Two years before Gene Johnson joined the Marine Corps, the baby-faced 17-year-old preached his first revival in the little one-room white church that was Bel Air Baptist in the summer of 1952.
Sixty years later, he returned to that church to preach a patriotic service celebrating the six decades the Dearing, Ga., pastor has given to ministry.
On Sunday, 60 years to the day since his first sermon, Johnson preached for a crowd of more than 100, wearing Dress Blues like the ones he wore for his nine years as a Marine.
There was a color guard, patriotic hymns and a medal presentation for members of the congregation who had served in the armed forces.
Johnson performed a magic trick by lighting a scrap of fabric on fire in the middle of the sanctuary and turning it into an American flag.
“He’s a fantastic preacher,” said the Rev. David Brooks of Bel Air Baptist. “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
The patriotic services and gospel magic tricks are just one aspect of Johnson’s ministry. Over the past 60 years, his work has taken many forms. He served as chaplain for the McDuffie County Jail for 10 years and has pastored five churches, including Friendship Baptist in Harlem and Oak Grove Baptist in Augusta.
He started several others and spent eight years in a campground ministry, traveling the country with his wife, Nancy, in an RV.
He has written several books, three of which focus on his experiences in bus ministry. He has trained hundreds of bus ministry workers across the country to drive door-to-door, inviting kids to church.
“It’s a fun work. Of course, it’s getting hard for me. It doesn’t seem like 60 years. It was just, bam!” he said, snapping his fingers, “and it’s gone.”
Johnson, 78, has three children with his wife of 54 years and 10 grandchildren. He grew up as one of nine kids and was a student at the Academy of Richmond County until he dropped out.
He eventually enrolled at Long Creek Academy, a Baptist school near Long Creek, S.C., and learned a little bit about the Bible.
Johnson was saved when he was 12 but had no home church.
“My folks never went to church, but they happened to go to a revival one summer,” he said. “I got saved that night. I had found something. The next night, my two brothers got saved.”
Sometimes he’d walk or catch a ride to Bel Air Baptist. After about a year, “the preacher says, ‘I’m going to get you into the ministry,’” Johnson recalled. “He planted a seed and God used it.”
That first sermon at the age of 17 was on Ecclesiastes 12. Johnson still remembers it.
“I’m sure I was nervous,” he said with a laugh.
When he was 18, Johnson joined the Marines. He served from 1953-62, including a few years in Japan.
“Before then, I was bobbing around. Worthless. Sleeping until 11 a.m.,” he said. “That’s when God started to work, at boot camp.”
After returning to the states, Johnson said he “got busy in sales.”
He sold everything from cemetery plots to door-to-door insurance.
“God used it to teach me about ministry,” he said.
By 1970, Johnson had opened a sign shop on Walton Way. He spent years hand-painting signs and even took the business on the road, working from his RV as he and Nancy traveled from campsite to campsite.
Johnson never received a seminary education, though he spent two years taking classes at Augusta College.
“I never felt I needed a license to preach. It was just always on my heart,” he said.
Today, Johnson spends his days visiting veterans in hospitals and nursing homes, organizing Vacation Bible Schools and preparing sermons.
He still travels to churches within 300 miles of home, now in his 14th RV. He has worn a few out over the years.
Nancy traveled with him until three years ago. Health concerns have kept her closer to home, he said.
“I stay busy,” he said. “I look back and just can’t comprehend the blessings.”
He performs four or five patriotic services a year. Johnson said he specially loves the services because they give him a chance to talk about issues he says other pastors shy away from.
On Sunday at Bel Air, he preached on the founding of America, baptism, the superiority of the King James Bible (the only one Johnson will use), Obamacare and persecution of Christians.
“I’m an American, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes. Through and through,” he preached. “Get right with God. If you get right with God, you’ll love America.”
The state of America concerns Johnson greatly.
“You cannot deny that God has blessed this country for 236 years,” he said. “I’ve seen it in my life. I was raised in the ’30s and ’40s when people loved God. They went to church. We’re seeing America slipping. We’re seeing America fade away, going in the wrong direction.”
Johnson believes he has the answer.
“We must trust God to bring us back,” he said. “There’s nothing left for us to do except trust him and be saved.”