A bizarre attack forever changed Johannes Christian’s life and brought him close to the God who forgives
Dr. Johannes Christian was a mess on the way to the prison. He’d be happy and then he’d cry. His spirits would soar, then fear would take hold deep inside. “It was like going to my own funeral,” he says.
He was scared—and no wonder. He was about to meet the kid who tried to kill him, who threw a rock from a highway overpass that slammed right into Christian’s face as he cruised in his Cadillac on an Ohio interstate one night in July 2001.
The seven-pound rock crashed through the windshield and pulverized every bone in Christian’s face, “turning them to sawdust,” he says, immediately taking out one eye and blinding the other. The impact essentially took off his face. Blood and pieces of bone were splattered everywhere.
The Columbus Ohio pastor would have been dead if it weren’t for the adrenaline-fueled actions of his 16-year-old foster son Brian, who somehow maneuvered into the driver’s seat, disengaged the cruise control, and steered the car to safety. He dialed 9-1-1 while Christian bled profusely from his wounds.
Christian clung to life in a Dayton, Ohio, hospital, unable to see, unable to speak. He was so disfigured, his own son didn’t recognize him at first. “That’s not my dad,” George Christian III said, unable to look at the broken body laid before him.
Thirty surgeries later, Christian had a reconstructed face–“They made me look like Denzel,” he jokes–but his life was irrevocably changed. He was permanently blind. He couldn’t see his grandchildren or his daughter in her gorgeous wedding dress. He had every reason to spit hatred at this young man, who dabbled in satanic worship and boasted to his friends that he hoped to hit someone that night.
“You know you don’t have to go through with this. We can turn around at any time.” Bishop Fred L. Marshall of Smyrna Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio comforted his friend in ministry as they drove to the state prison where Jacob McNary, Christian’s attacker, was serving a 12-year sentence for attempted murder.
When they rolled up to the prison, Marshall asked again. “You sure?”
“I think so,” Christian replied.
Counselors posed the same questions: Do you want to do this? Do you want to meet the man who nearly killed you? You don’t have to. Really, it’s no trouble.
Christian ignored the whirl of emotions and pushed ahead.
Marshall and Christian stepped into a small room furnished with a table and chairs. Christian took a seat and waited while guards and counselors stood by, and he sensed the Holy Spirit settle his heart. “The emotions just shifted from utter fear to being at peace,” Christian recalls.
When guards ushered in McNary and sat him down across the table, Christian could sense his presence; he knew precisely where the young man had rested his hands before he even spoke. He’d discovered that about his blindness: God, and his body, would compensate in strange and uncanny ways for the loss of sight.
The men exchanged small talk, about their families, and how they were doing. That was one of Christian’s goals—he wanted McNary, 15 at the time of the attack, to know that the man he’d struck with the rock was a real person. A pastor, father, and grandfather, a man who’d strived for years as a foster parent and social worker to salvage some of Ohio’s most wayward teen boys.
Then they took a break. When the prisoner returned, the mood shifted. “Dr. Christian, I just have to say something,” McNary said. “I have to get this out.”
“OK,” Christian said.
“I’ve been telling people that I didn’t know what would happen when I was up on that bridge. And I need to be honest with you. That’s a lie. I knew that I could have killed someone, and that’s what I was trying to do.”
Christian was silent for a moment. He raced to get a grip on himself, to hold his composure. Then he spoke, in calm, measured words.
“I want to thank you for your level of honesty,” he said, “because I didn’t ever believe you didn’t know that you could have killed somebody. But what I really want you to know is that I still forgive you for what you tried to do.”
Christian reached across the table and grasped the young man’s hand, guided by his “blind senses.” The hand was warm.
“It was like a freeing moment,” Christian says today. “Because we were at rock bottom emotionally, so there was nowhere to go but up. I remember at the end of the visit, before they took him out, we did embrace.
“When we left, we were at peace. We encouraged each other—and that’s what I wanted to be, an encouragement. We left willing each other to go on with life.”
Christian’s encounter with McNary brought a measure of freedom to both men, but in reality, the pastor was already free—on the inside,
where he’d fought a long and extremely difficult battle to forgive.
Today, Dr. Johannes Christian, 62, who still leads Adoration and Peace Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, travels and speaks about his journey to forgiveness—and reminds us that Jesus didn’t present forgiveness as an option; it is a command. Christian’s book, The Face of Forgiveness, written with J.C. Phillips, chronicles that journey. The Full Gospel Baptist pastor traveled to Dallas recently to give his testimony in churches and on television.
Sure, Christian had preached multiple sermons about forgiveness. He knew the Scriptures. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. But it wasn’t until he lay in the hospital confronting his vastly changed life that he understood the cost of forgiveness—that the Jesus Christ in him was requiring this thing of him, and there was no guarantee he’d get anything in return. Except for a clear conscience.
Christian talked to MannaXPRESS about his remarkable recovery from the attack. He couldn’t see; he was initially unable to speak; and he was subjected to multiple surgeries. At times he would confuse dreams with reality, according to his daughter, Vanessa Solomon.
His children were continually hovering around him, willing him to health. If the rock had deviated an inch from its course and gone deeper into his skull, Christian could have been killed.
But instead, he was cracking jokes—on a notepad—and urging his kids to calm down and act in accordance with their Christian upbringing. George and Vanessa admit, they wanted to find that boy and beat him to a pulp. Or get someone else to beat him to a pulp, so they didn’t directly disobey their father. “We even tried to twist Scriptures to make it OK,” Vanessa says. But their father would have none of it.
Because he knew what he kept hearing on the inside. “Forgive, forgive.” Vanessa realized that something was going on. “We knew he was going through an internal struggle,” she says, “but we didn’t know what.”
Why not you?
Dr. Johannes Christian saw himself as a good man—one who’d made mistakes, but a good man nonetheless. He’d done his best to raise his five kids, mostly as a single parent after his divorce—along with dozens of foster children. He was always ready to help someone in need. He worked hard; he served God.
Yet he found himself filled with rage. “I was angry at everything around me,” he writes in his book. “I was angry with the doctors and nurses because they couldn’t get me back together again. I was so angry one day, I woke up and tried pulling apart my face, trying to pull out the tubes, trying to pull out everything that was in me.
“Oh, such anger,” he continues. “All that energy that I expended, and it accomplished nothing. God was still sovereign. It didn’t seem to move God that I was mad.”
Christian considered his new reality: Someone would have to take care of him for the rest of his life. He couldn’t help but ask God, “Why me?”
He didn’t ask just once. Those words continually rolled around in his brain, as he thought about the mistakes he’d made, trying to finger a cause for this evil.
“His response,” Christian says, “was more like, ‘Why not you?’ My goodness wasn’t anything compared to the goodness of Jesus Christ.”
Now it was time to take those sermons he’d preached and put them into action when it hurt. “God really made me aware that forgiveness was so vitally important to me as a Christian,” he says. “Vital because without God’s forgiveness through Christ, we don’t have salvation.
“Before, I didn’t have a clue. I thought I did, but I didn’t. Not until God challenged me to say, OK, I forgive him, regardless of what I get, regardless of what he does.”
Christian still tried to barter with God. Surely, there must be something to gain from this unnatural act of forgiveness.
“Will that get my eyesight back?” Christian thought. For a year, doctors held out hope that he’d recover some of his sight. “Will I get my nose back if I forgive him? If I forgive him, will I get a mouth back? Boy, that’d be easy. I could take back the thought of even being mad at you, God, if you would heal me.”
But there were no guarantees, none at all. Eventually, Christian would receive two prosthetic eyes; bone grafts; skin grafts, some of which his body rejected; numerous plastic surgeries; a complete nose job.
If there was a turning point in the process of forgiveness, Christian says, it was when he realized he would have to forgive Jacob McNary, not just because God wanted him to, but because he knew it would please Father God.
Christian sums it up this way: “I do this simply in obedience, and not for what I can obtain.”
Passing the test
When Christian offered unconditional forgiveness in his heart, his body responded. He recovered swiftly from the many surgeries, and he made a relatively smooth adjustment to living without sight. Christian attributes it to the spiritual growth that followed forgiveness. “As I grew spiritually, it gave me such peace,” he says. “And the peace is what allowed my body to heal at such a rapid pace.”
Some months after the attack, Christian received several unexpected letters—from Jacob McNary, now in prison after being tried as an adult and convicted. A few new facts had emerged in court: The teen had actually hit another car before he hit Christian’s that night, causing a dent. He told psychologists that he was doing what he thought satan wanted him to do. But here he was, asking for forgiveness and trying to apologize “in a very feeble way,” Christian says.
When that first letter arrived at the hospital, Christian’s children wanted none of it. “I can’t deal with it,” Vanessa told her father. “I’m not ready, Daddy, I’m just not ready.”
The pastor knew what he had to do. “In one letter he said he wished he was dead,” Christian told the Dayton Daily News. “That’s when I wrote him back and said, ‘Let me help you. If I can forgive you, you can forgive yourself.’”
Christian sent a letter encouraging McNary, who made a commitment to Jesus Christ in prison. Their exchange of letters led to the pastor’s visit several years later.
McNary still keeps in touch today. Christian says he’s done extremely well in prison, earning his GED, taking horticultural classes, attending Bible studies, and playing drums with a Christian band in chapel.
Christian lives by himself in Columbus, and still pastors. He only recently gave up foster parenting—he has housed 80 kids over the years—to devote his time to spreading the message of forgiveness. Christian, however, doesn’t think he received a supernatural ability from God to forgive Jacob McNary.
“What I have is what’s offered to everybody,” the pastor says. “I believe the Holy Spirit is there to assist us in whatever state we’re in. I don’t think it’s special to Johannes. It’s what God has promised all of us who want to walk upright.”
Dr. Johannes Christian can be contacted at faceofforgiveness.org.
Julie Lyons is a journalist and author. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.