After Antonio Bosco’s wife was killed last year in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Tex., Mr. Bosco asked a funeral home to invite the public to her memorial service. She was his only family, and he didn’t want to mourn alone.
The funeral home and Bishop Harrison Johnson, a minister who also worked for it as a director, put out the word.
“This is about a community coming together to be there for him, to hold him up,” Mr. Johnson said of Mr. Bosco in an interview with The New York Times in advance of the service.
The response to the invitation on social media was so great that the service was moved to a larger venue, the La Paz Faith Memorial and Spiritual Center in El Paso, and on Aug. 16, 2019, more than 3,000 people turned out, lining the streets and packing the pews to honor Margie Reckard, one of 23 people killed in the attack by a white man who was accused of targeting Hispanics. (The gunman is awaiting trial.)
Viewers from around the world watched the service by livestream, and 900 floral bouquets arrived from as far away as New Zealand.
“Look at all the friends you have now,” Mr. Johnson told the widower in his eulogy, to thunderous applause.
“Harrison said he felt very connected to this man, and that he would be happy to preach,” Jorge A. Ortiz, general manager of the Perches Funeral Homes, which employed Mr. Johnson, said in a phone interview. “He was always on call, always available. Even if he didn’t know the family, he was always there.”
After bringing comfort to so many others over the years, Mr. Johnson died on Oct. 15 at a hospital in El Paso. He was 65. His son Deacon Toraino Johnson said the cause was complications of the novel coronavirus, which his father had contracted over the summer.
Because of the pandemic, the services for Mr. Johnson, planned for Sundayand Monday, will be very different from what he used to provide for his flock. His church, Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Church, where he was senior pastor for the last quarter century, will restrict the number of mourners in order to maintain social distancing. There will be temperature checks, and masks will be mandatory.
The visitation period, usually limited to four hours, has been doubled, again to allow for distancing as people bid farewell to a man who, in the funeral business, is called a last responder.
Mr. Johnson was a funeral director, mortician and embalmer for 40 years, the last five of which he spent at Perches. One of the business’s six branches in El Paso has been converted into an operations center to manage the increased volume of work caused by the coronavirus; its chapel is now a refrigeration unit that can hold up to 80 bodies.
Harrison Bradley Johnson Jr. was born on Sept. 22, 1955, in El Paso, the second oldest of 12 children. Praising the Lord was and remains the family business. His father, the Rev. Harrison Bradley Johnson, and his mother, Stella Pearl Johnson, were both in the ministry, as are most of his siblings and children.
In addition to his son Toraino, Mr. Johnson is survived by his mother; his wife, Shirlon; four other children, Erreshea Younger, Crystal Johnson, Letisha Johnson-White and Donnay Johnson; 12 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and 10 siblings.
A basketball star in his youth, Mr. Johnson was nicknamed “Lightning.” After a stint in the Army, he earned multiple degrees in religious studies and developed a passion for gospel music. He served for 15 years as choir director of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an annual assembly of interdenominational musicians.
But his favorite activity was going to the movies. Every Sunday night, he and his wife and whoever else wanted to come along would go to the AMC El Paso 16 multiplex, his son Toraino said. Mr. Johnson would head for the concession stand, order a tub of popcorn with extra butter and a large soda, and settle in to watch whatever was playing. For a couple of hours at least, he could rest.
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