Pastor Johnny Baker: Leading a Community

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2019 Photo of Johnny and Jan Baker

E.m. Bounds once said “A prepared heart is much better than a prepared sermon.  A prepared heart will make a prepared sermon.”  Life is everchanging and in many ways, it is nearly impossible to know exactly how to react to situations, but this idea is multiplied in the lives of pastors.  A pastor’s duties expand beyond simply knowing and understanding the Bible, but they must know and understand what it means to be human.  Pastor Johnny Baker lived nearly __ years before he could no longer avoid his calling to become a pastor.  It did not matter what he had done up to that point in his life, he felt called to preach and there was no ignoring that.  Ever since a young age, his life had been preparing him to become a leader within the community and the church.  Through minor and major events, his willingness to love and care for others led him to fulfill his calling.  The life of a pastor is no simple task, and it is necessary to be prepared for everything that comes their way. 

In 1999 John D’jalmer Baker became the Senior Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Greenville, South Carolina.  It was a moment in his life that he did not expect and happened to befall him during a time of crisis within the church.  During the fifty years between his birth until becoming a pastor, he lived a life that seemingly prepared him to become a leader in the community and in the church.  Once becoming the pastor of Abundant Life, he was capable of affecting even more lives than I believe he realized he did.  From his humble beginnings to personnel management, and then through his retirement from being a pastor his passion for people has all equated to a life full of love and care. 

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Johnny Baker being held by his Grandmother in 1948.


As Gilbert K. Chesterton once said, “The family is a test of freedom; because the family is the only thing that the free man makes for himself and by himself.”  The family was something that Johnny would learn to care strongly about during his boyhood and carry with him the rest of his life.  In a post-World War II America, on December 9th, 1947 in Raleigh, North Carolina Johnny Baker was born.  He grew up in a mill town where his father worked as a production manager and designer at a cotton mill while his mother maintained the household as a housewife.  These humble beginnings were quite standard in the United States during the time.  Coming up in a lower-middle-class family taught him something more valuable than finances, and that is love.  Growing up his family and he lived in a house that was around a thousand square feet.  A household held together by love and closeness, something that he would carry on with him for the rest of his life.  As a grandfather in the present times, he maintains a close household with his own daughters and grandchildren. 

When looking back into his family’s past his own personal concepts of family values and Christian morals stem from his mother’s side.  Evelyn Watkins Baker was one of twelve children.  Larger families were quite common in the earlier years of the nineteenth century.  Her mother was a housewife, who raised her children based on Christian morals.  These traits Evelyn would carry with her to raise Johnny and his sister, JoAnne Baker Boyd.  Growing up Johnny and his extended family would spend holidays together, as well as taking trips to the beach together during the summer.  Having a ton of relatives around him throughout the years is something that he would base his own family-life off of. 

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Collage of Johnny Baker with his family.

In 2019 Johnny is a father of two daughters and the grandfather to four grandchildren.  He and his wife, Jan Baker, married when they were young.  He was twenty-one and she was eighteen.  Shortly after becoming married one of many challenges struck the two of them.  Multiple sclerosis would keep Jan in the hospital more than it would allow her to be at home.  She then would have issues due to endometriosis, which is a disease that attacks a female’s internal organs.  At one point, Jan was pregnant but sadly lost the baby after twelve weeks.  To make matters worse during the procedure a blood vessel or artery was severed without anyone noticing.  She began to bleed extremely badly, and this led to them conducting a hysterectomy in order to save her life.  She had to have the majority of her blood replaced which caused her body to swell.  Johnny is a man of his word who took what was said his vows seriously and stayed with her through sickness and health.  Jan eventually recovered but there were many more trying times to come.  She was unable to do many things for herself and this led to Johnny having to assist her in everything.  Through all the challenges and surprises that life threw their way, they stayed together through it all.  It was no easy task, but the things in life that are worth it, never are. 

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Family Portrait of Johnny, Jan, Jamie Baker.

Due to the nature of Jan’s health issues, she was unable to become pregnant again, but the two of them wanted to have children.  In 1980 they adopted their first daughter, Jamie when she was only six weeks old.  They adopted their second daughter, Julie, in 1988 when she was only six days old.  During this time, it was quite common for adoptions to take nearly two years to go through, but they were lucky to have adopted the two of them so quickly.  Johnny and Jan finally had the little family that they wanted.  With the two girls in their lives, he was able to pass along the closeness and love that Johnny had grown up knowing.  There were many challenges that came with adopting two little girls.  When adopting children, the idea of Nature versus Nurture becomes more prevalent and relatable.  Though the two girls were raised well and taught the same values of love and closeness, the girls would have their own struggles that they would have to battle with.  Jamie has struggled throughout her life with drug problems that led her into multiple incarcerations.  She is now on the right track and hopes to continue improving herself for a better future.  Julie took a different route and has grown up to have her own little traditional family.  She works hard to be a good wife and mother to her husband and sons.  Both of them were raised the very same yet they chose different routes in their lives.   Closeness and love have always been a constant in their lives, something that Johnny has carried on from his one upbringing.  Through all the challenges and difficulties in life, the family has remained supportive of one another. 

As of 2019, Johnny is the proud grandfather of four grandchildren.  He describes his grandchildren as being “bright spots” in his life.  Jamie is the mother of the two eldest and Julie the mother of the younger two.   Brennan Lassiter is his only granddaughter and the oldest of the grandchildren.  From a young age, she loved to sing and is now considered to be a beautiful singer.  In 2019 she was a contestant in the television show, The Voice.  Her younger brother, Andrew, is a more challenging “bright spot” in Johnny’s life.  He is a normal young American boy.  He loves to play video games and holds very little interest in school.  Johnny and Jan raised the two of them because of the issues that Jamie struggled within her past.  The two younger grandchildren are Jonathan and Asher.  Jonathan is nearly five years old and Asher is almost one.  Watching his grandchildren grow up brings warmth to Johnny’s life because he is able to witness his family grow in size and in love.  

As a family, they spend a lot of time together.  It is a closeness that Johnny has carried with him all of his life.  From vacations to holidays to football games, being together and enjoying each other’s company is very important to them.  The idea of love and fellowship defines the family.  Having a happy home is something that Johnny grew up in and knew that those were the values he would want on his own.  A household based on Christian morals and love came naturally and is why the family is so close.  Through all the challenges and difficulties that life threw their way, they have found a way to continue loving one another.  Life is never very easy but when there are people you know who love and care about you, it makes life worth living.


Living in the United States has led him to witness many racial issues within American society.  Racial prejudices were commonplace growing up.  It was normal to hear racial slurs within his household.  As a young boy, Johnny never seemed to follow the trends of racial divides.  He befriended a man named T.K. who was in charge of taking care of the mill houses.  T.K. was an African American man and this was 1950s America, so it was not normal for white people and black people to be close.  One day Johnny wanted to have T.K. over to have lunch.  Mrs. Evelyn agreed to have T.K. over for the meal, but he was not allowed to sit at the same table as them.  It was a situation that did not make sense to him as a young boy, and after they shared their meal Johnny asked his mother why T.K. had to sit at a different table.  She did not spew any hatred towards the man, she simply let the boy know that is how things worked.  They simply lived their lives in the same manner as everyone else during that period in history.  It did not make sense to Johnny, but there was no resisting the societal norms.

While in the ninth grade the schools began to be desegregated.  Twenty-six African American students began to attend his high school in Raleigh, North Carolina.  This would be a major turning point in the life of Johnny and how he began to consider how his actions impacted others.  While getting ready for football in the locker room a young man named Sam was attempting to find an empty locker so that he could have a place for his things.  Many people refused to have Sam have a locker near them because he was a young black man.  They were unable to let go of their biases that they had been taught their whole lives.  Johnny did what no one else was willing to do and had Sam put his locker next to his.  This simple notion of kindness budded into a genuine friendship.  The two boy’s relationship was something quite uncommon in the 1960s.  As a senior in 1966, they had an overnight trip to Greensboro, North Carolina where their glee club was going to perform.  During this trip, Johnny and Sam shared a room together which was something almost unheard of.  These small notions of friendship and kindness do not seem to be anything major, but during that time in history, they were quite brave. 

Entering into his college years Johnny found himself developing relationships with people of color.  His view on them was not solely based on the color of their skin.  These were well-educated men who had lived their whole lives being held back by the society that they were a part of.  His drawing to care and love people was only preparing him for his future, but it was not something that he had realized during the time.  With the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., there were race riots all through Raleigh.  Being a young man witnessing these terribly disturbing things left him thinking about people differently than his friends and family.  He stopped using the word nigger because he witnessed just how degrading it was to people who he truly loved and cared about.  He was drawn to African Americans, and people of color and they were drawn to him.  Removing words of hatred only strengthened his relationships because he was able to show the world that he saw everyone as people and not just their skin color.  Another simple notion that may not seem very extreme was another way of resisting the societal norms of the time. 


In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear.  America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”  In May of 1970 while attending college Johnny made a decision to join the Army National Guard.  After graduating he shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in September where he attended Basic Training.  A more comedic name of Fort Leonard Wood is Fort Lost in the Woods because it is located in the middle of nowhere.  Fort Leonard Wood is prone to severe weather.  During the warmer seasons, tornadoes and thunderstorms are common, and during the winter the ground is covered in snow.  After completing Basic Training Johnny was assigned to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana as a part of the finance unit.  While working at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Johnny became the designated Company Clerk after his First Sergeant assigned him the position.  For six years he served as the Company Clerk of the 170th Finance Company of the North Carolina National Guard. 

During his time in service, Johnny had a specific experience that stuck out to him.  It was a time that he was tasked to deliver nine hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars in cash to Fort Bragg.  The money was stored in a footlocker and delivered in a jeep.  Johnny was chosen to drive the vehicle while his friend sat next to him up front, and their captain sat in the back with the money.  While delivering the money they were escorted by an armed helicopter who followed them from above.  Before they left with all of the money, they realized that they were given too much money.  They had been given twenty-five thousand dollars too much, and without hesitation, they returned the extra money.  It was another small moral moment that Johnny instinctively reacted to by doing the right thing.  They could have taken the money and gotten away with it for a little bit of time, but eventually, it would have bitten them in the butt. 

Serving in the armed forces was an unforgettable experience that opened up many opportunities in Johnny’s life.  Coming from a small town in North Carolina, he was given an opportunity to travel to different parts of America while also being a part of something greater than himself.  Becoming a part of a unit with others who have lived through different experiences.  Lessons learned during this period in his life he was able to carry with him later in his life as a local leader and pastor.  In life there are few opportunities or paths that bring people from different walks in life together.  Military service was a good experience for Johnny and something that he looks back fondly on.

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Photos of Johnny during the 1980s as a guest to Abundant Life Church in Greenville, SC.

Salvation and Ministry

            In October of 1967, a nineteen-year-old Johnny decided to go out and adventure in drinking alcohol.  As a young man who had never had alcohol before he became drunk quite quickly.  In his own words, he was, “smashed.”  A drinking night became a day of sickness that would keep him away from drinking for the rest of his life.  The day after his night out he had to go to work out in ninety-five-degree weather at a swimming pool.  It was a period in his life before he had dedicated his life to God.  Since his mother was a Christian woman he grew up learning about Christian morals and going to church, but he had never considered himself a Christian.  One Sunday morning he felt called to change his life and become a Christian. 

            Johnny’s calling to become a teacher came to him naturally.  As a young man, he felt that he would simply become a history teacher and a baseball coach.  This path in life changed when he entered college and chose to take the personnel management route because it would lead him to a more financially stable career.  While this may have been what he felt was where his life was going to go, there was something else drawing him another direction.  He was approached by the pastor of the church to become a youth leader after being a Sunday school teacher for the youth.  His background in the glee club led to him traveling with the youth choir all over North Carolina.  In 1976 Johnny transitioned into being a part of a Christian based coffeehouse.  This business opened up opportunities for him to reach out to younger people and lead them in that ministry.  By 1985 the coffeehouse ministry had run its course and came to an end.  It was after this time that he came to South Carolina for the first time and stayed for four years.

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Photo of Johnny Baker with the God's Way band.

From 1989 to 1991 Johnny went to seminary in North Carolina because he felt God calling him to become a pastor.  After completing seminary, he became the pastor of Union Baptist Church in North Carolina.  While being a guest speaker at Abundant Life Church in Greenville, SC in 1998 tragedy struck.  Pastor Johnny Bragg suddenly passed away and Johnny Baker was left to break the news to the church.  It was a genuinely sad moment that happened so suddenly and left people upset and unsure of what would happen.  Pastor Bragg let it be known that if anything were to ever happen to him that he would like for Pastor Johnny Baker to replace him as the Senior Pastor of the church. 

Starting in January of 1999 Johnny became the Senior Pastor of Abundant Life Church.  He would remain the pastor of the church until December of 2017. Over a span of almost nineteen years, there were many things that would happen that would not only impact his life but the lives of those at the church.  During his service to the church, he concentrated on reaching out to the community. As Johnny said it, “I was trying to take the church out of the four walls of the church and into the community.” Many services that the church provided were things such as a food pantry, along with clothing, to those who needed it.  The church also started programs such as a street ministry where they would reach out to the homeless community. Another program that they provided to the community was a bus system. This bus system would go out to the poorer communities and bring children and youth to church on Wednesdays and Sundays. The majority of the children who took advantage of this program were young African American children.  Other opportunities arose during his time as a pastor that led to the church becoming half Spanish and half English. Through all the different ministries came many challenges that Johnny had to adapt not only himself to but the church as well.

After his first year as Senior Pastor came to a major event known as Y2K.  The time leading up to the year 2000 was filled with fear and people unsure of what the future held.  People were told that the computers in the world were not designed for the millennium change. In order to prepare for these people would collect gallons upon gallons of water and non-perishable foods just in case the access to grocery stores was taken away.  It was a period in history that filled with great unsureness and people were seeking out hope and support. At one point during the time leading up to Y2K Johnny was asked to go onto a local television channel and speak about the future and offered the church as a beacon of hope during the trying times.  It was during this time that the food pantry ministry became a big thing within the church. It was something that would remain once the threat of Y2K subsided.  Once the year 2000 came and the world did not shut down is was quite relieving to everyone.  Even though nothing really happened the church remained a place for people to come to for hope and peace, or even some food and water if needed.  

His first year as Senior Pastor was also filled with the challenge of growing pains within the church itself.  People had to become used to Johnny being their pastor. The church loved the founding Pastor, Johnny Bragg, and did not know what to expect in the future with Johnny Baker taking over his position.  When Johnny took over the position there were only three staff members. Within that first year, all three would move on from their positions because they struggled in accepting the different ways that Johnny did things compared to the former Pastor.  It was not an easy transition even for the members of the church who did not work there. Some could not accept the fact that Pastor Bragg was no longer there and ended up leaving. The majority of the people remained at the church, it was just a trying period.  Adapting to change is no easy task, but together the church along with Johnny was able to come together and continue on.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, the United States was struck by multiple terrorist attacks.  It is a moment in history that many Americans remembered vividly many years after.  Johnny remembers turning on the television and witnessing the first Twin Tower falling.  It was a tragedy that also became a reason for people to rally together and support each other.  The church became a beacon of hope once again as people were afraid and saddened by the attacks. There was an influx in attendance at the church for the first six months to a year after that September.  People sought out an emotional experience that would ease the pain that they had experienced.  As a leader, Johnny did what was necessary to embrace those who came to the church.  By being compassionate and caring of others he was able to ease the pain that came with tragedy.  

During the years of 2007 to 2009, the world suffered a major financial recession.  In the United States, it is called the Great Recession and was the second greatest financial crash in American history.  After years of financial issues building up the Stock Market crashed and spiraled the world into a crisis. People were unsure of the future and tended to hold onto their money.  There was a decrease in giving of money to the church because people felt that they needed to hold and save their finances. In the end, Johnny did not feel that the Great Recession had a long-lasting effect on the church.  It was during this time that Johnny’s leading abilities shined, and he created a family-like structure within his staff. He recognized that during these trying times that the staff needed to depend on and trust each other. According to Audra Amyx, who was the director of the daycare and children's pastor, there were many sacrifices made by all those who worked there, but it was something that they all did together.  It was during this challenging time that the church became closer and this was recognized by the sacrifices made by those who worked there. It was not an easy time, but through faith, love, and hope the church was able to continue being a beacon to the people.

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Johnny Baker taking a picture with Hispanic members of Abundant Life Church in 2017.

While it may be obvious that major world events would affect the church, it was something else that impacted the church’s community more than anything, and that would be a Hispanic ministry.  It began in the early 2000s when a young Hispanic couple came to Pastor Baker and asked if there was any chance that they could use an office to have Sunday school classes. Within the first couple of months, the group began to grow from ten to twelve people into twenty to thirty.  It was growing so quickly that they soon needed to use larger rooms in order to have enough space for everyone. This was the first time that Johnny had been a part of a multi-cultural ministry and it became quite an important one to the church. Through the years the amount Hispanic members began to reach into the multiple hundreds.  The church’s population grew exponentially with the coming together of English and Spanish speakers. This coming together of cultures brought up many great things along with many bad.  

Racism had seeped into the church and showed its ugly face. Many English-speaking members felt that Johnny was giving the Hispanic community more attention than them.  Some felt church was harboring illegal aliens and resented having Hispanics within the church. At one point two of the church’s deacons left because of the racial issues that they were unable to let go of.  On the other side of the coin, the Hispanic people would oftentimes not trust English speakers. They would do things to keep the two cultures divided and, in many ways, showed the very same racial tensions towards the English speakers that they felt towards the Spanish speakers.  No one was right in their racial judgments of others and it was not an easy thing for the church to adapt to. The church’s English-speaking community may have suffered slightly, but the church’s membership grew because of the influx of Hispanic people seeking out a place of worship.  At first, the cultures were divided, but over time they would come together as one. The Hispanic people would have their own services later on during Sundays, while also having different functions throughout the week. The English-speaking people would maintain the standard Sunday and Wednesday services.  Over time the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking people would have their services together.  Johnny would preach while the Hispanic pastor would translate what was being taught.  It was an experience that many people had never experienced in their lives.  To have both English and Spanish languages being used to teach those at the church.  Abundant Life Church became more accessible to more people by becoming multicultural.

Throughout Johnny’s life, there was always a calling to serve and love people.  No matter what route in life he believed he was going to do, he was constantly led elsewhere.  Everything that he had experienced throughout his life was preparing him for what was to come further on down the line.  As a young man, he resisted standard racial practices because he did not agree with them. Hating others simply based on factors that are unchangeable was something that he did not understand.  His personal experiences and schooling had taught him the skills necessary to be a leader. These skills he brought with him when becoming the Senior Pastor of Abundant Life Church. The importance of family was something that he carried on with him with his relationship with his staff and church members.  No matter what life threw his way, he always followed the path that God had set before him. In the end, he looks back at his life and career and feels that it was successful. He impacted many lives during his role as Senior Pastor and though it came to an end, it did not remove the impact that he had on the church and community.  After his nineteen years as Senior Pastor, he was relieved of his position. He did not receive any severance, he did not gain any extra pay, he was treated wrongly after all his years of service. Yet, he still loves and appreciates those people who he had led and served all those years. Johnny is a hardworking man even at the age of seventy-two and continues to lead others through his compassion and love.  His journey with the Lord continues beyond the church’s ministries.

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One last photo with the congregation of Abundant Life Church before Johnny retired.


All information was acquired through oral interviews.  The interviews can be found on the second page of this exhibit.

1) Interview with Johnny Baker

2) Interview with Audra Amyx

Pastor Johnny Baker: Leading a Community