BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – Johnny Pons has experienced God’s sense of humor.
Pons grew up around Southeastern Conference football, pulling for Vanderbilt and Alabama, having been reared in Hendersonville, Tenn., and its First Baptist Church.
Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa., was the “beast of the East” and Pons admitted he “hated” the school, strictly from the perspective of football.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Pons has long graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and he and his wife Kathy have answered God’s call to campus ministry, serving at none other than Penn State. Pons has come to respect the school that has a strong presence in Pennsylvania.
“One in 70 Pennsylvanians are Penn Staters,” he said. “We knew we could come in and hopefully influence a broader region with the gospel.”
Tennessee native Johnny Pons and his wife Kathy stand beside the Lion Shrine, a landmark at Penn State University where Pons has ministered for 22 years.
And Pons has done that. He has represented Southern Baptists, a minority on campus and in the greater community, as director of New Life Fellowship at Penn State for 22 years.
He’s in place to bring healing in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. Pons says he was stunned when the story broke last November, having counted Sandusky a friend.
Sandusky, once one of the most respected citizens in the community, known for his lighthearted and gregarious personality, is now considered “a sullen, stone-faced, defeated” human being, Pons said.
Pons and others on campus are trying to process what has happened. Pons has the added responsibility of ministering to those perhaps least able to handle the turmoil – the students.
While everyone on campus sees the evil of the abuse and subsequent cover-up, Pons said, many are struggling to reconcile the Sandusky they knew personally with the Sandusky of the scandal. The legal battle and the university-sanctioned study led by former FBI director Louis Freeh revealed the late Joe Paterno and other university administrators concealed the abuse.
The cover-up has opened Pons’ eyes to his own sin, he said.
“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,” he said, a revelation he has shared on his personal blog site, ponsanity.tumblr.com.
Pons said he is also capable of harboring information to protect himself or loved ones.
“This is perhaps the area of the whole mess that should strike the fear of God into each of our hearts,” he said.
Pons shared pertinent questions he must address and help students face:
– How do I respond in truth and love to Sandusky and his family?
– How do I respond with compassion towards the abused?
– How do I reflect on the life and legacy of Paterno and others involved in this scandal? Should a person be judged by his best or worst moments?
– What sins do I tolerate and why?
– Am I prepared for the same level of intense personal scrutiny that these men and Penn State have endured for the past few months?
These are tough questions Pons is ready to tackle not only personally, but with those seeking his counsel.
As a minister, Pons believes God has a purpose 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.”
God will open hearts to the gospel, Pons believes, and is confident the coming months might reveal Penn State’s finest hour.
“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. “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.
Knowing that many Tennessee Baptists have already prayed for him, he requests prayer.
“It [prayer] has been encouraging. God is good and I feel that.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.)