Mourners Salute Holocaust Museum Guard at Funeral

Hundreds showed up at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Md. to pay their respects to officer Stephen T. Johns, who was killed last Wednesday while on duty at the Holocaust Museum.
By Keith L. Alexander and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The slaying of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum guard Stephen T. Johns was the latest sign that discrimination and racism remain as potent as ever, ministers at the security officer's funeral said yesterday.

About 2,000 mourners filled the pews of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington to pay tribute to Johns, who was fatally wounded June 10. The guard had opened a museum door for white supremacist James W. von Brunn, 88, who then walked in with a rifle and shot him, authorities allege.

The Rev. John L. McCoy, senior pastor of Word of God Baptist Church in the District and the family's minister, said the museum had one more victim of hatred.

"The hope of the Holocaust museum was that the world would never again allow such crimes against humanity. Yet Officer Johns is another victim of an evil, criminal, pygmy and insane mentality," McCoy said. "Officer Johns now belongs to the six million-plus who perished in the Holocaust."

Several ministers urged the mourners to use Johns's death as a reminder to voice their objections when they encounter racism, whether at work or with friends. With many African Americans and Jews at the service, the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor at Ebenezer, said that "the same hate that created slavery was the same hate that caused the Holocaust."

Johns's bronze coffin arrived at the church about 8:15 a.m. in a white hearse and was carried in by an honor guard of officers. Two security guards were posted on either side of the open coffin as mourners approached. Several officers, including colleagues from the Wackenhut security firm, saluted it as they passed. Large Redskins floral arrangements surrounded it, a homage to the native Washingtonian and Redskins fan. When the coffin was closed, people stood in respect.

Johns was dressed in a cream linen suit. A toy butterfly lay on the pillow next to him.

His family filled 18 pews, and the sobs of his wife, Zakiah, wafted through the church. The two had celebrated their one-year anniversary last month. John's 11-year-old son, Stephen Jr., rested his head on his mother's shoulder.

Among the mourners were Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former defense secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet, who were at the museum the day of the shooting. Police officers and dignitaries from local and federal law enforcement agencies filled the church.

Separately, Prince George's County police had been on alert after Ebenezer received several protest threats from anti-Semitic groups. The protests, however, never occurred.

The funeral program included copies of a handwritten letter from 9 1/2 -year-old Riley Grisar of Las Vegas. Riley was at the museum June 10, and Johns was the first person he met when he entered. Riley said Johns had joked with him about having to confiscate the coins in his pocket. Riley saluted Johns's "bravery" and said Johns "saved many lives, including mine."

Evelyn Gambell, 67, did not know Johns but left her Bladensburg home at 5:30 a.m. to come to the church and pay her respects. "This touched my heart. I had to come," Gambell said. "We live in a cruel world, but I believe he's resting in the arms of the Lord."

Nesse Godin, 81, one of several Holocaust survivors at the service, said Johns and the other officers would greet her and other volunteers with a kiss on the cheek and a hug each morning when they arrived.

"He was a wonderful man," she said.

The museum was closed until 3 p.m. yesterday to allow busloads of employees and volunteers to attend the funeral. Museum officials said they were reviewing what kind of memorial to create in Johns's honor at the museum.

Rabbi Tamara Miller, director of spiritual care at George Washington University, was in the emergency room when Johns was brought in. "I felt compelled to come here today not just as a rabbi, but as a Jewish person who gave comfort and care that was a light on what was a very dark day."

After the funeral, members of Johns's family gathered outside the front doors of Ebenezer and were presented with a folded American flag by an honor guard. As he left the church, Stephen Johns Jr. held the flag to his chest.

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