these people he had just spoken about, sitting idly in their chairs with little left to accomplish in their lives. My heart was filled with compassion for them and I made a personal commitment then and there to take some stuffed animals to the Atmore Nursing Home soon. It is my request and prayer that all who read this column might do the same, for Brother Johnson had me to know as I left, that this is only the first installment on what I owe him, and the compassion and generosity of all Atmore's citizens would go a long way toward paying a debt that I now know I can never fully repay.
Brother Ralph Johnson, a man of God, the genuine article! Even on his back in a nursing home, his ministry and his love and concern for others continues.
Citizens of Atmore who desire to contribute stuffed animals to the Atmore Nursing Home may contact the nursing home direct to make such contributions. Donors may also contact Lloyd Albritton at LloydAlbritton@aol.com, or by phone at (850)384-6676 for any required assistance in facilitating a donation.