Mary Johnson’s first international mission trip to Mexico led her to change her major — and marked a turning point in her life.
During spring break of her freshman year at Pacific Union College (PUC) in Angwin, California, United States, Johnson and the Korean Club partnered with Maranatha Volunteers International to help build a church in Guamúchil, Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico. She said she had several “real conversations” with local residents about how wonderful it is to work for God and decided to switch her major from liberal studies to Spanish.
Another memory from the trip made an indelible impact.
“I will never forget that last night, as we fellowshipped together in the newly built church, a young girl came up to me and said in Spanish, ‘There will always be a place for you in Guamúchil,’ ” Johnson recalls. “While I have yet to return to that little church we built, there has always been a place for me in missions.”
Indeed, since that trip nearly two decades ago, Johnson has served on almost 70 mission trips locally and worldwide. She first graduated from PUC in 1999 with a degree in Spanish and later earned her master’s degree in education in 2001. After college, she spent a year as a missionary in Puerto Rico as a 4th-6th grade social studies teacher. Johnson even took a year off from her career as a high school Spanish teacher to go on as many mission trips as possible. She went on 18 trips in just 13 months.
Nearly half of Johnson’s trips and projects have been with Maranatha, and she’s come to feel like its members — from all over the world — are family.
The leadership of Steve Case, the long-time director of many multi-group and summer family projects for the organization, has particularly impacted Johnson. She described Case as very organized, patient, congenial, and composed, but most of all, submissive to the Lord’s will. Through Case’s example, she learned that God is the true leader of any mission trip, and it’s most important to surrender to His leading.
Case himself says Johnson’s strong commitment to Christ stands out. She “devotes her life to loving God and serving others,” he says. “She’s a woman of conviction and action that matches her conviction.”
One of the best things about Johnson is that she makes things fun. Ask anyone what’s most memorable about Johnson, and high on that list is her wonderful laugh.
“It’s spontaneous,” Case says, “and it jump-starts a group or changes a potentially tense moment into a fun time.”
Johnson loves mission work for many reasons — for the people she meets and the experience of being in other cultures and countries. But, she says, there is one sole purpose for all of her trips — spreading the gospel around the world to hasten Jesus’ return.
For Johnson, mission trips remind her that everywhere she goes is a mission field. While doing errands near her school in Brentwood or home in Antioch, California, she leaves tracts and magazines at gas pumps, ATMs, or on car door handles.
Along with her sister, Angel Johnson, who has served as a missionary on nearly a third of her trips, Johnson enjoys volunteering locally. They’ve worked at the Concord Seventh-day Adventist Church food bank, sent shoebox gifts through Operation Christmas Child, and prepared care packages for delivery to missionary friends in the Philippines.
Johnson’s mission work has ranged from construction projects and landscaping to translating and even preaching. In addition to Maranatha, she’s worked with Build and Restore, The Quiet Hour, Broken Chains for Humanity, and Amazing Facts, among many others.
But where she finds the most joy is working with children’s ministries.
Children’s ministries usually include leading Vacation Bible School, which Johnson does, but Case says she does so much more. She has the “attitude and practice of jumping right into things,” which, he says, results in lots of “activity and progress.” Johnson always immerses herself in neighborhoods, schools, homes, and parks — wherever there are kids.
Johnson’s last meeting with every group of children — no matter what country she is in — is the same. Together, she and the children make crowns and talk about heaven. She reminds them that no matter where they are in the world — be it Zambia, Mexico, or the Philippines — they will all see Jesus coming at the same time.
With tears in her eyes, Johnson tells them she looks forward to meeting them in the air on that glorious day — a day when her lifelong mission is fulfilled and she and so many others she’s ministered to will go home to live with Jesus forever.