Norm and Ann Johnson are newlyweds with a history together that goes back nearly 30 years.
Norm, who is well-known in the Grace Brethren Fellowship as a pastor and missionary to Brazil, is assistant pastor at the Grace Brethren Church of Ashland, OH, where Dan Allan is pastor.
Grace Brethren people all over the world were mobilized to pray for Norm and his wife, Cleo, when she was diagnosed in March of 2003 with malignant tumors in the brain and lungs. After nearly 18 years since her first bout with cancer, Cleo had thought she was free of the dreaded disease.
But it came back, with a vengeance, while the Johnsons were vacationing with their children and grandchildren in Florida that March.
As Cleo’s physical condition deteriorated, thousands followed her journals and the family postings on the website www.cleo.homestead.com, which remain viewable yet today.
She went to be with the Lord on May 22, 2003.
But in her final days, Cleo expressed her conviction to her husband, Norm, that he needed a new ministry partner-a wife-after she had left this life. And her choice was Ann Nichols, a long-time friend whose husband, Jim, had also lost his life to cancer about five years earlier.
Norm knew Ann. He’d been Jim’s college friend and a groomsman at their wedding in 1972.
‘Are You Sitting or Standing?’
Now, with his beloved Cleo in the presence of the Lord, Norm followed through on his wife’s unselfish request and placed a call to Ann, who was living in Florida.
“Are you sitting or standing?” he asked. “I would advise you to sit.”
And so he explained the situation to Ann and expressed his desire to begin communicating with her. Although Ann said the call was “overwhelming and totally unexpected,” she nevertheless responded favorably. God had, after helping her heal from her own loss, begun to put an openness in her heart to start dating again.
Each had two married young adult children, and all of them responded favorably. The new Florida-Ohio romance advanced quickly via cellphone, e-mail, prayer and visits-and Norm and Ann were married a little over a year ago.
Dan Allan, senior pastor of the Ashland church, remarks, “Cleo was dearly loved by the people here, and her death had a deep impact on the church. Cleo’s last days were a powerful example of a believer’s hope and strength.”
Allan admits that some in the church were concerned when Norm’s relationship began while many were still grieving. But a family interview during a morning worship service answered many questions and Allan says, “From the minute Ann showed up in Ashland, we all found out why she came so highly recommended. She is a delightful and godly woman and people quickly fell in love with her.”
“It’s an incredible story,” Allan continued. “It is not necessarily the path I’d recommend to every recently-widowed person. But God worked outside of the box on this one!”
Finally Using the Passport
The other part of the story is Ann’s longtime desire to have more involvement in intercultural missions. She had taught missions to preschoolers for 23 years and always wanted to visit a foreign country, but never had the opportunity.
So, widowed for five years, self-employed and living in Florida in 2003, she decided to get a passport in the event that some mission opportunity developed. When the passport questionnaire asked for a destination country, she-not really having any specific plans-wrote down “Brazil.”
Norm, who had graduated from Grace Theological Seminary and joined the staff of the Ashland church under former pastor Knute Larson, had felt called in the mid-1970s to Brazil. For 12 years Norm served with Grace Brethren International Missions in Brazil in church-planting, alongside his Brazilian wife, Cleo.
Ann, through circumstances she could never have imagined, finally had opportunity to use her passport to Brazil this past year, when a team from the Ashland church went to Uberlandia, Brazil. The team built a chapel for a new Brazilian church, and Ann met people Norm had led to the Lord years before when serving as a missionary.
And Ann got to meet Cleo’s ninety-three-year-old mother, Olga.
Now Norm and Ann serve together in the Ashland church, where Norm occasionally has opportunity to use his experience and Portuguese language skills to minister to people in the northern Ohio community.
Ann serves on the church’s mission commission, leads a Bible study, and works with toddlers on Wednesday nights.
How hard has the transition been? Easier than one might expect, says Ann, with a warm smile. “It’s been an easy transition,” she says. “That’s how you know it’s a God thing!”
Some material for this article was taken from an article in the Spring, 2005 issue of “Grace Focus,” the church newsletter of the Ashland (OH) Grace Brethren Church.