It’s an amazing story, the stuff of inspiring novels or feel-good Hollywood biopics that leave you with moist eyes as the credits begin to roll: a quiet kid from the northwestern United States comes out of nowhere to serve as part of the military honor guard at the White House, then goes on to earn multiple college degrees, and is now one of the “top 20” pastors in the nation’s capital. Along the way he triumphs over severe dyslexia, career misplacement by the Air Force, even college counselors who want to discourage his dreams.
If all that sounds too good to be true, too much for one solitary life to contain, think again: in a nutshell, that’s the life, so far, of Terry Johnsson, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor whose riveting story has been told in two books, and to hundreds of youth groups and other audiences. The 43-year-old bachelor preacher sums it up simply: “God really uses ordinary people. He does have a plan for all of our lives. His plans are bigger than our lives.”
Of course, there’s really a bit more than just that.
Where He’s Coming From
To understand Terry Johnsson, we have to go back to an elementary school in Portland, Oregon; back to a time when budget cuts forced him into a class with more than 50 other students. Unable to read what was written on the blackboard—and no longer able to bluff or hide—Johnsson was branded as having a learning disability, with officials suggesting the youngster would be better in a residential school, where he could receive special attention.
Johnsson’s mother, who’d become pregnant with Terry some 15 years after the last of his five other siblings had been born, had another idea. Her mother, Terry’s grandmother, had said this “surprise” baby had been given for a purpose, and offered Jeremiah 29:11 as a life verse for the yet-to-be-born child: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”
That confidence led Terry’s mother to bring him to Columbia Christian, a nondenominational school in Portland, where a Mrs. Sherlock used a rather idiosyncratic teaching tool to get young Terry to read.
“All she used was the Bible, the old King James Version,” Johnsson recalled. “She had taught me to ‘sight read.’ [With] my particular dyslexia, I have a very hard time with phonics, with breaking words down into phonics,” he added. “She worked with me for six months, and at the end of it I was reading. It wasn’t perfect, but I was reading for the first time in my life.”
That reading, however accomplished, opened up a new world for Terry Johnsson. When he was 9, he and his mother were each baptized as members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; his father, tragically, had died a year before. This took Terry to Portland Adventist Junior Academy, and then Portland Adventist Academy (PAA), where his high school graduation almost didn’t happen on time.
That would have been challenging for his grandmother, a self-supporting Christian missionary to Liberia who had started 13 girls schools there. Grandmother had saved to fly to Portland for his graduation, and told the teenage Johnsson she was dipping into her retirement savings to buy him a suit for the event. In a store parking lot Terry had to admit the truth, and a flood of sobs enveloped his words.
“My senior year at PAA I had taken all my classes except for one English class I was struggling with. It was English IV,” he recalled, a quarter century later. “There was no way I would pass, no human way. I wasn’t going to pass, and I would not graduate [with the rest of the class].”
Grandmother’s response? “She said, ‘Let’s just pray.’ She put her hand on my forehead and asked God, ‘Give him faith that this is going to be OK,’” he said.
Then the unexpected happened: “Grandma said, ‘Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, Jesus. . . . It’s done.’”
She told a confused Terry: “The Lord told me you’re going to get a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, then a doctoral degree. I’ve heard the Lord a few times in my life, and never has it been more clear to me.”
And what she said has since come to pass: “I did graduate from high school; in fact, I was asked to be one of the speakers. Then I went on to graduate from Oakwood College [now Oakwood University] with two degrees. Then I went on to graduate from La Sierra [University] with my master’s, and in May  I will graduate with my doctoral degree from Wesley Theological Seminary.”
In the Master’s Service
The chain of miracles was far from over in Terry Johnsson’s life. Having struggled throughout his academic career, he imagined a different career path, thinking his grades wouldn’t make him a sought-after college prospect.
“I had gone over to the mall next door to our academy, and there was an Air Force recruiter,” he said. The recruiter “told me the Air Force had chaplains, and I could be a chaplain’s assistant. . . . I signed up, and I was so excited.”
Johnsson thought he’d have a year before entering the service, but the Air Force told him to report in two weeks. Then, after basic training in San Antonio, Texas, the military gave him another surprise: Terry Johnsson was dropped off at military police school, not chaplaincy training.
Making the best of his lot, Terry began to train, and also led a Bible study in his barracks. Although a half-dozen airmen were studying the Scriptures together, the majority of military police were more ready to taunt Johnsson than praise him. The laughter only grew when Johnsson stepped on to the firing range for his first shooting test: none of his three shots even touched the target. The young man was “recycled” back to the start of the police training program.
This time he did better, and hosted a larger Bible study for his training officer. In exchange, the officer took Johnsson to a local Seventh-day Adventist church every Sabbath. Oh, and there was one other thing: Johnsson accompanied a friend to a tryout for the Air Force component of the presidential honor guard. The friend, a “poster boy for an Air Force airman,” Johnsson said, didn’t make the cut; Terry did.
“If I had not missed that target,” he recalled, “I would have been gone by the time the president’s honor guard came around recruiting.”
Instead, Johnsson spent eight years at the White House, serving Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
“I never left Washington, D.C., my entire military career,” Johnsson explained. “I had started to speak to young people in academies and high schools. I’m the longest-serving honor guard up to this day. Then youth groups started asking me to speak. I would share this experience and tell them, ‘If God could use me; I would be the least likely person to be standing next to the president [as an honor guard].’ I was just encouraging young people to keep trusting God.”
Finally Johnsson felt a distinct call to go into youth ministry. He resigned his eight-year hitch with the Air Force and decamped for Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. There an admissions counselor took one look at Johnsson’s academic record and had an idea.
“You can take a 12-week course here and be a Bible worker!” she said. “That’s the best path for you, given your record.”
Johnsson, who recounted the story during a morning worship at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, summoned up his knowledge of bureaucracies from his military experience and said something the counselor didn’t expect: “Thank you. May I speak with your supervisor, please?”
During the time it took for that supervisor to be found, Johnsson paged through the Oakwood course catalogue. There he found a major in communications along with one in Bible. Johnsson took both, even though he hardly imagined using his broadcast communications skills after graduation.
“The most unique thing was, when I graduated in 1993, President Clinton sent an award down from the National Dyslexic Association, to be read by [acting Oakwood president] Benjamin F. Reaves. They presented me a plaque from the White House and a letter to be read during graduation. I graduated in four years, like everybody else, but with two degrees, and one of those was in radio.”
A Unique Role
There’s a handful of “radio station pastors” in the United States, Johnsson says, most of whom serve at corporately owned outlets such as southern California’s K-LOVE FM. But Johnsson is the only Adventist radio pastor, and the station where he serves, WGTS FM in Takoma Park, Maryland, is not only the top Christian radio station in the region, it’s the second-most popular Christian radio station in America. An estimated 600,000 people tune in to the Adventist station’s programming every day, a virtual “congregation,” if you will. That’s slightly more than half the size of the North American Division’s membership.
Of that number, at least 280,000, or 40 percent of the audience, don’t belong to any church. That’s given WGTS, and Johnsson, an opportunity.
“We’re getting more and more people who just listen to radio for their religious experience,” he explained. These people might “have a church background, but their number one problem is busyness . . . [they have] no time for church.”
That fact didn’t sit too well with station general manager John Conrad: “If they’re substituting radio for Christian fellowship, that’s not a good thing,” Johnsson said, and his position came about.
His first project as a radio chaplain: find a way for listeners to have their prayer needs met. Johnsson recruited some volunteers to staff telephone lines and pray, advertised on the air, and expected perhaps 50 requests the first week. A total of 507 came in, and the average remains at about 500 a week.
Next, Johnsson began a weekly meeting called “Gateway Fellowship,” held at Takoma Adventist Academy in Takoma Park, Maryland, about a mile from the station. It’s not a traditional church, but rather an entry point for the unchurched.
“People can come and sing songs that they know from the radio and hear an inspirational message,” Johnsson said. “Two times a quarter I teach a class, ‘About Us,’ so people can learn about the [Adventist Church] organization that sponsors this.”
He added, people can take “About Him,” a class about Jesus.
While visitors are welcome for as many weeks as they wish to attend, those who are ready for membership in a regular church are funneled to one of several partner congregations, matching a person’s interests and needs.
At least once a year the station also holds a “Night of Hope,” where listeners can come, hear music and a message. About 20 to 30 percent of the hundreds who attend then continue on to the Gateway Fellowship meetings.
It’s not the traditional method of Seventh-day Adventist evangelism perhaps, but it’s working, and in one of the more hard-boiled communities in the United States, where political debates, national security, and other issues dominate much of daily life.
And all this is happening in the life of a boy whose second-grade teacher thought he needed residential care. Terry Johnsson has proved that overloaded teacher very wrong, and has a testimony that will resonate with many.
“It’s just amazing to me that people will come to me very discouraged, and [saying] ‘God doesn’t care,’ and I’m able to sit down with them, hear their life story, and point out to them, just like He did for me, God was there for you,” Johnsson said. “That’s the way God works. He just works with some of us ordinary people.”
It’s not considered nice to disagree with people, but somehow I can’t see Terry Johnsson—a man who’ll receive his doctorate from Wesley Theological Seminary in May 2012—as just “ordinary.” He’s accomplished more at age 43 than many of us have, and he offers an inspiring example to us all.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World. This article was published January 19, 2012.