Ex-basketball player makes his points in the pulpit

November 29, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

State historians may remember Julius Johnson as the first black to play on a University of Maryland basketball team. That was in 1965.

These days, professional ballplayers and former pros know him as "The Bishop," a chaplain who speaks their language.

But to the parishioners of the Upper Room Christian Fellowship in the western Anne Arundel County community of Queenstown, the Rev. Julius Johnson is simply the best minister there ever was.

"I've only missed one church service since I've been here," says parishioner Robin Williams, 53. "If you come once and meet him, I guarantee you'll want to come again. You've never seen anything like it."

The former garage in which the church meets is nothing to command enthusiasm. Rows of folding chairs rest on a brown plaid carpet. The right wall of the sanctuary is a row of big garage doors, and large heating pipes run above the plywood pulpit.

But the minister's sincerity and fervor make up for the lack of stained glass.

When he preaches, "We have allowed our homes to be a sanctuary for the enemy!" the Queenstown garage rocks with enthusiastic responses. When church members sing, the stark room comes alive with the beat of old-time gospel, jazz or contemporary music.

"The minister, he's a people kind of person," says Rodger Mollon, 18, whose parents joined the church a year after the teen-ager started attending. "I've never been in a church this real."

Mr. Johnson's charisma extends beyond the 125-member congregation to professional sports. He often speaks as chaplain before basketball games, and athletes such as Reggie White of the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles seek his counsel.

As an unofficial chaplain, Mr. Johnson, 46, who played guard on the University of Maryland's basketball team, says he "relates the Gospel to the sport."

Art Moore, a former New England Patriots football player, says Mr. Johnson has changed his life.

"Right here in this little garage, things are happening," says Mr. Moore, who visited the church recently. "It's amazing. Who is this Bishop guy? Everybody wants to know the Bishop. You want to get people excited? Call the Bishop."

"Athletes from around the country are seeking his help," Mr. Moore says. "He lives what he preaches, and that's what has challenged me in my faith."

There is another reason for Mr. Johnson's appeal, parishioners say. Like Oral Roberts, the faith-healer whose Oklahoma Bible college Mr. Johnson admires, the church emphasizes God's healing power.

The minister himself is almost shy about the reported healings. "We've had many manifestations of divine healing," he says quietly. "But it's all God."

Still, he's firm about what he says is happening.

"We don't have anybody sick in this congregation," he says. Miracle accounts include instant recovery from toothaches or flu, and the more dramatic story of a woman who was preparing for triple by-pass heart surgery.

Mr. Johnson prayed for her to be healed. A day later, an X-ray showed her to have "the heart of a 17-year-old," the woman's doctor told her, amazed. He canceled the surgery, Mr. Johnson says.

The church-in-a-garage is the beginning of the pastor's dreams. Mr. Johnson converted to Christianity more than a decade ago. Six years ago, armed with a business degree from the University of Maryland and a lot of faith, he started the church with three members.

The church began meeting in an empty garage in Queenstown, a tiny community measuring 1.9 miles from end to end. Three-fourths of this solid, predominantly black community are related to a handful of founding families. Mr. Johnson's wife, Jacqueline, is the great-granddaughter of Sylvester Queen, after whom the community is named.

Now the Johnsons' dream has grown. They hope to build an elaborate religious complex in Queenstown, complete with a day school, a prayer tower and a chance to affect the community in a dramatic way.

"We're calling men, especially men in the black community, to be men, to support their families and stay in the household," the minister says.

The Upper Room has bought 18 acres in Queenstown for its $1 million building project, and believes firmly that "God will provide funds." Already, gifts of church members and visitors have brought in thousands of dollars. "When God sees our faith, he'll move on our behalf," Mr. Johnson says.

The minister sees the church work as critical, and God as the only cure for what he calls the dire state of society.

A few weeks ago, a stabbing and rape occurred in Queenstown Park, barely a mile from the church. This, according to Mr. Johnson, is an example of the ultimate result of rejecting God.

"Any church that has experienced something like that in their community has a special calling to deal with why morality is missing. What's really missing is that God has called, but people aren't listening," Mr. Johnson says. "We have kids shooting kids on the street because people don't know or revere God."

"People put their faith in politics, but the government can't fix what's wrong, or the schools," the minister says. "It has to be God, and the church."

He continues: "The strength of a nation is in the church. When a people is morally sound, the society is morally stable. Our objective must be to carry the message of Jesus Christ and bring restoration to families, and if we do that, we will restore the community's moral values."

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