An Unwavering Journey of Faith and Love

An Unwavering Journey of Faith and Love
Kathy Johnson Narney (Class of ‘71)

 A story about  Rev. G. T Johnson, Kodaikanal School Chaplain celebrating 72 years of the Margaret Eddy Chapel. Written by daughter Kathy Johnson Narney (Class of ‘71)

A young man just graduated from college in KY set sail for the new country of India in 1949, in answer to a call to spend three years there, under an experimental program of the American Methodist Church. [This experiment incidentally became a model for the Peace Corps a few years later]. Little did he know those three years would turn into over 40 years!

The young man, Gerhard “Gay” Johnson, was assigned to a boys’ hostel in Gujarat, where he did some teaching, some accounting, and lived among students who came from the town and surrounding villages. He came to love these students, as much as he loved teaching them, while also learning the local language and customs. After a couple of years, his college girlfriend, Ginny Wehr, took another ship to India, where they were married five days after her arrival.    

A furlough to the US included a Masters’ degree in history and training to become a pastor, after which they returned to their work in Gujarat, followed by a number of years in Poona (Pune). 

Fast forward about thirty years, and Gay and Ginny found themselves in Kodaikanal School in 1975, where their two daughters had studied and where their son was still a student.

Their move to Kodai served as the culmination of several years of Gay serving on the Steering Committee for the school, a role he embraced with his typical infectious enthusiasm. The work of this committee laid the groundwork for the movement forward for Kodai School, from a school launched to educate missionary children, into an international, global school “for the future”, albeit with Christian principles, which would expand to “meet the needs of the world.” This vision set the stage for Gay’s invitation to serve as chaplain there, as the school understood Gay’s familiarity and commitment to the direction, philosophy and objectives of the “new” Kodai School.

As chaplain, Gay not only prepared weekly sermons and worship services but also led weekly prayer groups and occasional retreats, including one for the staff at the beginning of each school year. He took seriously his role as pastor and teacher, but also as counselor, to students and staff alike, and as a friend, mentor, and chaperone (“White Potato Legs” / PJ to hikers!). He loved interacting with all the students, in class or out. He tended to walk quickly around campus – but he always had time to stop and listen. His work was complimented by his wife Ginny’s love of her own drama students, and her inexhaustible duties as hostess to students, staff, and strangers alike, their Lewis Cottage home open to any and all (including for pancake breakfasts!). All of these varied roles were evidence of Gay’s work with the Steering Committee, and his belief that the school be Christian in nature and international in flavor.

From his earliest days in India, Gay’s love for the country and her people grew, but was never exclusive, for his core belief was that to be Christian was to always be open to the culture and beliefs of others. From the early days, Gay was interested in Hindu-Christian dialogue.  And throughout their forty decades in India, the Johnsons counted among their friends Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and more.  He thus viewed his role as chaplain at Kodai in the broadest of terms, but was always informed by his faith.  His teaching of Religious Education classes expanded as he developed a curriculum that encompassed not only Bible classes, but Contemporary Philosophies; Ethics; Current Religious Thought; and World Religions.  

One of the goals stated in the Project Design of the Steering Committee for the school was that “The school community shall strive to create a climate that is marked by a…consciousness of the vital importance of social justice and concern as reflected in the development of social revolutions in the world.” This vision continued with renewed vigor, and is still a vital element of Kodai School today.  As part of that stated goal, and as chaplain-cum-teacher, Gay envisioned and implemented one-week workshops for staff and students together, led by leaders from various community development projects around India. This laid the groundwork for yet another new course, “Social Justice and Development,” as part of the social studies department, to add to the already existing (volunteer) programs to involve Kodai students in the lives of the people living in and around Kodai, and, once added to the curriculum, maintain its centrality to the new vision of the school.

During his tenure, if you were having coffee on the staff verandah during a break, you might want to be careful – for Gay Johnson might just back right into you, as he focused intently on the person he was speaking with, or as he threw his head back with his signature laugh, or as he crouched slightly, the better to make a point! This was Gay Johnson, lover of Kodai students, Good News-sharer, India-enthusiast, joke-teller, joy-giver, and ardent Kodai ambassador.

Gerhard “Gay” Johnson