The Rev. G.L. Johnson, the longtime senior pastor of Peoples Church who ministered to thousands and earned the confidence of fellow clergy members and civic leaders, died Wednesday after battling bile duct cancer.
He was 83.
George Lee Johnson, who set Peoples Church on a path to become the region's first megachurch, retired in February 2008 after nearly 45 years as pastor. He remained active as the church's pastor emeritus, hosting a Peoples radio broadcast that aired just before the church's late Sunday morning services and teaching a weekly Bible study for civic leaders.
He had been bedridden at home for the past couple of months, and church officials this month asked congregants to stop visiting because he was too weak. Many opted to post endearing messages on a website that gave his health updates in the final weeks.
He died at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday with his family at his side.
At a news conference Wednesday, Peoples Church executive pastor Doug Holck choked with emotion as he talked about the Rev. Johnson, whom he worked under for more than 40 years.
"He enjoyed serving this community," Holck said. "He loved Fresno."
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said the Rev. Johnson "dedicated his life to loving and caring for the needs of thousands of Fresnans. He will be sorely missed."
Former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson, who has attended Peoples Church since 1968, said the Rev. Johnson had an influence on the region's mayors, county supervisors and law enforcement leaders.
"His care and desire to assist leadership in Fresno was never predicated on politics; it was predicated on doing the right thing and doing the best thing," Patterson said.
Other Valley clergy members and friends remembered Johnson's impact in the community.
"I doubt there's anybody in town who doesn't know G.L.," said the Rev. Tim Rolen, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Clovis. "I don't think anyone has ever said anything bad about G.L."
The Rev. Johnson grew up in Houston, the son of a Baptist minister. He came to Fresno to work as associate general director of the Latin American Orphanage in 1961. He and his wife, Jackie, began worshipping at Peoples Church, which was a small nondenominational congregation of about 150 at Cedar and Dakota avenues. In 1963, he became Peoples pastor.
"He was personable – and that was not the common denominator in those days," said Rolen, whose father, Lonnie Rolen, was pastor of Ashbrook Church less than a mile from Peoples Church at the time. As a teenager, Tim Rolen visited Peoples Church monthly to hear the Rev. Johnson preach.
"He was energetic about the message he was going to share," Rolen said. "You could show up discouraged and he would give you a lift."
So many people felt uplifted that Peoples Church grew rapidly under the Rev. Johnson's leadership. In 1978, the congregation moved into a sanctuary accommodating more than 2,000 at its current site at Cedar and Herndon avenues in northeast Fresno.
"He was a great leader and very much in charge and had definite strengths in pulling people behind him," remembered the Rev. Don Anderson, a Peoples senior associate pastor from 1990 to 2005.
As Peoples Church grew, it added two education buildings, the Ground Zero youth building and the Worship Ministries Center, and attracted a mix of civic leaders and everyday members. Attendance climbed to about 5,000, the largest in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Anderson said the Rev. Johnson lived out his faith, routinely beginning each day at 6 a.m. with an hour of prayer.
The Rev. Johnson's favorite Scripture was Proverbs 3:5-6 – "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."
The Rev. Powell Lemons, pastor of Bethel Christian Center, said the Rev. Johnson's influence extended to the area's clergy members. Pastors frequently sought out the Rev. Johnson for counsel.
In 1992, the Rev. Johnson helped organize a Pastors' Prayer Summit in Oakhurst, where 45 clergy prayed for God's intervention in diminishing Fresno's rising crime rate and other problems.
The success of that event led the Rev. Johnson to help organize a weekly Citywide Pastors Prayer Meeting in 1993. The prayer meeting continues to meet at Bethel Christian Center, and Lemons said the Rev. Johnson routinely used it to reach out to other pastors.
"A pastor would break down and say he was having trouble – and G.L. would bring him to the center so everyone could pray for him," Lemons said. "You could feel very protected, spill everything that you knew and it would die there. People trusted him. ... He didn't have an enemy."
In 2001, Johnson was influential in bringing the Central Valley Billy Graham Crusade to Bulldog Stadium for four days in October. More than 200,000 people attended the crusade. The Rev. Johnson prayed behind the scenes with Graham each evening before Graham took the stage to give his message.
In 2005, Peoples Church completed remodeling of its 2,100-seat sanctuary. The following year, the church opened the G.L. Johnson Chapel for weddings, funerals and prayer meetings.
The Rev. Johnson also traveled throughout the world to teach at pastors' conferences, including South Korea, Africa, Australia and Japan.
The Rev. Gordon Donoho, a Northwest Church member who organized a network of pastoral clusters in the Fresno/Clovis area, said the Rev. Johnson's death marks the end of an era. The Rev. Johnson was the pastor to pastors and a spiritual guide and adviser to civic leaders, he said.
"The Bible says to finish well. G.L. finished well. No question about it," Donoho said. "He taught us a lot."