Photo by Brandon Hook, concept by TJ Lee

Photo by Brandon Hook, concept by TJ Lee

The Road He Had to TRAVEL

Published in June 2015, FULLER magazine

A man, a woman, and two small children loaded their belongings into a Chevy pickup in December of 1980 and prepared for a drive that would change their lives. Needing a break in the middle of a mission assignment, 24-year-old Johnny Ramírez-Johnson wanted to deepen his theological training, and he knew exactly where he wanted that to happen. So for the next three weeks, he and his young family drove from their home in Alajuela, Costa Rica, to Pasadena, California. They landed at Fuller’s Guest Center with $60 and, Johnny says, a “magic formula of faith, inexperience, and testosterone” to secure the way ahead of them. 

Raised in Puerto Rico in a spiritualist household, Johnny has always had a life faith and risk. Though he was named by his grandmother as the inheritor to the spirits in his family line of mediums, Johnny and his older brother and sister began learning about Christianity instead through the local Seventh-day Adventist church. As their curiosity grew into true faith, confrontations between the children, their father, and their paternal grandparents also grew, escalating to physical violence and threats of murder if the boys did not turn from their newfound faith. Johnny and his brother knew there would be no end to the abuse, so they pleaded for help from their mother—a neutral, non-religious bystander. One fateful night, in the pre-dawn dark, 14-year-old Johnny, his mother, brother, and sister fled from their abusive home, never to return. “I left at 5 a.m.,” he says, “toothbrush in my pocket and the clothes on my back.”

Nine years later, with a master’s degree from Andrews University in Michigan, Johnny was assigned by the Seventh-day Adventist church to a six-year appointment in Costa Rica to teach theology. But his first summer, he found himself instead engaged in “three very noble tasks that had nothing to do with religion and the study of the Old Testament and Hebrew”: painting school desks and classrooms and cutting sugar cane. Johnny served faithfully, and was rewarded the following summer with the same jobs. That was when he applied for a three-month unpaid furlough, and packed his bags for that revolutionary 3,600-mile road trip.

When asked why he wanted to make such a formidable journey to Fuller 30 years ago, Johnny talks of life-changing books written by Fuller faculty members that he read in seminary. He recalls hearing of dialogue at Fuller about controversial topics—topics that divided the Christian community at the time. “It called me, it inspired me. It felt like that was the place to be—with people who take a stance and are willing to make such statements!” Even at such a young age, Johnny believed he could somehow join this community.  “All you need is the desire,” he told himself. “Things will fall into place. Somehow it will happen.” 

The Ramírez-Johnson family drove through raw territory held by guerillas, insurgents, and rebels. They drove through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and all of Mexico, crossing the U.S. border into McAllen, Texas. There they hung a left and traveled the I-10 through the Southwest to reach Pasadena. Simple. “I had not been admitted to Fuller. I had no money when I arrived—I used the $60 I had in my pocket to pay for our first night at the Guest Center, and then we were out of money.” With the help of fellow Seventh-day Adventists and the State of California, the young family of four found temporary lodging and some government assistance for living expenses, and Johnny took as many classes as he could cram into a quarter.

Reflecting on that time brings a smile to Johnny’s face. The opportunity to broaden his horizons and deepen his understanding of the Bible was life-giving and compelled him to continue his studies. Despite opportunities to stay at Fuller and work toward a PhD, Johnny knew that he had a duty to honor his commitment to the mission, so in March of 1981, the Ramírez-Johnson family returned to Costa Rica—this time by airplane, funded by the sale of that trusty Chevy truck.

Thirty-three years later, in 2014, with three grown children, two grandchildren, and two more on the way, the well-respected scholar Dr. Johnny Ramírez-Johnson returned to Pasadena to join the faculty of the School of Intercultural Studies. It was long journey, this one measured in years instead of miles. Those years are full of stories of that same “magic formula” of faith, inexperience, and testosterone tempered by years of waiting and being faithful. Now, at 57, with a bit more experience under his fedora, Johnny reflects on the young man who visited Fuller so many years ago: “I still see myself as that boy. That’s a problem, isn’t it? Because I don’t look that way!” 

Pointing to himself, he says, “That 24-year-old is the one right here. It is the same person. I don’t feel more mature. I don’t feel more accomplished. I feel the same sense of awe and privilege. The Lord had a road that I had to travel to prepare me for this stage of my life in ministry. It took some time, but that boy returned to Fuller.”