Pastor’s ‘journey continues’
‘It’s not about nickels and noses’
The Rev. Paul Johnson retired in November from his responsibilities as spiritual leader at Eighteenth Street Community Church, but that does not mean he is retiring from ministry.
Johnson founded the church 23 years ago when he bought the building that had housed a neighborhood bar and returned it to its original purpose — a house of worship.
It was one of many moments when he saw God working in his life, although it was not always that way.
After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1968-71, including about 9 months of combat during the Vietnam War, he returned home and became a regular customer at the bar in the building where he would one day preach the Gospel.
He remembers Christmas Day 1968 well. It was his first day in Vietnam and he was aboard the USS Newport News CA-148, an all-gun heavy cruiser that replaced the USS New Jersey battleship and provided naval gunfire support operations during the war.
“The sky’s ablaze and guns were constantly going off. You leave Altoona and suddenly, you are in a war zone. It’s not normal. PTSD is automatic,” Johnson said.
Eventually, Johnson said he accepted Christ into his life, and enrolled in the Altoona Bible Institute. After two years of classes, he was called into the ministry and was licensed to preach and later ordained at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Altoona.
His first call was to serve as an assistant pastor at Solid Rock Baptist Church.
“It was the beginning of my Southern Baptist experience,” he said, adding that he continues to be affiliated with that denomination.
After he was there awhile, a tent revival was conducted at the Jaffa Mosque.
Johnson was among the leaders who were asked to teach the people who had come forward at the revival about how to live the Christian life.
He was assigned to a group who met in the Fairview Hills Community Room, but the room was not large enough to accommodate them. They had to find another place to meet. By that time, Solid Rock Church at Hagerty Street and Walton Avenue had closed. The group met there, and Johnson changed the name to Bread of Life Bible Chapel.
Johnson was then called to Laurel Mountain Bible Church in Mundys Corner for seven years and subsequently served as a Protestant chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto for about the same period.
He stayed at the church despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan, who wanted the church to remove him.
“I was the only black man I saw when I went to Laurel Mountain,” he said. Yet, he held his ground.
“I wasn’t afraid of anybody,” said Johnson, who added that he had a lot of friends in the area because of his other job.
As a bivocational minister, Johnson collected the coins from pay phones in Cambria, Clearfield, Centre, Huntingdon and Blair counties for Verizon. He said many of the pay phones were in restaurants and bars that were not open when he needed to make his rounds. To avoid having to open so Johnson could do his job, many of the business owners gave him keys to their establishments.
“God had prepared me ahead of time,” said Johnson, explaining that his friends in those communities would stand up for him.
But then he faced a threat of another kind.
Toward the end of his charge at Laurel Mountain Bible Church, Johnson’s health began to deteriorate. He suffers from a hereditary kidney disease that his father and two brothers, all deceased, had.
In 1982, both of his kidneys failed and he had to depend on dialysis to survive. For health reasons, the church released him of his responsibilities.
“They thought I was going to die,” he said.
Two years later, he received a kidney transplant from a deceased Pittsburgh fireman.
“He lived to save lives, and when he died, he saved mine,” Johnson said, who added in those days recipients were not given much information about their donors.
And while the transplant was a success, it almost wasn’t.
“Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” said Johnson, who waited about 90 days for the transplanted organ to function. He said it was way beyond the 30 days medical teams allow for transplanted kidneys to work. During that time, he would pray with other patients on the floor who often were discharged, while he held onto hope that his new kidney would not have to be removed.
It almost was. A new medical team told him that if it did not function by the upcoming week, they would remove it. But it kicked in before the deadline. Johnson said the nurses on duty had a shouting party.
Johnson said doctors predicted the transplanted kidney would last about three years. It lasted for 20. When it failed, he received his second transplant from a live donor.
His niece, Angela Hogans Rennick, gave him one of her kidneys on April 26, 2003, and it continues to work.
“She is the reason I am here,” he said.
After leaving Laurel Mountain Bible Church, Johnson took a temporary break from preaching. But then he heard about drug problems at the Penn Alto Hotel, a low-income housing facility.
In 1993, “God laid it on my heart to begin a gospel ministry at the Penn Alto Hotel,” he said. The first service was on Easter, and he remembers being surprised to see a pulpit in the lobby. It had a sticky note attached, saying that John Gority of Altoona had built it for his ministry.
Despite having a platform, Johnson preached to a lobby of empty seats that day. But his voice was still heard. People gathered along the second floor balcony to listen, and a few Sundays later, residents made their way to the lobby.
The services were different in another way, too. Offerings were not taken. Instead, Johnson said, benefactors provided for the needs of the residents, including donations for meals.
In 1995, Johnson learned that the bar in his neighborhood was for sale, and he decided to buy it. After all, it had originally been a house of worship known as St. Barnabas Church. He said he approached M&T Bank about a loan and at first, the bank said no.
“Three days later they called me,” Johnson said. He remembers the bank officer saying, “I don’t know why we are doing this, but we are giving you the loan.”
But buying the property was only the beginning of the dream. Johnson lacked the means to convert the building into a church until others learned of his goal through a story in the Mirror.
“The renovations were taken care of by the community,” Johnson said.
The Salvation Army provided lighting and laid the first carpet. Ceiling fans were donated from a Jewish synagogue that was closing in Philipsburg. Mennonites from Bellville installed insulation and dry wall. Members of Altoona Alliance Church removed debris. A pastor and elders from a church in Suffolk, Virginia, built a wheelchair ramp, and The Lighthouse Men’s Fellowship in Altoona renovated the basement.
Johnson put his handyman skills to work, too. He, Marvin Metzler, a Mennonite, and Robin Harchak, a Southern Baptist minister, started the initial renovations.
For the first two years, the church was known as the Eighteenth Street Community Mission. With the help of Johnson’s friend, Charles Stump, former pastor of Altoona Alliance, the church became incorporated and an official church.
Today, the church is in the black, said Johnson, who paid the $15,000 mortgage out of his own pocket and transferred the deed to the congregation seven years ago for $1. Through the years, the congregation also purchased the two lots next door.
Small by some standards, the church seats about 50 people.
“It’s like an outpost,” Johnson said. “It was never meant to be a mega-church. It’s a place to begin for people like me. I was addicted to alcohol and drugs and needed a new start.”
He said sometimes churches focus on nickels (how much money they have) and noses (how many people are in the congregation).
“It’s not about nickels and noses,” he said. “It’s about every person coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”
Two church members said Johnson was more than a pastor, he is a friend to them and others.
Derwood F. Walter, who has known Johnson for about 60 years, started going to the church about 14 years ago. He said Johnson gives his time to others. He said if someone needs prayer, Johnson says, “let’s do it right now.”
“He is generous — not selfish about anything,” said Walter of Altoona.
When it comes to Johnson’s sermons, he said, “he’s the best I have ever heard. There is nothing fancy about him. Everybody understands his message.”
Santa Mosey of Altoona said she will miss Johnson’s sermons and his sense of humor.
“He has a sense of humor like nobody I know,” she said. “He has gone through tough times and still manages to have that sense of humor.”
Mosey said she has been going to the church for about 20 years, but met Johnson before that at a kidney foundation event where her husband’s band performed.
“When you need a little lift, he knows how to give it to you,” she said, adding that both of them have experienced health and personal issues.
She said that although he is no longer in the pulpit, he will remain a friend she can count on.
He also remains a minister and can continue to preach, marry couples or perform funerals if requested.
“The journey continues,” said Johnson, who will be 70 in January. “Where I go next, that’s up to Him,” he said as he pointed his index finger upward.
As he departs the church he founded, a new leader has been installed as senior pastor. He is Nate Germany, who has served as youth pastor and assistant pastor for a combination of about eight years at the church.
“He’s a faithful, loving young minister,” Johnson said. “I am happy for him.”
As for now, Johnson, who had a wireless pacemaker installed in August, will spend time with family.
He said he is grateful for his wife, Cindy Lynn Johnson. He also has a daughter, Ronata Lear, and a son, Toby Houtz, whom he called “loving children.”
He has four grandchildren as well as four stepchildren and 14 step-grandchildren.
“And I sorely miss my son, Dennis Paul Johnson, who was lost in the midst of the opioid epidemic,” he said.
Another family member who has passed that he cherishes is his mother.
“The person who molded me the most was Lucy “Granny” Johnson. You can call me a pastor, but how about calling me Lucy Johnson’s son?”