This project took seed years ago when Debbie and Dennis Walsh first met Aaron Johnson and learned of his life's work. Knowing that his story should be told, for current and future generations, the Walshes commissioned writer Deb Cleveland in 2005. She spent the next few years meeting with Aaron, his wife Mattie, and many of Aaron's former colleagues. In the photo at left, Deb and Aaron celebrate the completion of the Man from Macedonia manuscript in fall 2009.
about Aaron Johnson
Born a sharecropper’s son in rural North Carolina, Rev. Aaron Johnson has worked as a tireless advocate for social justice. After leading sit-ins under Martin Luther King Jr.’s tutelage, Johnson advised three N.C. governors on race relations and served as the state’s corrections secretary while pastoring a Fayetteville, N.C., church. As a seminary student at Shaw University in the late 1950s, Johnson is electrified by early nonviolence training with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Working with his fellow students, he helps found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and participates in the nation’s earliest student sit-ins and marches. Several years later, North Carolina Governor Dan Moore asks Rev. Johnson to help calm the unrest boiling across the state after Dr. King’s death. That work brings Johnson face-to-face with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. He experiences vile hatred and deep despair. He finds himself in the middle of the deadly Wilmington riots and the arrest, conviction, and belated pardoning of the Wilmington 10. Through the turbulence, Johnson draws on his enormous skills as a mediator while also testing and strengthening his faith in God. Later, while working through his Fayetteville church to bolster housing, employment, and daycare opportunities, Johnson joins the Republican Party—an unusual move for an African American. As a rising voice in local and regional politics, Johnson befriends Ronald Reagan. He delivers a prayer at the Republican Convention when Reagan wins the presidential nomination and he becomes a frequent visitor at the White House. Even Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative known for his stands against integration and the Civil Rights Act, befriends Aaron Johnson and aids him in a successful local election bid. When Republican Governor James Martin names Johnson as North Carolina’s first African-American secretary of corrections, the minister-advocate begins a new career chapter. Over seven years of service, Johnson oversees the transformation of the prisons’ healthcare delivery and its treatment of inmates with HIV/AIDS and he institutes innovative programs aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. A purchasing scandal by several direct reports forces Johnson to resign the state corrections post, but not before he makes a heartfelt plea to Charles Colson’s national Prison Fellowship ministry. “I am the man from Macedonia, and I’ve come to ask for your help,” he tells the Prison Fellowship board. Grown men, in tears, agree to plan a wide-scale Prison Fellowship revival in ninety-four North Carolina prisons. Starting Line, held in 1992, fulfilled a promise that Rev. Johnson made years earlier to death row inmates. Readers of Man from Macedonia will come to know Aaron Johnson as a humble friend and inspiring hero who suspects that God still has a few projects waiting for him on his to-do list.
about Deb Cleveland
Deb Cleveland is the author of Hugs from Heaven: Portraits of a Woman’s Faith and Footsteps & Heartbeats, a weekly newspaper column she wrote for more than seventeen years. Her work has also appeared in Woman’s Day and other magazines. She is the wife of a minister, the proud mother of three sons, and a grandmother of six. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. www.debcleveland.com