Northwest Son Gives Back to His Community

October 25, 2018

If you followed Terry Johnsson around for a few days, you’d be out of breath. Terry is a self-generated whirlwind of activity, personal interactions and community connections. In his current role as vice president of mission integration with the Pacific Northwest region office of Adventist Health based in Portland, Oregon, Terry has come full circle, back to the community where he was raised. But few then could have remotely imagined the journey he’s been on since those early years.

Growing up as a child in Portland, Terry was a human conundrum. While his young friends watched cartoons, Terry soaked up the latest news from television commentators. Yet, he struggled with academic learning in school. Often he heard others describe him as stupid or slow when the words of reading assignments or tests swam before his eyes.  

But a praying mother and several dedicated teachers kept a vague dream alive in Terry’s heart that God had a plan for him, that there was something special in his future.

When Terry, with no immediate options for college, joined the Air Force, he was the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Faced every day with his repeated failures to meet the military expectations of his superiors, Terry persevered, powered by the prayers of family and friends around the country. But then, an unexpected twist of Providence changed the course of his life.

It came in the form of two watershed experiences. First, on a whim, Terry tried out for the White House honor guard. Against all odds, the young man who had been ridiculed as “Gomer” by his military colleagues won a coveted spot there, serving under three presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

He recalled the words of his Grandma Settles who had once waxed prophetic. "Terry," she said, "I have a feeling that one day you will find yourself dining with the president of the United States." Terry estimates in less than four years he met more heads of state than any member of Congress.

But something else, perhaps of even greater importance, had come to light in Terry’s integration into the Air Force. His academic demons had a rational diagnosis — dyslexia. Terry finally had a reason for his longtime struggles, something that could be managed. He wasn’t dumb. Academic learning had been slow and difficult because of those scrambled signals. It was like an electric jolt, jumpstarting Terry on additional pathways to excellence.

Advancing beyond his military stint and a successfully completed college education at Oakwood University, Terry moved more directly into ministry. He served as a pastor back in his hometown of Portland, then was called to return to Washington, D.C., ministering at the Sligo Church. While there, he also became the “radio pastor” of WGTS, the fastest-growing Christian radio station in the market.  And, by the way, the old dyslexia problem didn’t stop Terry from progressing through a master’s degree program at La Sierra University and finishing the necessary requirements at Wesley Theological Seminary to become Dr. Terry Johnsson.

Back in Portland now, Terry’s life hasn’t slowed down. In his current role with Adventist Health, he works to build community connections with agencies like the Portland Rescue Mission and its related shelters. "I think if Jesus were here today in Portland," Terry reflects, "He would be a social worker. He would be out there helping the needy, the homeless, and reaching out to people."

Terry continues to live out that example in differing ways. He hosts a regular prayer line and program on local Christian radio, guides local chaplains and continues to speak around the world. He’s married to his best friend, Kara, who is an associate pastor for the Sunnyside hurch in Portland. They are proud parents to a canine dependent, Gipper, an energetic, mostly obedient boxer.

From his roller coaster ride of life, Terry has become a community connector throughout Portland and beyond for Adventist Health’s mission of living God’s love by inspiring health, wholeness and hope. For him, it’s not just a carefully crafted statement. Health, wholeness and hope have become central to his own journey by God’s grace. "Sometimes when I look in the mirror," he says, "I still see that second-grade dyslexic boy and I just wonder, 'Lord, how in the world am I doing what I'm doing.' There's a Bible verse that always comes to mind when I start feeling that I am not adequate, and it is, 'In our weaknesses God makes us strong.' I feel so blessed that He chose to use this broken vessel, called Terry Johnsson, because I had a willing heart to bring the glory to Him."

Terry was honored recently to receive the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the city of Portland. Terry, Kara and Gipper live right in the heart of the city, where they can have daily and direct contact with the people to whom God has led them. It’s the hometown where Terry’s future once seemed dim, but where God’s promises continue now to blossom beyond his wildest dreams.