“A Holy Ghost Building;” Reflections on the Life of Claude Johnson given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 18, 2017. (Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:4-9, Matthew 5:1-12)
“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”
To begin our remembrances of Claude Johnson today I’ve asked Sam Clark to sing “I’m working on a building,” as this week I found it speaking to me of Claude.
I’m Working on A Building
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, for my Lord
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
If I was a liar I tell you what I’d do
I would quit my lying and work on that building too
Working on a building, it’s a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
If I was a singer I tell you what I’d do
I would keep on singing and work on that building too
For my Lord, for my Lord
Claude Johnson was a builder. You can look around this chapel and see some of the many things Claude built. One Christmas Elginne had to wrap 80 different wooden Christmas ornaments and toys that Claude had made for children and families in this church and for his extended family. Like David Byrd’s creations they were always creative and imaginative like these two hands with clearly different skin colors holding each other in prayer, in solidarity, or this clock Claude gave me. You may not be able to read it, but at the bottom it says, “Free at last,” followed by a questions mark. The chains remind you of the broken chains of slavery. The train engine reminds you of the Underground Railroad, but also trains as the symbol of progress. Claude loved his trains. But then the fact that you have to ask the question of whether we’re free at last definitely lets you know we’re clearly not there yet. There’s the cross Claude made when we had services in different places so it needed to be easy to pack up. You can see “Incarnation” carved in the wood. I don’t know how he did that. These beautiful candlesticks. Keep an eye out for others things around the chapel and the social hall to get a sense of just how creative and industrious Claude was. And these beautiful creations were only the smallest part of the kind of building Claude did.
Claude was a mechanical engineer. He worked in the aerospace division at Bendix, one of the largest engineering firms in our country, working on airports around the world. After he retired from Bendix he went to work at the county jail where he kept it running in all sorts of ways and found excuses to reach out to those who were incarcerated. Years later, going around with Claude, several times, we ran into men who told us how grateful they were to Claude for the way he had befriended them while they were in jail. After he retired from the county jail, Claude went to work for Neighborhood Senior Services, which he said was his favorite job, helping people so they could continue to live in their homes.
But Claude didn’t just work on building objects and buildings; he also was part of a generation that helped build a culture that emphasized building character.
Claude grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, during the time of legal segregation. For Claude this meant living in two worlds at the same time: the world of the African-American community, which was all about nurturing and the pursuit of excellence and helping people realize their fundamental dignity and worth and learning to live out of that sense of worth, and a broader society that was trying to demean you, limit you, deny you, because of the color of your skin.
Claude worked at a white country club in Bluefield. One day, in the midst of a dinner at the club, his girlfriend’s father was shot and killed by a drunk white judge who felt insulted by the way he was served. Though it was done in front of many witnesses, the judge was never charged with any crime. But Bluefield was also the place where in addition to his own wonderful family, his parents, his older brother Pete and sister Letitia, Claude also had an adopted aunt and uncle. This uncle taught him everything about working on cars—something Claude loved to do the rest of his life. His adopted aunt ran a small boarding house where the Black musicians who came through Bluefield would stay because they couldn’t stay in the white hotel. His aunt played the piano and after those musicians played at the hotel they would go back to her place and play late into the night, and so Claude got to hear and meet people like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and some of the other greatest singers, musicians, and composers of our time, or any time.
These two powerful and contradictory currents—growing up in world of violent and humiliating oppression and yet also being nurtured by a community that encouraged you to become the best self you could be, a kind of Holy Ghost building—shaped Claude and his generation.
When you devote yourself to an idea, it ceases to be just an idea. It becomes a value. Generational historians call Claude’s generation the committed generation, for it was this generation whose commitment saw us through the dismantling of legal segregation. But to me Claude also clearly embodied the values of the generation before him: the G.I. (general infantry) generation, the generation whose core value was duty, doing your duty. That generation became known as a generation willing to be anonymous, to put their own interests aside for the sake of the common good. It was the generation that not only defeated fascism, but which built up everything from vibrant public schools to healthy cities, to the church as we’ve known it over the last one hundred years. In Claude that commitment to doing your duty and the pursuit of excellence were so clearly interconnected.
I grew up a baby boomer, a generation whose core value was self-expression. I grew up feeling this focus on doing your duty was a kind of trap, a way of losing yourself in organizations and putting up with boring meetings, a way of getting trapped into being unimaginative or going along with things you shouldn’t go along with, or building institutions just for the sake of building them. Claude taught me differently. In Claude I got to discover the positive side of duty: this ability to show up, in season or out of season, to do whatever needs to be done, regardless of how you’re feeling. In contrast, my generation’s focus on self-expression seems to have left people enslaved to themselves, only able to do what they want to do, unable to do what they don’t want to do, and our society has paid a terrible price for this in terms of the decline of our cities and public schools and the retreat into private spaces of happiness at the expense of the public square and the public good.
In contrast, through Claude I got to see how a sense of duty can become a means of transcending who you are, not leaving behind what you want, but not being tyrannized by your more immediate needs or desires. Claude always had a list of what he was needing to do—generally what he was needing to do for others, and he simply walked through his life doing them.
I remember coming to the church one night and discovering that our old furnace room was filled with about eight inches of water. It was clear our furnace would soon be under water and break if we didn’t do something quickly. It was about nine p.m. when I called
Claude and explained what was happening. He immediately came out and was able to get the sump pump working again with no fuss, no drama, no saying this is past my bedtime and I need to get up early in the morning for work. I also appreciated the fact that working in the dark with rising water amidst electrical outlets—he also kept us from getting electrocuted.
In terms of this church, Claude showed up again and again and again to do whatever needed to be done: to maintain this building or fix something, to keep the church’s financial records, to help individuals in the congregation in whatever way they were needing help.
It was also while going around doing this work with him that I got to experience how the legacy of segregation still lives in our community. I got to see the kinds of humiliations and injustices Claude was subjected to as we went to purchase some kind of building supplies and clerks would want to talk to me, who knows nothing about anything building related, rather then Claude, who had approached them in the first place and knew everything about everything. I also saw how the police would pull Claude over while I almost never got pulled over, even though he was so clearly driving a better car and was a more careful driver and was more respectable than I am in every way. If you didn’t have a sense of higher purpose in your life these kinds of indignities could just poison you and make you into a hateful person. When you have a higher purpose, it might still make you angry, but that anger becomes seeds of fire that leave you ready to do whatever you can to change things when you have the opportunity to do so.
Now it’s important to say that this sense of duty was not some kind of selfless thing. Claude’s sense of duty was not just about others; part of his sense of duty was about honoring his own dignity and worth and that of his family and loved ones. So, for example, Claude found a way to break through the color line, the housing segregation that existed in Ann Arbor through the early 1960’s, keeping Black people living in two small sections of the city. Because no realtor would sell him any property outside that area, Claude paid a builder to buy a piece of land, build a house, and then sell it to him. Thus the house on Independence that Elginne still lives in is a living testimony to the dismantling of segregation here in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, moving into that area was only part of the challenges of segregation as Claude’s children, particularly Terri, would pay a high price as she strove to protect Susan and Tamara from the ugliness and bullying they encountered for being people of color living in that area.
Claude’s sense of duty and commitment to excellence was also embodied in his commitment to being a good man, a gentle man, and a good father. Sometimes his expectations may have gotten a little out of hand as when he returned from Korea telling Elginne about how women in Korea could give birth in the morning and be back working in the fields that afternoon, but Elginne straightened him out. 🙂
Claude and Elginne raised their children in the 1960’s, a time when our consumerist culture was encouraging men to go and make as much money as possible as the key to happiness. Claude didn’t buy into that foolishness. Other than the period when in addition to working at Bendix he worked at a gas station to save up money for the house on Independence, Claude in general never worked overtime. He was always home by 5:30 p.m. to be with Elginne and his kids. The ethic of self-love and self-care and commitment to excellence that grew up and was nurtured as resistance to Jim Crow is so reflected in Terry and Tamera and Susan and their children.
It was Claude and Elginne’s commitment to others, to gospel values that brought them to this congregation. Elginne read in The Ann Arbor News about all the trouble the church and the community were giving the Rev. Jim Lewis for trying to open up the church to the hungry and the homeless and speaking up for different oppressed groups, so when she heard he had come to his new congregation, she and Claude came here. On a photo board in the social hall you can see pictures of them at age 53 participating in the “Society and Prisons” Lenten program that launched our work with the criminal justice system.
Over the years Claude and Elginne became among the key pillars of this church, not just doing what needed to be done, but opening their lives and hearts to so many of us and taking us in not only as friends but as family. Claude and Elginne’s love and affection has been one of the most life-sustaining and life-enhancing aspects of my life over my thirty years here at Incarnation. Elginne has always kept me grounded in love and humor, affectionately calling me “the boy” or “my boy”—sometimes, I suspect, depending on how I was behaving. When my daughter Kate called Claude to say a final goodbye and was saying how much it meant to her to have Claude as a beloved grandfather—Claude’s responded, “Yes. Isn’t that a surprising and wonderful thing.” That meant the world to her. There are so many here that have been adopted into this amazing family.
“There is a river that makes glad the city of God. God is in the midst of her and she will not be overthrown.” Through Claude and Elginne so many of us have come to know the glad river. In the midst of a sick and corrupting culture, they built on the rock of such gospel values as honesty and truthfulness, concern for others and excellence, humility and hard work, grace and humor—rather than the shifting sands of materialism, or get-aheadism, or egotism. They have left us with that legacy Paul speaks of in Philippians as the kind of excellence and beauty that can keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love and peace of Christ. I’m not exaggerating—this is true.
We had a member of the congregation, John Norton, who suffered from schizophrenia yet found many ways to reach out to others and contribute to the broader world, including writing poetry. One of his poems was called “The Be—Attitudes”. It was a call to become the blessed held up in the beatitudes:
*Be one of the humble and poor in spirit so you can help build the inclusive reign of heaven here on earth.
*Be one of those who mourn so you can comfort others.
*Be one of those who hunger and thirst for justice so you can become an ambassador for justice.
*Be one of the merciful so that others can know the power of compassion.
*Be one of the pure in heart so you can see God, even here, even now, in this world.
*Be a peacemaker so that you can help others know peace as their divine heritage.
*Be one of the persecuted—knowing that persecution is the price we pay for real change.
Claude lived these be-attitudes. Through him we have been blessed to know what it means to live as a child of the Most High. And if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen