Zaleski: Arthur Johnson lived a life of faith, love

I wanted to believe the Rev. Arthur W. Johnson was indestructible. In the 30 years I knew him, he was an adviser, friend and reminder of how faith and love are supposed to define Christian values. He was big in physical statue, bigger in heart and spirit. His light-up-the-room smile was authentic, as was his steely commitment to his Lutheran faith and social justice. He understood a flawed world, tried to make it better, and brought as many people as he could along on that ride. Having been one of them was a singular honor.

Rev. Johnson died Wednesday in Battle Lake, Minn. He was 87 years old.

Late Forum editor Joe Dill introduced me to Johnson in 1987, when the minister was hospital chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital, later MeritCare, now Sanford Health. Johnson created the chaplaincy department in 1965, and emerged as an advocate for patients rights and hospital social services, programs that are routine today. He was a lecturer on medical ethics and co-founder of the first local hospice. A boat-rocker when he detected injustice, he got crosswise with MeritCare managers, who were averse to his boat-rocking, even when he was right.

Johnson was a frequent visitor to the newsroom when Dill was editor. Our discussions ranged from the role of a free press to his conviction that religious leaders perverted their faith by using it to advance a political agenda. Johnson was liberal, not in the political sense, but in the belief that real faith embraced everyone, regardless of status, income, race or religion. He lived that philosophy, and it sometimes got him into trouble with adherents of his own Lutheran tradition.

In summer of 2006, my granddaughter triplets came to our home near Horace, N.D., to be baptized by a minister from Medora, N.D., who was a family friend. I asked Johnson to participate. After a short homily, he worked the crowd in a huge tent in our yard. He was at his best, putting at ease visitors from Vermont, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, who were of various faiths or no faith. He made a good day better.

Last time I saw Arthur was at my retirement reception in 2017 at The Forum. He’d come over from his cabin on Otter Tail Lake in Minnesota, where he’d retired to care for his ailing wife. I appreciated that he’d made the drive, knowing his wife was ill and he needed to be with her every day.

He never retired. Later in life, he was pastor of a Battle Lake congregation. He taught at a community college, mentored clergy, and served on arts councils. Even as years piled on, his energy was a marvel to behold.

Family, friends and admirers said farewell to Art on Friday in Battle Lake, and will today at Moorhead’s Trinity Lutheran Church. His was a life well lived -- a life in which Christian love defined genuine faith. That translated into lives changed and souls restored by Arthur’s work in the world. A wonderful legacy. An extraordinary man.

It’s an honor to be among those celebrating his life. Godspeed, my friend. Godspeed.