Across Pacific Magazine


By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA (ANS) -- In the Sixties he didn’t shave or cut his hair for three years. During the Summer of Love he tried LSD to cure his opiate addiction. After several incarcerations and hospitalizations the State of Texas declared he was untreatable—until he found another cure.

“At 18 I knew I had a serious problem with opiates,” says Ray Johnson, 62. Today, this conservatively dressed and articulate director for Global Ministry Teams gives no outward hint of his disordered past. He grew up in an upper middle class family in Dallas with “two kids, two cars, and two TVs” that always seemed to have enough money. But it all began to unravel during the turbulence of the 1960s.

In his teens, Johnson admits he had too much time on his hands and not enough parental supervision. His father was a World War II vet who was highly patriotic, but had problems controlling alcohol. Following in dad’s footsteps, Johnson started experimenting with alcohol himself, as well as amphetamines. Then he got hooked on codeine by abusing cough medicine. He would spend the next 10 years wrestling with an opiate addiction developed through the misuse of medications.

Forsaking college, he headed west to Colorado at 17, and began to experiment with psychedelic drugs. “We thought LSD was a cure-all,” Johnson says. “I looked at it as a way to get clean and sober.” Psychedelics didn’t satiate his craving, so he kept enough opiates in his system to maintain a measure of stability.

“In 1968 I came back to Texas and did some petty crimes,” Johnson says. He had several arrests for minor possession of drugs as well as shoplifting. “I was hanging out with some bad dudes,” he notes. “I was white and middle class, so I was somewhat on the periphery. They were serious street-level heroin addicts.”

Some of Johnson’s friends went to prison for two years after being caught with small amounts of marijuana. “A judge took mercy on me,” Johnson notes, “and I ended up in a state hospital. The hospital was the notorious Texas State hospital for the Insane, built in the 1860s. “It was an archaic, dark, and depressing place,” he says. Johnson spent 140 days in the detox unit of the facility.

Like a dog returning to his vomit, Johnson went right back to drugs upon his release. The addictive cycle—with repeat visits to the hospital, continued three times until he struck out. The State of Texas labeled Johnson a “passive aggressive sociopath with a chronic alcohol-narcotic withdrawal syndrome.”

“They kicked me out,” Johnson says. Health workers marked his file: “Untreatable—Do not readmit.”

This launched Johnson on a multi-year escapade coinciding with the hippie movement. “I migrated to San Francisco and was involved in the Summer of Love,” he says. “I lived on the streets during the hippie era.”

“I didn’t cut my hair or shave for three years,” he adds.

Johnson remained a vagabond until he was 25. “You must remember there were hundreds of thousands of hippies in a massive migration all the time,” he notes. “That helped me to stay invisible.”

He had little contact with his family during this period. His mother had tried to get in touch with him during his hospitalizations. His father, a card-carrying member of ‘the greatest generation,’ maintained his distance. “Dad viewed people like me as a real disaster.”

Several years later on one of Johnson’s forays back to Texas, he landed in a drug unit at San Antonio Hospital. His parents called Rev. Irvin Rutherford, the founder of San Antonio Teen Challenge, and asked if he could go see their son. It was their last hope.

“The hospital had me under surveillance and sedation both,” says Johnson. “Rutherford walked into that hospital room and presented the gospel to me,” he recalls. He also left Johnson with a copy of “The Cross and the Switchblade,” by Dave Wilkerson.

There were a few obstacles to Johnson’s receptivity to Rutherford’s message. “I really had the attitude I was too far gone—once a dope fiend always a dope fiend,” Johnson says. He imagined his drug use was in the tradition of highly-gifted historical figures like Edgar Allen Poe or Eugene O’Neill. “I vacillated between thinking I was different or special versus a scum-bag and dope fiend.”

Johnson had also filled his mind with nihilistic philosophers and some of the writers fueling the radicalism of the day such as Herbert Marcuse. “I was very anti-establishment,” he says. Sitting on Johnson’s nightstand in the hospital was Bertrand Russel’s book: “Why I Am Not A Christian.”

When Rutherford left his room, Johnson picked up the book left by the minister and gingerly began to peruse it. As he read more and more and as the night progressed, some light began to penetrate his mind. “It strongly impacted me,” Johnson recalls, but in a way that left him restless and disturbed.

Afraid Rutherford might come back the next day, Johnson pulled the tubes from his arm and nose and snuck out of the hospital. He managed to make his way to the small town of Seguin, Texas, thinking he could hide there for several days. But he didn’t realize he had a hound on his heels.

“Rutherford found me two or three days later,” Johnson recalls. Rutherford brought help with him this time, another member of Teen Challenge named Manual Valdez. “Valdez looked like the streets—he was covered with tattoos and scars,” Johnson recalls. This put Johnson’s rebel streak at ease. But he was bothered by the fact that they both kept saying things like: “Hallelujah; Praise the Lord.”

“I didn’t understand people like that,” Johnson says. “I thought Christians were dull and vacuous. I thought Christianity was for people who don’t think,” he says. “I also wanted to justify my own behavior. I didn’t want to acknowledge God, because if there is a God he might examine the shape I was in.”

The two men drove Johnson to a missionary home in Laredo. When they left to attend to some ministry business, Johnson started feeling ill from the effects of narcotics withdrawal. “I had $30 in my pocket and I thought if I could just make it to Mexico I would be OK,” he recalls. When he heard the men return, he decided to sneak down the back stairs.

“I was going down the stairs and Valdez was coming up the stairs,” Johnson says. Suddenly Johnson felt nauseous and his face turned green. “I vomited from the withdrawal—and gravity was on my side,” he says. The ugly projectile spattered Valdez from his knees to the soles of his polished leather shoes.

“Valdez was street smart and I thought we would fight,” Johnson says. “I was afraid because I didn’t feel well.” As Valdez took off his shirt, Johnson thought about hitting him.

Then Valdez did something unexpected. “He took his shirt off and wiped my mouth and set me down,” Johnson says. Then he took his shoes off and went upstairs. “In a moment he came back with a wet cloth and a towel and began to clean me up.” Then Valdez took Johnson into his arms and carried him down the stairs and laid him on a couch.

“I thought, ‘Who are these people?’” Several gathered around Johnson and began to pray for him. One read from the Book of James: “Is any among you sick…” Johnson could see they took the verse literally, as they prayed and anointed his head with oil. “I had no investment in this—I thought they were crazy.”

But just then something happened that changed his life. “God dramatically touched my life at that moment,” Johnson recalls. He was overwhelmed by a revelation of the knowledge of God and surrendered as God’s spirit fell on him. Johnson was born again. “I had a radical revelation,” he says. “The message I got was: ‘You’d better pay attention because God just touched your life.’”

Johnson entered an 18-month discipleship program run by Teen Challenge. “I wasn’t an overnight success,” he says, recalling the time he stole a stereo from the chapel where the program was run. “They showed me extreme patience and a lot of love. It took me 2 ½ years before I had any trustworthiness in me.”

In 1970 he entered a Bible college in San Antonio. After graduation, the State of Texas offered him a job at the Vernon Project for Drug Dependant Youth doing drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The irony is not lost on Johnson. “The same system that said I was untreatable in 1968 employed me in 1972.”

A decade later he attended seminary in Berkeley and was ordained American Baptist. He applied to the missions board of the denomination, but was told he was too old to go overseas. He spent the next few years doing parish ministry and working with drug addicts.

“In 1993 we attended a service in Houston and there was a plea made for drug and alcohol workers in Vietnam.” Johnson and his wife, Laverne, went forward in tears. “We jumped through all the hoops and spent the next couple years raising support,” he says.

Today Johnson is a director for Global Ministry Teams in Southeast Asia. Operating from his home in Malaysia, he and his team do humanitarian aid work and drug rehabilitation throughout the region.

Heroin is inexpensive and readily available all over Southeast Asia, according to Johnson. “It’s so cheap they can smoke it through a straw,” he says, a practice referred to as ‘chasing the dragon.’ Despite this, some still use hypodermic syringes, which increase the spread of HIV infection.

“The church in Southeast Asia is healthy and understands its responsibility in the world,” Johnson notes. “They are sending missionaries all over the world,” he says. “It’s exciting to be on that side of the world. There’s a fervor that’s a genuine anointing of the Holy Spirit.”

Johnson marvels when he considers the changes God brought to his life. “I’m not the man I used to be—that man seems alien to me,” he says. “I’m a new person in Christ.”

Mark Ellis is a Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service. He is also an assistant pastor in Laguna Beach, CA. Contact Ellis at

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