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Anthony Johnson planned to become a Marine. Instead, at 16, the son of a Richmond elementary-school teacher took a gun to Highland Springs High School to settle a dispute. His JROTC instructor discovered it, resulting in Johnson's expulsion.
Feature Good as Gold
At 21, Johnson was incarcerated at Henrico County Regional Jail West, charged with his sixth offense, driving on a suspended license. A cellmate told him about Good News Jail & Prison Ministry.
"He introduced me to Chaplain Harold Dimmitt," Johnson recalls. Dimmitt, now the chaplain for Good News at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg, became Johnson's best friend.
"I wanted a different life, but I obviously didn't know how to get it. From that day, I started doing the Bible correspondence courses in jail."
After spending seven months awaiting a trial date, Johnson was released on his own recognizance and was scheduled to appear in court a year later.
"The judge looked at me and said, ‘You'll be back.' I told him I wouldn't, but some guys gave me some free crack cocaine. I planned to flip it — turn it around for money — and give the money to my girlfriend for my 2-year-old daughter I'd never taken care of."
Instead, Johnson and his brother smoked the cocaine.
"We had a junkie's car. Neither of us had a license. I said I wanted to drive. The police must have dropped out of the sky. I knew I had a pending court date, so I went back to jail."
Facing Chaplain Dimmitt just seven days after his release proved hard for Johnson.
"I tried to hide from him, but of course I couldn't. He was still supportive. I stayed another month, came home in March 1995 and never looked back."
A year later, Johnson appeared before the same judge. Johnson recalls, "He said, ‘Wow! You don't even look like the same person.' I felt like God gave me a second chance at life." Now 40 years old, Johnson is the assistant pastor at Elohim Christian Outreach Center, and he's pursuing a bachelor's in theology through a correspondence course with Slidell Baptist Seminary.
Johnson's girlfriend, Atina Clarke, gave him a second chance as well and married him, although her father, a Richmond detective, advised against it. In addition to their first daughter together, the couple have another daughter and a son. Johnson has been steadily employed at the Central Virginia Food Bank since 2006. Even so, the transition to his new life has not always been easy. Johnson's oldest brother was murdered in 2003 in Gilpin Court. Johnson fought the urge to retaliate.
"I was really strong for my family. I told them, ‘That's not the answer.' "
Johnson now leads a drug ministry at his church and also ministers for Good News at Henrico County Regional Jail East, a facility that's shared by Cumberland, Henrico and New Kent counties.
"I know that inmates can relate, but I say, ‘Relating to me is not going to deliver you from drugs. I still got to get you to Jesus.' I believe that God sent Good News to Henrico County Jail for me and countless others whose lives have been touched by that ministry. They're reaching across ethnic lines. Harold Dimmitt is a white fellow, and me being black and young at the time, that was the last person I thought I'd receive information from, but he led me to Christ. I tell inmates, ‘It's not a white man. It's not a black man. It's you. You have to be accountable and responsible for your own life.' "
Johnson pauses, then adds, "My brother — the one who smoked cocaine with me — just recently came home. I had Good News send materials to him in the Richmond City Jail where he did Bible correspondence courses. He just shared his testimony in church. He's doing great."
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2010.