Tennessean Johnny Pons ministers at university in wake of scandal
BRENTWOOD — Tennessee native Johnny Pons knows God has a sense of humor.
Reared in Hendersonville and a member of First Baptist Church there, Pons grew up around Southeastern Conference football, pulling for Vanderbilt and Alabama.
Penn State University in State College, Pa, was the “beast of the east” and Pons admitted he “hated” the school (from a football perspective).
Fast forward a few years. Pons attended Tennessee Tech in Cookeville and became immersed in the school’s Baptist Student Union (now Baptist Campus Ministry) program. He became one of the early participants in the Home Mission Board’s (now North American Mission Board) Mission Service Corps program in which volunteers raise their own support.
In 1983 Pons went to California as a semester missionary. He ended up staying until 1985 under the MSC program.
He originally had plans of becoming an agricultural missionary, but as one mentor told him, “You can’t convert cows.” At the same time, Pons saw the need for stability on college campuses in California in the campus minister position.
He attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, with the intention of some day returning to California as a campus minister.
He did so knowing he would more than likely have to raise his own support because he would be serving in a pioneer area. Unlike some folks who shy away from that idea, Pons embraced it.
As he neared graduation from Southwestern Seminary, Pons was approached about considering a position at Penn State University.
He said he was not really interested but was willing to look.
In March of 1990, Pons and his wife Kathy, made the trip to State College. When he left Fort Worth it was already in the 80s and he had a suntan from cutting grass.
Upon arriving in State College he discovered “I was not prepared for March in Pennsylvania.”
In order to get to know some of the students Pons went on a “picnic in the snow” and had a really good time. “I thought those guys were crazy, but these are my kind of people.”
On the return flight to Texas, Pons and his wife cried most of the way back. Their plans had been to go to California, but they were convicted that God was leading them to Penn State.
Other than the weather, Penn State was offering something they desired for their ministry.
“We were looking for a place that we could go and die. We wanted to stay for the long haul,” Pons said.
“We also wanted a place where we could influence a region, not just a university,” he continued, adding that Penn State offered that opportunity.
Pons observed that Penn State has a tremendous influence across Pennsylvania. “One in 70 Pennsylvanians are Penn Staters,” he observed. “We knew we could come in and hopefully influence a broader region with the gospel.”
And Pons has done that. He has completed 22 years of ministry at Penn State. Technically he is director of New Life Fellowship, the Baptist campus ministry at Penn State. “I represent Southern Baptists on campus,” he said, noting that they are a definite minority not only on campus but in the community as well.
His 22 years of ministry on campus have given him credibility which is allowing him to be able to help people on campus with the healing process that is still going on in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in which he was convicted of sexually abusing children over a number of years. In addition, several people including the late, legendary football coach Joe Paterno were cited for covering it up.
Pons noted that when the story broke last November, he was stunned. Pons not only knew Sandusky but counted him as a friend. “I never saw this coming,” he said of the sexual abuse charges.
Pons noted people have seen Sandusky as “a sullen, stone-faced, defeated” human being. That was after Nov. 6, Pons said.
Before Nov. 6 Sandusky was one of the most respected citizens in the community, known for his lighthearted and gregarious personality.
Months later — after the conviction of Sandusky, the removal of the Joe Paterno statute on campus and everything else involved with the scandal — Pons, along with others on the campus, is still trying to “process it.”
In Pons’ case, he is processing it from not only a personal and institutional level, but a ministry level as well.
At the same time he has been trying to help students process what has happened as well.
And it will continue this fall. Most students were away from campus when the statute of Paterno was removed.
Pons stressed that there is no one on campus who does not agree that what happened was clearly wrong.
But people on campus are struggling to sort out the Sandusky and Paterno they knew personally from what has come out through the courts and the Freeh Report, a university-sanctioned and funded, independent study that discovered Paterno and others in the Penn State administration covered up the scandal, Pons shared.
The situation is causing him to look more in depth into his own life.
“On the personal level, I am capable of prideful blindness to my own sin. In fact I am sure that I have my own blind spots and areas of sin that I need to deal with honestly,” Pons said candidly. He also shared those thoughts on his personal blog site (ponsanity.tumblr.com) on July 31.
He also observed that he is capable of harboring information to protect himself or those he loves.
“This is perhaps the area of the whole mess that should strike the fear of God into each of our hearts,” Pons said.
Pons shared some questions that he must address and questions that he will help students face in the coming months.
(1) How do I respond in truth and love to Jerry (Sandusky) and his family?
(2) How do I respond in a positive way to show compassion to those who are abused?
(3) How do I reflect on the whole of Joe Paterno’s life and legacy and the other men involved in this scandal. Should a person be judged by his best or worst moments.
(4) What sins do I tolerate and for what reason?
(5) Am I prepared for the same level of intense personal scrutiny that these men and Penn State have endured for the past few months?
Tough questions but Pons is ready to tackle those not only personally but with students and others who seek counsel in the months ahead.
As a minister Pons believes God has a purpose to be filled in the aftermath of the scandal.
“This scandal has touched students and community alike in a way that jars us from a business as usual pattern, and I believe there is hope for real change,” Pons said.
“I believe God has a redemptive purpose in every storm,” he continued, noting he believes God will open up people’s hearts to be receptive to the gospel.
“We have a window but it won’t stay open forever. People are wounded and it’s time to step in with the healing that only God can provide,” Pons said.
He is confident that in the wake of tragedy, what happens in the months ahead could be Penn State’s finest hour. “God does not waste any circumstance. He will open people’s hearts.”
As to the feelings he had for Penn State nearly 25 years ago, that has changed.
“We have planted our lives here and I am totally invested in this university,” Pons said with conviction.
He knows many Tennessee Baptists have prayed for him during the past few months and he requests more prayers in the days ahead.
“It (the prayers) has been encouraging. God is good and I feel that.”