Erna Johnson is a woman of compassion, courage and commitment. She confronts challenges head-on and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
For 17 years, Erna has been on a crusade—to stop domestic violence. Despite its prevalence in society, many Adventists have not recognised it as a problem within the Church. Erna has been determined to bring it into the spotlight in order to stamp it out.
This week marks the end of an era for Erna as she retires from her role as Women’s Ministries director for the South Pacific Division (SPD). She is the longest serving person in the role, notching up nine and-a-half years. Prior to that she led women’s ministries at Greater Sydney Conference and the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference. She also started women’s ministries in New Caledonia.
“I think my greatest pleasure of my whole 20 years as a women’s ministry director is to see the women realise that they have gifts and talents, to see the smiles on their faces,” Erna says. “They recognise, ‘Wow, I am a somebody, I’m not just this person out there who doesn’t know anything; I actually can do something.’ To see that, that’s enough for me to be happy about what I have done.”
"I looked at those girls in front of me, tears streaming down my cheeks and thinking, what is happening in our Church?"
Erna has left an enormous legacy through her advocacy for women and her countless hours of training and mentoring them. She has achieved widespread awareness of the issue of domestic violence within the Church.
“The problem in the beginning was nobody wanted to believe me,” she says.
That was until she surveyed a group of women and teenage girls at a church conference in the South Pacific: 67 per cent of the women reported being abused. But it was the response from the girls that was particularly staggering: of the 147 teenage girls, 142 reported being victims of domestic violence.
“That was 98 per cent. I looked at those girls in front of me, tears streaming down my cheeks and thinking, what is happening in our Church?
“Seeing the abuse has been absolutely heartbreaking. I have had threats against me by husbands who didn’t like the fact that their women returned home and didn’t want to accept abuse any longer.
“But I didn’t take any nonsense from these guys. I’m not afraid of them. I’m not afraid to stand up for what is right when I see something wrong.
“Abuse is not acceptable in our Church.”
Erna’s work with teenage girls has left a lasting impact. She developed a training program that has been integrated into the ministry of the Church throughout the SPD. Hundreds of girls have received opportunities to enhance their lives, relationships and leadership skills.
SPD Family Ministries leader Pastor Trafford Fischer has worked closely with Erna on various campaigns over the years.
“If there are key attributes for Erna’s ministry, they include commitment to women, a passion for women and a love for her ministry,” he says. “She was driven by a desire to see fulfilled ‘A purpose for every woman’—the byline for women’s ministry.”
While Erna is retiring, it is not the end of the story for her ministry.
“I am not going to sit back and do nothing, you can count on that,” she says. “Maybe I could go and volunteer at schools and talk to the girls and the boys about domestic violence, teach them what it is, how it starts and what to do when they see it happening. Passion doesn’t end when you retire . . . passion stays with you. I’m not going to let it die, it’s too important.”