By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Pastor Jeffrey L. Johnson II pastors Macedonia Baptist Church. He comes from a military background and has new marching orders to take the church “beyond the four walls” and make an impact in Del Paso Heights. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

With deadly shootings taking place almost daily, widespread homelessness, economic woes, the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and new threats to our health and well-being, some are wondering if we are indeed in “the last days.”

In looking for answers, ways to cope and a little hope, many are calling on the Lord and area faith-based leaders to help see them through. The OBSERVER spoke to several clergy members about their hopes for the region going into the new year and putting prayers to action to meet the changing needs of the community. They all say taking “church” beyond the four walls of their sanctuaries is a key part of their call to serve.

This is the last of a three-part series.

Pastor Jeffrey L. Johnson II, Macedonia Baptist Church

Not having money to feed your family. Losing a new spouse to illness or a child to a random bullet. All can shake a person’s faith.

Pastor Jeffrey Johnson, senior pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church, said people need to be OK sharing that conflict, OK to ask ‘Why?’

“One thing that I try to do as a pastor is to really give space to allow people to express and feel how they feel,” Pastor Johnson said. “When I was growing up in church, it was often said that you can’t say this and you can’t say that, but when you read the Word, there is room for God to allow us to feel what we feel. There is a verse in the Bible that says ‘Be angry, but sin not.’ It lets me know that emotions are real and He allows us that space.

“It is normal to say, ‘God, I don’t understand why this had to happen to me or why this had to happen to this person,’” Pastor Johnson continued. “The Bible gives us this one particular verse, ‘For we know all things work together for the good of them who love him and are called according to His purpose.’ I always tell [people] because my work tells me this: This tragedy will turn into something good. That’s what encourages me. That’s what increases my faith – that some good is going to come out of this tragedy.”

Tragedy hit home for Macedonia in April 2022, when gunmen opened fire on a crowd leaving a downtown nightclub. Six people were killed, most of them African American. The “K Street shooting” made national headlines.

“A lot of my members were affected because they knew or were attached to some of those people’s families. They grew up in the Del Paso Heights community,” Pastor Johnson said. 

“That was a time for me as a pastor where I really had to dive into our community,” he continued. “Not being from here, I try not to be oblivious and to know history. One thing I will say about our community, it’s very attached. They’re very family-oriented. We saw a lot of calls and a lot of spread of action. I’m encouraging the community to really endow ourselves into the community to just be a shoulder to cry on and just be some type of voice of wisdom.”

In trying times, Pastor Johnson offers up reassurance through listening – and scripture.

“Psalms 121 1:2 where it says ‘I will look up mine eyes to the hills, where my help comes from, my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.’ I often use that scripture because when you can’t find the answer, I always encourage people to look up. We look up to Him to guide us … sometimes I try to use those particular scriptures just to comfort people to let them know, ‘Hey, He’s still in control and still looking and He’s still caring.’”

Rev. Jeffrey L. Johnson II wants to see the community unite before issues and tragedy arise. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Johnson, known affectionately as “Pastor J,” took over the leadership of Macedonia after the passing of its longtime pastor, Dr. Edward Lee Varnado Sr., in 2020.

Johnson came to Macedonia from Houston just as the coronavirus began to make its hellish presence known. At the helm of the church, he guided members through a pandemic that literally changed how and where people worshiped. COVID-19 forced churches to close their doors as part of mandates prohibiting large indoor gatherings. Some pastors delivered sermons online. Some held services in church parking lots, with members staying – and praying – in their cars. While sanctuaries were empty, area faith leaders filled a void by using their churches as testing and vaccination sites.

“We didn’t want to be behind it, we wanted to be in front of it, we wanted to educate,” Pastor Johnson said. “We had people to give education on the vaccine because of course, our community was scared. Our community had a lot of thoughts and feelings towards it, so we made sure we educated our people.”

Black churches and members of the clergy have long been called upon to take the lead in advancing causes. Pastor Varnado led Macedonia for nearly 50 years and in his time in the ministry, he earned a reputation of excellence in preaching and teaching. Johnson is happy to continue that legacy. The church’s mission, he said, is to offer salvation and train the saved to become disciples and then send them out to reach more people.

“That has been restored,” Pastor Johnson said. “What we have done now is put more meat to those bones.”

His edict is to “be the light, be the love and be the change.”

“I say it all the time, we cannot do that just in our four walls and in our clubhouse. We have to do it outside because we are the church. We as individuals are the church and so what we do is we practice that through our outreach programs.”

Programs at Macedonia include ones that offer free diapers to area parents and meals for the unhoused. “God told us to be about the people, so that’s what we do,” Pastor Johnson said. “We’re here to spread the ‘good news’ and let people know that we are here,” he added. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that [people] don’t want to just hear about Jesus, they want you to show Jesus. One way we can show them Jesus is how we love and how we care for our people.”

Whatever 2023 holds for humanity, Pastor Johnson plans to continue caring for his church members and the wider community.

“My hope is for partnership,” he said. “I believe … that everyone has great ideas, but when we put them all together, we can do more, instead of trying to do it separately. My prayer is that we can continue to be a resource to our community, but also that our community can join forces with us and that we can unite and come together against violence and not just come together when there’s tragedy, but come together before tragedy so that we can alleviate those tragedies.”