Directing local youth toward Christian values for 44 years
by Larry S. Chowning
|Frances Johnston at Lower United Methodist Church|
Frances Johnston has been the youth director of Lower United Methodist Church in Hartfield for 44 years. This Sunday, October 7, Lower Church and the county will celebrate Johnston’s long and dedicated service to the local youth and to the community. There will be a “floating reception” in Lower’s social hall from noon-4 p.m. in honor of Johnston. The public is invited.
Johnston, 80, was born and raised in Wilton near Hartfield where her father, Armstead Payne, ran a country store. “It was a real country store that was an important part of the Wilton community,” she said. “At night time, all the men around the neighborhood came, sat around that coal stove, and talked until about 9:30 p.m. Then, everyone went home,” she said.
Johnston was a member of the first graduating class of Middlesex High School in Saluda in 1950. She has a class ring from Saluda High School (SHS) and a diploma from Middlesex High School (MHS). SHS was closed and MHS was opened in the 1949-50 school year.
Her family was traditional Methodist, and Johnston joined Lower Church when she was 12 years old. Her mother was married in the church. She was married in Lower Church in 1950, and her daughter Helen was married there too.
“I started working with youth when my daughter Helen was around 13 years old,” said Mrs. Johnston. “The minister at Lower came to me and said, ‘I want you to take the kids to Blackstone.’ I’d never gone to Blackstone, so I told him I didn’t know how to get there. He said, ‘I’ll draw you a map.’ ”
Since then, every year Mrs. Johnston has carried youth to the annual Methodist youth conference at Blackstone. “Our youth program is very good,” she said modestly. “I’ve done it all these years because I love the youth and I’ve enjoyed watching them grow.
“I felt this is what God wanted me to do with my life,” she said. “The thing about it is the fact the children have not forgotten. I’m amazed when people come up to me and thank me for the contributions I’ve made to their lives.
“Sometimes former youth come up to me and thank me for something—I don’t remember what they are referring to but they remember something that happened in the youth group 30 years ago that impacted their lives.
“It gives me a good feeling and just re-enforces what I already know—that the time I’ve worked with the youth at Lower has been time well spent,” she said.
Mrs. Johnston said her fondest memories are of the Blackstone youth trips. Also, she was instrumental in starting a youth choir that her grandson, Aaron Ward, first spearheaded at Urbanna United Methodist Church. The choir has grown to be the regional “York River District Youth Choir” and Mrs. Johnston continues to be involved in it.
Mrs. Johnston has been secretary at Urbanna United Methodist Church for 15 years. “I’ve been so fortunate to have two church families. A church is not about a building. It’s about the people, and there are wonderful people at Lower and Urbanna.”
Carlton Revere of Hartfield was in Mrs. Johnston’s youth group some years ago. “I was one of those who definitely profited from spending time with Frances as a youth,” he said. “Frances was never afraid to get you involved, where as a youth you might be timid about your beliefs, in trying to navigate what your beliefs really are. She always pointed us in the direction of the church and Christian morals. She laid a strong foundation for the lives of so many youth. She deserves all the accolades that she receives.”
Rev. Steve Wells of Winchester was the state youth director in the 1990s. Mrs. Johnston was the Rappahannock District Coordinator. They met at that time. “All four of her grandchildren, Aaron, Rosabeth, Helen Elizabeth and Jacob, served as key youth leaders in our Virginia Conference and that’s how I got to know the family,” said Rev. Wells.
“I will simply say to you from the bottom of my heart that Frances is one of the most passionate and most dedicated persons when it comes to youth and UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship). She is incredibly loving and nurturing and an outstanding role model for our youth.
“She is so full of energy and passion,” said Rev. Wells. “She has led many a young person to Christ, and has sacrificed much over her life.”