Justice of the Peace prepares for his 500th wedding
The Rev. Johnny L. Williams is approaching a milestone in his life.
Some day, in what could be the very near future, he will perform his 500th wedding ceremony since he began his ministry as a pastor in 1986. “I’m at 499; 500 could come at any time, even today,” he said.
“I’ve married people that walk in the courthouse with no shoes on, and they want to get married, I’ve married people in the parking lot. I married one couple close to midnight; I’ve had someone knock on my door at midnight to marry them.
“I’ve gone to Campbell Swamp. Last week I was at Eagle Lake on the levee, I have been to all areas — out in the parks, at homes; people nowadays have gone from the traditional big weddings to just one or two (who) walk in the courthouse and they say, ‘We want somebody to marry us.’ It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a motto: ‘Have marriage, will travel.’ I’ve gone to some strange places.”
For Williams, performing a marriage ceremony is more than a man and a woman saying, “I do,” and exchanging rings.
“What I do, is when I perform a marriage ceremony, it gives me a chance to witness for the lord,” he said. “What I do is offer prayer, and also, I invite whoever I perform the ceremony for to attend my church, bring the children, be baptized.”
He tells couples getting married who already have children to respect and love each other and try to “blend” the family together.
“I put emphasis on that. We try to teach them to remove the word ‘step.’ You become a blended new family, and the only way the family is going to survive and prosper is if they allow the lord to be the love of their lives.”
Over the years, he said, he’s performed ceremonies for all races and nationalities and faiths.
“I ask them would it be offensive to them or their beliefs if I offered a word of prayer and no one has ever told me no. I’ve prayed and I’ve had Muslims, Hindus, Baptists, Catholics, it doesn’t matter to me, and I also use my ministry as a bonding between races.”
Eighty percent of his marriages, he said, have involved white couples, “and I’ve made many friends through that. What I really love about it, they’re not hesitant for me to do it.”
Williams, a deputy circuit clerk, credits Circuit Clerk Jan Daigre and her staff with helping him reach his landmark.
“I could not have made it this far if the ladies in this office had not been my biggest booster. The 500, I hope they’re part of it, because I credit them for recommending me.”
He said he gets a lot of telephone calls from people who tell him he was referred by his co-workers “because he works for us and he will do a good job.”
Williams said he was called to the ministry, adding, “The lord blessed me to become a pastor, after preaching my first sermon.” He now pastors two area churches.
He said several marriages stand out. One was his daughter’s, and the other, a ceremony he conducted for Alcorn State and Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. But the most memorable, he said, involved a couple whose ages were far apart. The groom was 61 and the bride was 79.
“I married them in 2007 at my house. I asked them, ‘Make sure this is what you really want to do; that your children won’t object.’ She said, ‘My mind’s made up. I love him and he loves me, and we want you to do our ceremony for us and do you mind.’ As far as I know, they’ve lived a good life.”
He has also had several young men in the service going off to combat get married before leaving the country, and one where a man was on his sickbed and the last thing he wanted to do was get married before his death.
Some people, he said, accept his invitation and come to one of his churches. “Some say, ‘Rev, I’m coming to see you,’ and then I will see people and they will say, ‘you married me.’”
He remembered an episode in Kroger where a couple walked up to him and gave him $50. When he asked why they gave him the money, they said, “You married us 2 to 3 years ago, and we didn’t have anything to give you. We never have forgotten it.”
Some of the most successful marriages, he said, are the small ceremonies.
“We’ve had people who had barely enough to get their license and gave a small fee, and some I waive the fee.
“The fee is not my cornerstone. It is the meeting of people and getting a chance to share God’s word,” he said. “I do a religious ceremony even blessing the rings. It’s not cut and dried like a civil service.”
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