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Retired pastor finds life in midst of fire tragedy

The Rev. Dudley Johnson shows Bishop Mary Ann Swenson the ruins of his home after an Oct. 22 wildfire raced through the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego. 
UMNS photos by Larry R. Hygh Jr.

By Larry R. Hygh Jr.*
Nov. 6, 2007 | SAN DIEGO (UMNS)

When the Rev. Dudley Johnson awoke at 4 a.m., coughing from what he thought was an asthma attack, he looked out his window to see flames and smoke creeping up the hill behind his home.

The retired United Methodist pastor roused his family and went next door to awaken his 80-year-old neighbor. They gathered their family pets and piled into an old car that was big enough to hold everyone, and fled.

Five minutes after their departure in the early morning of Oct. 22, their Rancho Bernardo neighborhood house burned to the ground. The Johnsons lost everything, including a new car left in the driveway.

The Johnsons plan to rebuild on the site of their former home.

"I lost everything, and I have everything," said Johnson.

His wife, Janet, who is pursuing a master's degree, lost her thesis and research, two years in the writing. But Mrs. Johnson is focusing on what matters most.

"What is most important for me is the love I have for my husband, and the love my husband gives me," she said. "The love I have for my children and the love my children give me. The love I have for my family, my friends, my co-workers, who are also my friends, I still have all of that."

The Johnsons had not received an evacuation order and did not have time to gather important personal items when the wind-driven fires moved into their area. "We had three to five minutes to save our lives," he said.

While the family lost precious heirlooms and photos, Janet Johnson says "photos are only triggers of memories of what my parents used to look like, what my children used to look like." Her parents are deceased, but she said, "I look in my son’s face, I look in my daughter’s face, and there they are. I look in the mirror, and there they are.

"What we lost are just symbols of all the things that are so important in our lives that mean so much and we still have those. We still have our memories," she said.

“I lost everything, and I have everything.”
–The Rev. Dudley Johnson

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, resident bishop of the Los Angeles area, visited with Rev. Johnson in the ashes of his former home. They were accompanied by the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, United Methodist Committee on Relief; the Rev. Myron Wingfield, San Diego District Superintendent; and the Rev. Dave Horning, California-Pacific Conference Disaster Response Coordinator.

Among the burned treasures was a photo taken by his mother of Johnson and three classmates from the Claremont School of Theology graduating class of 1975. Swenson was part of that class.

At the close of a worship service the night before, Swenson invited Johnson and the two other pastors in that photo to come forward to take a new picture of the four of them. That new picture will hang in the Johnsons' new home. Johnson said the family plans to rebuild on the same site.

"We have faith and trust and love with one another. United Methodists are about love and care; we know life in Christ always triumphs over death, for death in never the final word," he said.

Mrs. Johnson added, "We’re not put here to have a good time. We’re not put here to live in comfort. We’re put here so that we can honor God through our service to one another."

*Hygh is director of communications for the United Methodist California-Pacific Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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