Have you ever heard of Camp Barakel? This is where I grew up. It is set in the Northeastern woods of Michigan about five miles east of the village Fairview. If you have ever been to Camp Barakel, then I know you have heard of Uncle Johnnie, because he is a legend.
William Holman Johnson III was born on May 31, 1913, and grew up on a farm near Princeton, Ill., about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. Not too long after graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, he began to take kids camping from church. This eventually led to the founding of Camp Barakel in Fairview, MI where he wanted young people to have a fun place to go to learn about God. Uncle Johnnie is not my Uncle at all. That is just what everyone called him. He received his nickname during his Moody days. He was a humble man, living in service of Jesus Christ.
Uncle Johnnie died in a hospital in Alpena, MI on Tuesday March 23, 2004 around 7:00 am. He fought with myasthenia gravis for years, and it finally took his life.
I picture him in his old age, because he has been old as long as I have known him. I can still see him so clearly in my mind. I can picture his neatly groomed gray hair parted on the side. He has thick unstylish glasses permanently situated on his face. I can see his comfortable slacks with his buttoned up shirt tucked in behind his brown leather belt. He has thick work worn hands he waves around when he talks. I can hear his voice ring with purpose and melody leading a chapel full of kids through a song. I can hear his loud joyful laugh, almost childlike at times.
If you have never met Uncle Johnnie, I can tell you what it would be like to meet him. He would smile big, and he would laugh like it was a joy to meet you. He would ask you some questions as if he was genuinely interested in what you had to say, as though he were talking with someone famous or of high status. He would put his worn out hands on your shoulder, looking at you with his tired eyes to tell you a short funny story. This story would have some deep meaning behind it, even though it would just seem to be a simple, funny story. It would be a story of a squirrel he observed, or it may be of a camper he talked with the other day. He would leave you with a smile, but that is not all he would leave with you. He would leave you with a glimpse of his passion and love for God and life. You would get a sense there is something more to this life than what is on the surface, and you would have the feeling you are a part of that bigger picture.
I do not remember that day very well, but I do remember the moment when my dad called me to tell me Uncle Johnnie had passed away. I can hear my dad’s voice as if he is talking to me now. His voice was humble and cautious when he spoke those words to me. I paused, not knowing what to say, but I eventually said, “okay.” That is all I could say. What do you do or say when your hero dies? What do you do when a man with so much love and character no longer lives on this earth?
I do not remember much of that day, but I most certainly remember the next several. I could not get it out of my head. I cried the next day. I do not cry often enough. I wanted a chance to talk with him one last time. I had questions to ask, but I had so many years to ask him. I wanted to thank him for all that he had done for my family and me. When I thought about how much he had done for others, it made me look at my own life to examine what I had been doing. He had no power, money, or fame, yet God used him to touch and change so many lives.
As I walked into the memorial service at South Church in Lansing MI, I felt a peace come over me. I saw familiar faces here and there from all the years of walking those dusty dirt camp roads. I heard familiar voices faintly as I walked to find my father standing next to one of the entrances to the sanctuary. He was dressed in an old suit looking uncomfortable in it as he spends most of his days working on small engines with his hands dirty with grease. He has dark hair and glasses standing about 5'11". He was 59 years old with a slender build. My dad is a man of few words. He lets his actions speak for him. He was there to greet people coming in to say goodbye to the “Big Chief.” I remembered the stories of when Uncle Johnnie used to dress in Native American apparel for the campers years ago.
I talked with my dad briefly before sitting down far in the back near the door where my father was standing, so I could be near him when he finally sat down after greeting people. After the people were packed into the church with serious looks on their faces, my dad finally sat down next to me. I watched and listened to speaker after speaker stand up and talk about this great man. It seemed like everyone he came in contact with was changed, distinctly remembering his or her interaction with him. They talked about his deep faith and his gift to encourage others. Some called him “The Great Encourager.”
As I sat on the pew during the memorial service I looked at my father bent over with his arms on his legs and his head down. I wondered what he was thinking. My parents met at Barakel. A few years after getting married they started working at camp. That was many years ago. This man’s vision and work had inspired my parents.
As I sat there, listening and observing, I realized this was no tragedy. This was a celebration. This celebration was of a man living his life boldly different from others. Uncle Johnnie founded Camp Barakel with little money of his own. God provided this money in a series of people and businesses giving to him sometimes in mysterious and miraculous ways. He never profited monetarily from his work. He never sought fame. He never even took credit for what was accomplished, because he gave the recognition to God. He fought through myasthenia gravis, self-doubt, criticism, lost wives and other struggles, but he kept his faith.
Memories flooded my head during the days after my dad had called me with the news. I remember playing on the basketball court when Uncle Johnnie would come over to talk with me. “Oh Kevin, how is that left hand coming along?” I remember him throwing me the basketball while I took some jump shots. He would just pass that worn out basketball to me like he was a teenager. He would tell me a little joke after playing a while, and then he would say something like, “I’m glad you’re here Kevin.”
I watched and listened to Johnnie carefully as I grew up at Camp. I watched as he talked and played with the campers. At times he spoke at chapel services, and I would listen carefully. Everyone was so captivated, listening quietly to every word he said, because they believed he had something important so say. He did have important things to say, but you had to listen carefully to get all of the meaning. When Johnnie spoke there was so much more in the message than just the words he was using. There was so much meaning behind the simple stories he would tell. I reflected on these things for the next several days.
Living at camp all those years I was able to observe many of the thousands of people taking the journey down that dusty dirt road to experience Camp Barakel. People came to have fun with friends and family. They came to enjoy nature, and they came to get away from the routine of their live to be spiritually refreshed. Children came to make new friends, fish, play games, and swim. Others came to be a part of something bigger than them. People came for various reasons, but all left knowing God had spoke to them in some way. Children, teenagers, missionaries, pastors, teachers, business owners, volunteers and thousands of others pass through camp every year. The cycle continues as they go out into the world to touch other lives. Johnnie took no credit. He knew this was God’s work and not his own. He did not want to be responsible for all of that.
The thing about Uncle Johnnie is that he understood his own imperfection; he did not treat others as though he was somehow better than they were. He most certainly would want his work to be for the glory of God. He would never want people to lift him up as though it was he who was behind all that is Camp Barakel. At the same time, we all make choices to make up the lives we lead and past we leave behind. He made choices as a human being with free will. Uncle Johnnie, with his failures and successes, strengths and weaknesses, good and bad choices, and within his own unique personality, lived his life with integrity. He answered the call of God.
I know that if you could talk with Johnnie today, he would leave you with the feeling you are special. He believed everyone was special. He believed God made you just the way you are for a reason. This is the way Johnnie made me and everyone else he met feel, because he believed that God made everyone of us unique, with our own personal struggles, weaknesses, gifts, and purpose.
During the memorial service, I said “goodbye” to Uncle Johnnie. I imagined him putting his arm around me to look at me with those tired eyes and that big smile one last time. I just watched him in my mind as he walked away into those camp woods. I said in my thoughts, “Thank you Uncle Johnnie. I will see you again someday.”