WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2002
Soft spoken, her porcelain
skin glowing, Brenda Johnson could be an angel come to
earth to minister to the broken hearts of children, some
housed in bodies long grown into adulthood. But then tears
wet her cheeks and her voice breaks, providing a window to
her all-too-human heart as her thoughts reach back to the
cold, snowy winters of her childhood.
Brenda and husband
David Johnson prepare for a joyous Christmas season
full of love for Christ, family and friends.
Brenda’s advice for parents: "At this Christmas
Season, the best thing a parent can give a child is
The spring from which water was drawn was a half-mile away
from the home Brenda shared with six brothers and two
sisters in the Indiana homestead that provided the bare
necessities of living. The children lugged big, heavy
buckets of the cold water onto a makeshift "sled" of
anything upon which they could drag the sloshing load the
long trail home.
"We all suffered through threats and extremely hard work
almost to the point of discipline," Brenda says softly,
her faltering, trembling voice reflecting the confusion of
her youth. "It was just a natural part of life, but it
makes for a strong character."
The children, ruled by the harsh demands of their
unyielding father, were indentured servants of a sort,
paying their way out of childhood with the labor of their
hands and the agony of hearts too young to understand
"normal" was not a word to describe the ordeals brought by
each new day.
The oldest of the nine, Brenda's birth alone was a
haunting prophecy of her childhood's plight. Abandoned at
the hospital by her single mother, her grandparents
rescued her from what may have been a normal upbringing in
an adoptive home then, two years later, relinquished her
back into the home of her mother and the man Brenda would
know as her father.
As the years passed, her suffering intensified, made
harder as she assumed more and more the role of her mother
who slowly succumbed to the trials of poverty,
helplessness and the ravages of cancer.
The abuse she endured was only part of her inescapable
dilemma, though she cannot recall the other children
asking why she wore the same clothes to school each day.
She does remember lying upon returning to school one
January. "The teacher didn't mean harm," Brenda says
sweetly, "but she asked us what we got for Christmas. I
told her I got a bicycle, when actually all I got was some
Christmas was only one special day that was neglected
among those most dear to a child's heart. Brenda doesn't
remember ever celebrating her birthday during her growing
By the time she was thirteen, her mother was "terribly
sick" with cancer. Her father took seven of the children -
all but Brenda and her younger sister, to a home in
Columbia, Tennessee for a time.
"The abuse was bad at that time for me," Brenda shares,
the pain in her voice reflecting not only the abuse and
debilitating hard work, but her suffering in losing her
mother in painful increments that finally led to her death
when Brenda was 16.
"Her death was a blessing, I can see that now, in that I
was put in a different environment, a better environment,"
says Brenda, whose escape was finally realized when she
was placed at the Tennessee Children's Home in
The house Brenda lived in housed 30 girls who shared
bedrooms, dreams and painful memories of the past. "I
learned other girls endured the same problems I had," says
Brenda, more strongly. "When you're together like that you
end up talking to each other."
She shares stories of chores done at the Children's Home
with a smile, remembering that one day a week after school
all the girls would go to the ironing room where ironing
boards awaited, the clothes sprinkled and damp, ready for
each to do her share in getting the job done.
She received her first glimpse of Christianity when she
was 16, at the Church of Christ in Springville, where she
was later baptized. "We got a dollar allowance each week
to buy a coke and still had to put some in church," says
Brenda, uncomplaining. "That was the first time I was ever
exposed to that; growing up we never went to church."
School was another awakening. "The orphan home had to
catch me up," she says, pain returning to her voice as she
explains that in the later years, "I'd had to stay home to
chop firewood and haul water and take care of my mother."
After high school, the Children's Home provided the means
for Brenda to attend Church of Christ affiliated
Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson where she majored
in English with an art minor. "They're the ones who sent
me to college," she says gratefully, "I didn't have to pay
a thing." She continued to live at the Home during her
college years, going home on weekends like students from
At a mixer during her second year at the college, Brenda
met her future husband, music major David Johnson, who was
a new freshman at the school. "The first time I saw David
in the student center I just knew he was my life mate,"
she says, smiling gently. "I had never been treated fairly
or with any decency. He is the first one who did that for
me. The word going around now is hero - he's my hero."
Brenda was 21 when she married David on January 5, 1973 at
the Children's Home, after which the couple moved to
David's hometown of Dresden.
She expounds easily on the difference David has made in
her life, "I learned a lot from him: how to treat other
people... He has such a loving and strong Christian
family. I never dreamed I would end up in such a loving
relationship. I could be a lot of places doing a lot of
things right now that I wouldn't be proud of, and all this
came out of a tragedy. God used that tragedy in my life.
It's been a long road for me to learn I can forget all
that now and live a happy life."
The couple's first daughter, Dinah, was born in 1974, with
Rebekah following three years later. A summer internship
for David as youth minister with the Church of Christ in
McKenzie led to an offer of full-time employment and the
couple moved to McKenzie in 1978.
Brenda worked for the McKenzie School District's nutrition
service as a cook and as nutritionist Deborah Chapman's
office assistant for 15 years until the church offered her a
full-time position as secretary, where she has now served
for almost 21 years in either a part-time or full-time
Living in extreme poverty in an abusive home was
"extremely hard," Brenda says. "But out of all that I
still got many blessings from God and the experience has
helped me to help others. Even now I love helping people
with benevolence if they need food or something for their
children; I can relate to them. I think God put me in a
position where I can help other people because I've had
that experience in the past and I try not to whine about
it - I try not to think about it at all - because I know
I'm not the only one."
An important key in overcoming the horrors of her past is
forgiveness. "I went through that anger phase when I was
younger but I'm not angry anymore," she says, "I learned
at an early age to forgive him. It makes it easier for me
to forgive small injustices because I've being able to
forgive for so many big things."
She acknowledges forgiveness is hard. "The reason I had to
forgive was for me," she explains, "I had to forgive him
for my own piece of mind. It's not easy to forgive and
people ask me, 'How can you forgive him?'"
Brenda finds strength in the Biblical account of Joseph,
whose jealous brothers were driven to cast him into a pit
from which they sold him into slavery.
"Not that I'm as good as that," she says, "but he finally
forgave his brothers... That had to be terribly traumatic
for him but God's hand was with him the whole time."
Brenda's hope is that others - both abused and abusers -
can get the help they need to make a better life for
themselves and their families. "At this Christmas Season,
the best thing a parent can give a child is unconditional
love, because they do have a life after childhood," she
stresses. "They need to think about the fact that the
child is growing up; they need to ask, 'What am I doing
now to enhance their future?'"
"You can look anywhere and see the same situation I was
in. Parents don't really..." she pauses, "They don't look
beyond the moment sometimes, at what they're doing to
their kids. Discipline should be in a loving manner. When
you hit and slap your kids what are you telling them? When
they look at their parents, they think everybody is like
that and it takes years to learn they're not. Be wise in
handling your children."
David's compassion found its own outlet when years ago he
returned to school to obtain a master's degree in marriage
and family therapy. "He'd always had a desire to help
people," Brenda says.
David and three other therapists make up the Christian
Counseling Center in Paducah, Kentucky, with satellite
offices in Paris, Martin and Murray. "They're looking for
another therapist but they can't find one," Brenda shares,
illustrating the depth of need for a hurting populace. "So
many people are in stress and depression."
For Brenda, the hard days are over. "I'm happy now; I have
the best husband in the world and two lovely daughters,"
she smiles. Dinah is now a respiratory therapist in
Knoxville who, along with husband Jason Lollar, has three
children: Drew, Sydney, and Hannah. Rebekah, a nurse
functioning in a managerial position, and her husband,
serviceman Chris Townsend, reside in Honolulu with their
Brenda finds both strength and pleasure in the friendships
she and David have cultivated in their lives. "It's
important to have close friends; we have lots of friends
in McKenzie," says Brenda, who likens the mutual support
of friendship to a support group. "We have good friends we
can call on that are always in our thoughts and prayers,
it just really helps. Relationships are what life's made
of. You can have lots of things but if you don't have
relationships and friends to lean on you don't have
anything... so work on friendships."
Brenda enjoys participating in the David Johnson Chorus,
which is directed by her husband. "We love to sing; we
rehearse every Sunday night in Dresden at 7:30," she says,
launching into a delightful description of the season's
warm and funny production that winds up Monday at the
Lebonheur Hospital in Memphis after a wonderfully
successful weekend at the Krider Auditorium in Paris.
At the Krider, watching Brenda radiate happiness and joy
into a delighted audience as she sings, then later in the
play seeing her dressed as a happy-faced clown, one would
never know the trials she endured during the first tender
years of her life.
The truth is, she is an angel - an earthbound angel with a
special message of hope as enduring as Christmas itself.
The Christian Counseling Center works with people in need
according to their income. The Paducah center can be
reached at 270-442-5738.
Phone (731) 352-3323 or
Fax (731) 352-3322