Fr David Johnson, SJ (1938-2011)

22-06-2012 02:05 PM

Dr Nicholas Riegels

On 24 November 2011, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, Fr David Johnson, S.J., reposed in the Lord. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 73 years old. Fr

On 24 November 2011, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, Fr David Johnson, S.J., reposed in the Lord.  The cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 73 years old. Fr David led a long and distinguished career in Coptic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California. His many pupils, the Jesuit and Coptic Christian communities, and his colleagues in Coptic Studies mourned his passing.   
Born in San Francisco in 1938, David Johnson grew up in San Carlos, California.  Like many Jesuits, Fr David attended Jesuit schools himself, graduating from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose in 1956 and entering the Society of Jesus shortly thereafter. He received his seminary education at Alma College, near Los Gatos, California, and was ordained a priest in 1969.  
Following ordination Fr David enrolled in the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and went on to receive a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures in 1973.  His dissertation, The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, established Fr David’s expertise in Coptic church history, and signalled the direction of nearly 40 years of subsequent scholarly efforts.
In 1974 Fr David accepted a position as a post-doctoral fellow at Catholic University of America, and in 1978 joined the faculty as Professor of Coptic and Syriac Literatures.  From 1988 to 1995 Fr David served as Chair of the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, leading the University’s highly-regarded Program in Early Christian Studies. From 1988 to 1992 Fr David sat on the Board of the International Association for Coptic Studies, and, as Congress Secretary, helped to organize and host the Fifth International Congress of Coptic Studies, held in Washington, D.C. in 1992.
It was at the Washington, D.C. Congress that Fr David met Hany Takla, President of the St Shenouda The Archimandrite Coptic Society in Los Angeles, forging what would become a long and fruitful relationship between Fr David and the Society.  Mr Takla remembers that Fr David made him “feel very welcome” at the Congress, noting that “his reception inspired me to start the St Shenouda Center in 1992.” The Center would go on to amass one of the world’s foremost collections of Coptic manuscripts, often saving important manuscripts from destruction or sale into private hands, and becoming an invaluable resource for Coptic scholars.
In 2002 Fr David retired from Catholic University and returned to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley as Scholar in Residence; he continued to teach Coptic and Syriac to students at the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union and at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.  During this period Fr David made frequent contributions to the activities of the St Shenouda Society, travelling to the Society’s annual conference at the University of California Los Angeles to deliver several significant papers on Coptic church history.  He also continued to serve on the Editorial Board of the Catholic University of America Press, and in 2007 the Press commemorated his long tenure there with a volume composed by colleagues and former pupils entitled The World of Early Egyptian Christianity: Language, Literature, and Social Context: Essays in Honor of David W. Johnson.
Maged Mikhail, Associate Professor of History at California State University in Fullerton, notes that Fr David was the foremost expert on the history of the Coptic Church during the 200 years from the Council of Chalcedon to the Arab conquest.  Fr David’s deep knowledge of the Coptic language and his familiarity with early Coptic manuscripts allowed him to illuminate this pivotal period of Coptic Church history in rich detail, bringing the words of the Alexandrian patriarchs to life and creating indelible portraits of the Church during a period in which the Church’s preoccupation with defense of the Christian faith against heresy would come at the expense of isolation and persecution that would persist for many centuries.
Although Fr David was known to the world as an authoritative scholar, to a close circle of acquaintances he was also known as a priest and spiritual father, a devoted servant of the homeless and a warm and selfless friend.   These qualities often remained hidden behind a humble and reserved demeanor.  His longtime friend Rick Allgood remembers Fr David as “a brilliant scholar” but recalls that “he always seemed most engaged and when he was talking to the homeless.”
Homeless people in Washington, DC came to trust in Fr David’s generosity, and though he would often do their laundry, provide them with meals or help them to find housing, he would also simply sit with the homeless in the park, listening to them as they confided in him their life stories.  Notes Mr. Allgood, “he never looked down at [the homeless] for their situation in life” and was instead “awe-struck when they would share their stories of survival on the streets.”  
For Fr David, the precepts of faith were not only of scholarly interest, but of immense practical significance.  Mr Allgood remembers that if he were to warn Fr David not to give money to homeless people, as Fr David so often did, cautioning him that the money might go to alcohol or tobacco, Fr David would laugh and reply: “Maybe so, but I don’t know which one of them may be Jesus.”   Fr David’s humility and retiring manner were such that few people even inside the Jesuit community knew of his devotion to the poor.  Fr Kevin Ballard, a former pupil of Fr David, remembers that despite knowing Fr David for many years, he heard of his charitable activities only indirectly, through a mutual friend.  Fr Kevin recalls visiting Fr David’s study and finding it adorned with Coptic icons.  Notes Fr Kevin, “It was clear from where [the icons] were placed, by chair where he sat, with Bibles and prayer books, that they were doorways to prayer and the Presence of God.”
Through his scholarship, his devotion to his pupils, his service and friendship to the homeless, and his abiding kindness and humility, Fr David’s life offers a timeless example of living faith, one perhaps more reminiscent of the Alexandrian fathers he studied than of our present day.  His work endures in the students he inspired, in the body of Coptic scholarship to which he so tirelessly contributed and in the hearts of his many spiritual children who lovingly remember him as Apa David.
Nicholas Riegels, M.D., is a member of St. Shenouda The Archimandrite Coptic Society in Los Angeles and the Council for Coptic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
WATANI International
22 June 2012
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