This was the July 12 headline in the New York Times:
“In a Rikers Jail Cell, a Man Lay Dead for Hours Before He Was Discovered.”
A few months earlier, NBC News aired a segment about the New York City jail called, “An In-Depth Look at Rikers Island — Hell, Plain and Simple.”
This was where pastor and former Washington Redskins Super Bowl defensive tackle Tim Johnson believed he was needed.
The minister of the Orlando World Outreach Church was in Nashville on March 12 when Rikers Island became part of his world.
“As I do every morning, I prayed,” Johnson said. “I speak to my father in heaven because Jesus made the relationship with the father real. Sometimes he speaks back. On this morning, I hear Rikers Island. My mind is blown. I don’t understand what this could be. I paused in my prayer and I googled Rikers Island. It said it was the worst jail in the world — a place they called hell on earth. I am thinking, what does this have to do with me?”
Johnson, 57, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sixth round out of Penn State in 1987. He played three seasons in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Redskins before the 1990 season. He played with Washington for five years, helping to anchor the defensive line on the 1991 Super Bowl team and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1992. He played with the Cincinnati Bengals in his final season in 1996, retiring with 31.5 sacks.
He became a minister in 2000, starting in Nashville. He moved to Orlando in 2007, where he has been the pastor of the Orlando World Outreach Church and has established himself as leader in the religious community.
In 2013, Johnson walked across the state of Florida — from Pensacola to South Beach — to pray for politicians, police chiefs and schools in the towns and city he passed through. He has held large stadium gatherings to help thousands of homeless people with food, clothing and legal and personal services.
Johnson has been working on a book called, “Fatherless No More,” speaking to what he believes is an issue that is at a “pandemic level … the focus of ‘Fatherless No More’ is to address the issues of fatherlessness and to provide a path for people to experience freedom.”
In this moment, he felt that work needed to be done in hell on earth — Rikers Island, the New York jail located an island in the East River with a reputation of violence and abuse where approximately 10,000 detainees are imprisoned daily. Some of the detainees are awaiting court proceedings and others serving short time.
Johnson had little knowledge of the world of Rikers, but he believed he was being called there.
“I am just completely blown away by this,” he said. “I ended up in tears, overwhelmed by this presence of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know what is happening to me right now. This is supernatural.”
Johnson spoke to his wife about the calling. Then he called a friend in New York to see if he knew anyone connected to Rikers Island. He booked a one-way ticket to New York “to find out if this is real or my imagination”. He would connect with Department of Corrections officials, who Johnson said welcomed his plan with open arms.
“And 12 days after I got that word, I was standing in Rikers Island,” Johnson said.
He wasn’t alone. Former teammate and Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk was there with him. When they played, Monk, Charles Mann, Earnest Byner and Johnson were partners in the Good Samaritan Foundation, working with children in low-income families to help provide opportunities for employment and to be evaluated in a work environment. Monk and Johnson have remained close. Monk lives in Orlando and is a member of Johnson’s church.
“His son James Monk is my youth pastor in my church,” Johnson said.
“I see him (Art) on a regular basis,” Johnson said. “I was over at his house picking something up and I wound up speaking to him about what I was doing. I asked him if he would want to participate, and Art said yes. Do you want to come this trip? We arranged it, and it was beautiful to have him there. We are teammates for a different game now.”
They’ve made two trips to Rikers, living in an RV inside the walls, working with a group of about 14 detainees. “It has been an amazing experience to see the walls come down in their hearts and in their minds, to trust me and Art Monk,” Johnson said. “We spend the day in jail doing communication skills, problem solving, critical thinking. We do all kinds of things to build trust and community for the next phase, which is really talking about the effects of fatherlessness, to take these young men through the process of seeing the effects of fatherlessness and then experience the freedom from fatherlessness.”
Johnson said he is planning a documentary about their work at Rikers. He also said the Washington Commanders have connected with Johnson and are looking to support the program.
“Rikers used to be a dump,” Johnson said. “Now it is a human dump, where humanity gets dumped. Art and I are on the treasure hunt. Instead of trash, we are digging for treasures, and there are treasures in that place.”
• Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.