Fast food and worship at the 'King'

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Jim Johnson, pastor of United Congregational Church in Columbus, enjoys telling people his congregation holds services in the "House of the King."

He's referring to a Burger King.

A table for six is large enough for all at the restaurant on Airport Thruway.

Johnson and the church's five members, one of whom is Betty Johnson, his wife of 61 years, meet there on the first and third Sunday of the month, usually around 10 a.m. That is, unless it is discovered members have a conflict, then it could be earlier or later.

The group, hungry for inspiration, sits at a round table in a corner of the restaurant with a good view of the playground.

If other restaurant customers should happen to already be eating breakfast there at that time, another location is found. On a nice day, the service might move outdoors.

"Breakfast or lunch comes after the service, not during," Johnson said.

The group, affiliated with United Church of Christ, has been meeting at the location for about two and a half years. They have also met at the Burger King on Stadium Drive in Phenix City.

"There is such a good crowd on Sunday morning, the manager didn't even know we were meeting," Johnson said.

Johnson, 83, said church members do not approach customers but often non-members will stop by to listen to the message Johnson is delivering that day.

One might think that this is a church in its early stages, but it is one that has been in Columbus since 1906.

Johnson said it never had a huge congregation, probably not more than 100 members.

As the membership dwindled, it began more difficult to keep up with the needs of a sanctuary built in 1908. Located on Beacon Avenue. It became a target of vandals. Copper was stolen from the air conditioning unit.

Three years ago, the building was donated to the Historic Columbus Foundation. The building is located in Waverly Terrace which is on the National Register of Historic Districts.

HCF director of planning and programs Justin Krieg said a new roof and masonry work was done to make the building "weather tight."

More work is planned to the windows to make the structure more attractive to a buyer. Originally, it was thought it might be home to HCF offices but a decision was made to place it on the market. "It could be used a residence or office, possibly, a church again," Krieg said.

Johnson first came to know the church in 1981. He had read in the newspaper how the elderly membership was having trouble with building maintenance. Johnson said, that on his own, he began to stop by to apply some putty and paint where needed.

One day a member found him working, and told him, "we thought it was the work of angels."

Johnson became a member of the church in 1985 and became a licensed minister about 15 years ago.

Before becoming a member of United Congressional Church, Johnson, who was raised in the Lutheran faith, and his wife used to visit various churches.

"If you are trying to find the right church, find one that when you sit down in the sanctuary, you feel like you are in your living room. You are that comfortable," Johnson advised.

Johnson came to Columbus 35 years ago. Born in Wisconsin and raised in Illinois, he served in the U.S. Army, leaving as a 1st Lieutenant. He, then, got an electrical engineering degree from the University of Illinois. He did a lot of traveling in the south being involved in both engineering and sales A position with Wright Contracting, a division of the Hardaway Company, brought him here. His income has always come from his engineering, not preaching. He currently works as a consultant.

Howard Mott, who founded the Valley Rescue Mission, and Rev. Warren Blankenhorn, an officer with the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, encouraged him toward the ministry.

While he had never thought of doing that work, helping others is something that runs in his blood. His two sisters were both nurses.

"During the depression, we lived about a quarter of a mile from the railroad tracks, A lot of folks were riding the rails back then. We did not have much at all but if somebody stopped by our place my mother made sure they got something," he said.

Johnson said the work of his church shows that a small group can still accomplish things.

One example of the church's outreach is that members are very active is collecting clothes and providing them to shelters in LaFayette, Ala. and Opeliks, Ala.

Every January and February, Johnson goes hunting for candy canes that were not sold for Christmas. Some he gets from stores at a large discount and some he gets free.

He stores them and the next Christmas they are sent to missionaries around the world. He collected 28,000 last winter.

He said as a minister he gets pleasure out of occasions such as performing a wedding for a soldier getting ready to be shipped overseas or conducting a funeral for a World War II veteran.

As for his congregation, he does not mind it being small.

He feels the church no matter the size must continue to exist.

"We need to preserve the past," he said.

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