The African American Heritage Society (AAHS) bids farewell to Rev. James Johnson and his wife, Dr. Shirley Johnson, and thanks them for making a difference at the First Cambria AME Zion Church and in the Johnstown community. What a difference they have made in the 12 years, serving the community.

They held church services in the park, provided meals for the hungry and clothes for the needy. Unfortunately, for the Johnstown community, the Johnsons retired in May.

When James and Shirley were assigned to the oldest African American church in Johnstown, they made a difference in the community.

They focused on the youth, who would/should move the church and the community forward. They pledged their support to the NAACP and its activities, and kept their commitment for 12 years. Their support of community events, visiting nursing homes and hospitals for church members and others, created another title for the Rev. Johnson –  community pastor.

Therefore, the Johnstown Branch of the NAACP dubbed him the community pastor and honored him with the Adult Freedom Award at the annual NAACP banquet.

The Greater Johnstown Minority Scholars Club (GJMSC) was established in 1985 by community leaders to recognize high school honor students.

Upon arrival, the Rev. Johnson supported the scholars’ club and attempted to duplicate the same at First Cambria. The Rev. and Mrs. Johnson donated supplies and financial support for GJMSC.

The club awards three endowed scholarships every year to three college-bound high school students. The Community Foundation disburses the Jones Family Scholarship, the Haselrig Family and the Hollis Family Scholarship.

Supporting the youth, the Rev. Johnson, with the NAACP and the Elizabeth Lindsay Davis Club co-sponsored the Teen Straight Talk Conference on the Pitt-Johns-town campus. More than 100 teenagers attended the two-day conference. After that successful conference, Rev. Johnson spearheaded the initiative to take 15 youth of the church and the community to overnight trips for two Teen Straight Talk Conferences in Warren, Ohio.

The Johnsons initiated a public discussion on racism.

People across Greater Johnstown gathered at Christ-Centered Community Church for dialogue about racism based on the viewing of Tim Wise’s “White Like Me.” A panel discussion followed the video.

Three local educators approached the Johnsons, with a vision of establishing an African American Study Center to preserve the history of African Americans. Without hesitating, they offered the First Cambria Church for the kick off fund drive. With their influence, the church led the community in the fund drive to renovate a study room at the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA).

To accelerate raising funds, First Cambria co-sponsored a Christmas Gala for two years with the Elizabeth Lindsay Davis Club.

First Cambria sponsored a Faith Fest, after church service on a Memorial Day weekend. The fellowship hall was packed with music, testimony and good food. The Rev. Johnson shaped the writing of a book, titled “Feeling Forsaken?” from the testimonies.

 In March, three organizations, AAHS, JAHA and UPJ had planned to collect artifacts and to videotape oral historical journeys about coming to Johnstown at the First Cambria AME Zion Church. This third collection was to provide additional historical data for the African Heritage Study Center. The First Cambria Church collection has been postponed because of the global crisis of the pandemic that closed the church.

Consequently, the community did not have an opportunity to wish Pastor Johnson and Sister Shirley farewell. 

For all that the Johnsons have done for the Johnstown community and the African America Heritage Society (AAHS), we wish the Johnsons the best in their retirement.

We also thank them for promoting the African American community’s premier historical site, First Cambria AME Zion Church.

Dr. Clea Patrick Hollis is secretary of the African American Heritage Society Inc.

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