Pastor Cliff

March 10th, 2009 by Phil Leave a reply »

One of the big stories today was that a Baptist pastor was shot and killed yesterday during a service. As I’ve remarked to people recently, life lately has somehow involved a perpetual stream of Catholics, the result being that I don’t hear much about pastors anymore; I hear about priests, or even vicars, though I think that might be due mostly to Eddie Izzard.

But the story today, combined with meeting a student from North Park last week, and having discussed North Park a couple of other times lately, coalesced into me performing a couple of Google searches. The upshot: I learned that Clifford H. Johnson died this past November.

Pastor Cliff, among a great many things, was the head pastor at Bethesda Covenant Church in Rockford. More personally, he baptized and confirmed me; he presided over the funeral services of my grandfather and grandmother; he married my father and stepmother. So he was an integral component of a number of major events.

After my grandmother died, we didn’t go to church very often. I’ve been to a handful of services over the last 15 years – a Unitarian service that I found absolutely bizarre, a Presbyterian service that seemed fairly normal, a few Catholic services which I wouldn’t quite classify as bizarre but which I had a hard time parsing, and of course the infamous Christmas Eve service at the Catholic church in Peoria where the incense had me on the verge of passing out. It just wasn’t something I had much occasion to interact with.

I knew some churchgoers in college. Most of my friends weren’t. Some were atheists, some were agnostics. Some were sort of passive about their belief status or lack thereof. Others were not so passive. I actually found that a number of my friends thoroughly detested organized religion, and not in some sort of quasi-intellectual way, but in a very deeply personal way. To them it seemed that organized religion, especially Christianity, embodied intolerance, judgmentalism, and a great many other terrible things.

I had no such angry reaction to my experience in the Covenant Church. Quite the contrary: my grandmother, a devout churchgoer, I remember as a saint, and her faith was a bedrock component of the amazing person that she was. Bethesda, for its part, was this very positive place. I never sensed intolerance. Rather, this was a church that went out of its way to reach out to the Jewish community, even bringing in Holocaust survivors. The church welcomed Laotian immigrants. The overall tone never struck me as particularly… preachy. I think Bethesda was a wonderful place. I just don’t think it was for me.

While in college and in the years thereafter, the upswing of “conservative Christianity” or “evangelicalism” in the country really took off, and/or I became aware of it in a way I wasn’t previously aware of it. And of course, it all frightened me immensely. It still does. Of course, the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-progressive, reactionary nature of the evangelical movement shared some vague trappings with my experience in the Covenant Church. But it all seemed horribly twisted: like Christianity gone bad. The thing was that I think unlike a lot of people I’ve known, I actually had a systemic notion of “good Christianity” which could serve as my basis for evaluating the evangelical movement. Others, I think, saw the evangelical movement as the basis for evaluating Christianity, and by extension all of organized religion. Or they just had such bad church experiences of their own that it was easy for evangelicalism to fit those experiences.

Cliff Johnson always struck me as the epitome of what a representative of the church should be. He treated everyone with respect – including children, as my father pointed out tonight. When questions about the nature of religion come around, I think back to Pastor Cliff. As I say above, everywhere I go it seems like there’s Catholics all around me, and there’s always so many weird discussions that can be had about Catholicism… and I still on some level go back to Pastor Cliff as kind of a stable perspective for thinking about such things.

Even though it’s a few months after the fact, I’m sad to learn of his passing. Cliff Johnson was a good and decent man who was very important to my family and who remains for me the conceptualization of what Christianity should be about.


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