Crying children: Johnson hears 'em everywhere

It's been a long time since R.A. Johnson became the pastor at Zion Hill Baptist Church– exactly 50 years. But on October 30, the Albemarle county native celebrated his retirement. Now, he'll focus his efforts on another charge, Pilgrim Baptist Church.

"I'll be able to give more," says Johnson. "It's time for a younger pastor with more energy to take my place. And now I can focus on Pilgrim Baptist.

Johnson's time at Zion Hill has been marked by social movements that led to cataclysmic change in Charlottesville and the nation. During the civil rights movement, Johnson, who also worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped manage demonstrations like sit-ins at theaters and restaurants.

But in recent years, his focus has shifted– to community activism on the part of children.

Over the last decade or so, Johnson has become something of a fixture at school board and City Council meetings. The pastor knows exactly what he wants to see in Charlottesville– a better relationship between the black and white communities– and he hopes others will want the same.

"I'd like to see those fences mended by rational people sitting down together," he says, "not talking at each other, but to each other."

Johnson's dream for Charlottesville is to close the student achievement gap, a goal he has worked toward through educational programs for young people in the congregations of both his churches.

In pressing that agenda, Johnson has become legendary for his comments at local government meetings that often begin, "I hear the children crying." For Johnson, this unique approach isn't a remembered bad dream or foggy recollection.

"I hear the children crying when I hear them say, 'I'm in a classroom and I'm never called upon' or 'I feel like I'm separated from the other students in the class,'" he says earnestly.

While he's no doubt well-intentioned, even he wonders about his effect on community education.

"I think it's a spotlight on some of the inequities in our school system," he says, "but only some people have tried to change."

So Johnson plans to keep going to the meetings because he has faith in the Charlottesville community. In fact, he holds the same beliefs he had 40 years ago.

"I don't want his mind thinking, I want his heart feeling," he says of his listeners, both in church and in his community pulpit. "If you can change a man's heart, you don't have to worry about his mind."


Age: You can assume [my age], I've worked at a church for 50 years, but I'd rather not say– age is just a number!

Why here? I wanted to come back to my home community and make a difference.

Worst about living here? People are in denial about what is real.

Favorite hangout? Well, I do like the Wood Grill.

Most overrated virtue? When people feel they're beyond reproach.

People would be surprised to know: I'm still an optimist and have hope for Charlottesville.

What would you change about yourself? I'd would wake up tomorrow and be young again.

Proudest accomplishment? That I can make a change in this community

People find most annoying about you: When I'm right, I'm right.

Whom do you admire? My father, more than any person I've ever met

Favorite book? The Bible– it's a bestseller

Subject that causes you to rant? I'm a stickler for keeping my word. To me, that's the most important thing in our lives– sticking to our word.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? I'm healthy and have a nice family, a nice church. I think I've made some of my dearest friends in the 21st century.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Not sure. But when things happen that are a total surprise to me, that really creeps me out.

What do you drive? Blue Cadillac

In your car CD player right now: Nothing in my car, but I'm listening to a lot of gospel music.

Next journey? To Kingston, Jamaica for a vacation with my wife. Everybody needs a break– it's our turn!

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Well, whenever I don't follow my better judgment...

Regret: I guess it's that I didn't have but two children, and I always wanted more.

Favorite comfort food: Chicken Noodle Soup. That's always a good cure for what ails you.

Always in your refrigerator: Apples!

Must-see TV: CNN, especially Larry King Live

Favorite cartoon: No answer

Describe a perfect day: When I can wake up in the morning and not have any pain in my body. The first thing I think is, "How am I feeling?" If I have no pain, I say, "Thank you, Lord," and I have a good day. I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky fella. You have to smile and think of the good things and thank the Lord.

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'd be an entertainer, a singer. I'd want to perform in a nightclub, singing jazz.

Who'd play you in the movie? Hmm, I don't quite know.

Most embarrassing moment? One of my most embarrassing was when I went through customs on the way to Israel. They were just patting me down over and over. Everybody was looking at me. It took a good couple of minutes, and every time we went through they did the same thing.

Best advice you ever got? Be honest, forthright, and be a realist. That's the best advice I've ever had in my life from a seminary professor.

Favorite bumper sticker? Virginia is for Lovers

R.A. Johnson