Mary Johnson’s first international mission trip to Mexico led her to change her major—and marked a turning point in her life.
During spring break of her freshman year at Pacific Union College, Mary and the Korean Club partnered with Maranatha Volunteers International to help build a church in Guamúchil, Sinaloa, in Northwestern Mexico. She said she had several “real conversations” with local residents about how wonderful it is to work for God and decided to switch her major from liberal studies to Spanish.
Another memory from the trip made an indelible impact. “I will never forget that last night, as we fellowshipped together in the newly built church. A young girl came up to me and said in Spanish, ‘There will always be a place for you in Guamúchil,’” Mary recalled. “While I have yet to return to that little church we built, there has always been a place for me in missions.”
Indeed, since that trip nearly two decades ago, Mary has served on almost 70 mission trips locally and worldwide. She first graduated from PUC in 1999 with a degree in Spanish and later earned her master’s degree in education in 2001. After college, she spent a year as a missionary in Puerto Rico as a fourth- to sixth-grade social studies teacher. Mary even took a year off from her career as a high school Spanish teacher to go on as many mission trips as possible. She went on 18 trips in just 13 months.
Nearly half of Mary’s trips and projects have been with Maranatha, and she’s come to feel like the members—from all over the world—are family.
The leadership of Steve Case, the longtime director of many multi-group and summer family projects for the organization, has particularly impacted Mary. She described Case as organized, patient, congenial, and composed—but most of all, submissive to the Lord’s will. Through his example, she learned that God is the true leader of any mission trip, and it’s most important to surrender to His leading.
Case says Mary’s strong commitment to Christ stands out. Mary “devotes her life to loving God and serving others,” he said. “She’s a woman of conviction and action that matches her conviction.”
One of the best things about Mary is that she makes things fun. Ask anyone what’s most memorable about Mary, and high on that list is her wonderful laugh.
“It’s spontaneous,” Case said, “and it jump-starts a group or changes a potentially tense moment into a fun time.”
Mary loves mission work for many reasons—for the people she meets and the experience of being in other cultures and countries. But, she said, there is one sole purpose for all of her trips—spreading the gospel around the world to hasten Jesus’ return.
For Mary, mission trips remind her that everywhere she goes is a mission field. While doing errands near her school in Brentwood or home in Antioch, California, she leaves tracts and magazines at gas pumps, ATMs, or on car door handles.
Along with her sister, Angel Johnson, ‘93, who has also served as a missionary on nearly a third of her trips, Mary enjoys volunteering locally. They’ve worked at the Concord church food bank, sent shoe box gifts through Operation Christmas Child, and prepared care packages for delivery to missionary friends in the Philippines.
Mary’s mission work has ranged from construction projects and landscaping to translating and even preaching. In addition to Maranatha, she’s worked with Build and Restore, The Quiet Hour, Broken Chains for Humanity, and Amazing Facts, among many others.
But where she finds the most joy is working with children’s ministries.
Children’s ministries usually include leading Vacation Bible School, which Mary does, but Case said she does so much more. She has the “attitude and practice of jumping right into things,” which he said results in lots of “activity and progress.” Mary always immerses herself in neighborhoods, schools, homes, and parks—wherever there are kids.
Mary’s last meeting with every group of children—no matter what country she is in—is the same. Together, she and the children make crowns and talk about heaven. She reminds them that no matter where they are in the world—be it Zambia, Mexico, or the Philippines—they will all see Jesus coming at the same time.
With tears in her eyes, Mary tells them she looks forward to meeting them in the air on that glorious day—a day when her lifelong mission is fulfilled and she and so many others she’s ministered to will go home to live with Jesus forever.
By Laura Gang
Here are three of Mary’s favorite memories, in her own words, from her children’s ministries around the world:
India: “I led children’s ministry there for hundreds of kids at a time—ranging from preschool to sixth grade—all in the school auditorium. I taught them about the power of prayer—that it’s a two-way street. It’s not just us talking to God; we need to listen too. So when we prayed, we had some moments of silence to hear God speak. Even with hundreds of kids, you could hear a pin drop as we listened for God’s voice.”
Mexico: “I did a children’s program while the adults were in the evangelistic series. I had a small group, so I could get to know the kids. At the end of the week, a child gave me a teddy bear. At first, I did not want to accept the gift, but the child insisted. I didn’t want the child to miss out on the blessing of giving, so I finally accepted it and have kept it to this day.”
Philippines: “I just fell in love with this little 3-year-old boy. He loved to sing with me and sit on my lap at church. However, I do not speak Visayan, and he didn’t know very much English. He would talk to me in Visayan, and I would talk to him in English. Then one day, an older child told him, ‘Teacher Mary only speaks English.’ His eyes brightened, and he began exclaiming ‘Dolphin!’ ‘Doggie!’ and other words he knew in English. I long for the day when I will see him again, and we will speak the same language—the language of heaven.”