He has outlasted a handful of directors, seven senior pastors and probably a dozen church vans, but he’s there every afternoon picking up children, keeping them active and smiling — always smiling.
Johnny Oneal, assistant director of the Inner City Ministry program at First-Centenary United Methodist Church, in conjunction with the city’s Department of Youth and Family Development, has been a staple at the church since 1979.
On Sunday, the gymnasium in which he has plied his trade with hundreds of children over the past 35 years will be named the Oneal Gym.
“Johnny has the true heart of a servant,” says Douglas Fairbanks, senior pastor at the church. “He has been endowed with some tremendous gifts that enable children to realize their fullest potential, and he shares those gifts in a humble and loving manner.”
Oneal will be honored at the church’s 8:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. services Sunday then following the latter service at a reception in the gym.
The longtime physical education coordinator attended the inner-city program as a youth and joined the staff as a young adult. Indeed, he has been employed at First-Centenary almost his entire working career. And, through the eyes of others, it has been an exceptional career.
Mary Gray Moses, director of Inner City Ministry at the church, says Oneal is in charge of the physical education aspect of the after-school and summer programs, designs daily and age-specific activities for participants and oversees the church’s participation in organized sports through the city’s Department of Youth and Family Development (formerly the Parks and Recreation Department).
Through it all, she says, he also is a teacher and leader in the social development of participants.
“[Oneal] answers the call every day when he comes here,” Moses says. “He is concerned with the physical, social and spiritual well-being of every child.
“He has more knowledge of child development than any Ph.D. I’ve met,” she says.
Moses says Oneal has told her of the “great mentors” he had in the program and felt “that was something good I could do.”
A story he told her of one incident early in his career, she says, also spoke volumes.
Oneal was watching children play on a type of merry-go-round on a grassy playground — now a parking lot — at First-Centenary, according to Moses. A young and relatively new participant in the program was on the merry-go-round and was not holding on as other children pushed it faster and faster.
He could tell, she relates, the child was about to fly off and, before he could do anything, the child flew off, hit the ground hard and broke an arm. From then on, Oneal told Moses, he understood that supervising children “is serious work.”
“Since then,” she says, “he has taken the life of every kid very seriously. But he does it in such a loving way” while acknowledging “working with kids is a lot of fun.”
Moses, who as a church member knew Oneal before she became the ministry’s director, says he sets the tone for the program.
“He’s the backbone,” she says. “His standards are pretty high. Kids who come here know it. But there is a lot of respect here. They respect him, he respects them; they respect each other.”
It’s his joy that’s catching, though.
“He is a nice guy,” Moses says. “He comes in happy. Kids enjoy him. He is fun to be around.”
Two generations of children in the program can verify it. Indeed, a mother and son will do so at Sunday’s services.
Moses says it was a consensus among church members that the longtime employee be honored.
“The church as a whole wanted to recognize Johnny,” she says. “It went through all the church channels.”
Fairbanks says those on the inside and outside of the church would do well to emulate Oneal.
“Johnny embodies Christian servanthood,” he says.
Contact Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...