Smashburger Manager Credits Mel Trotter, God’s Peace for Straight and Narrow Life

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Tony Johnson No. 1Tony Johnson: “I made it because I surrendered.” Tony Johnson represents a "first" for Mel Trotter Ministries (MTM). He is the first former resident of this multifaceted ministry to the homeless who serves as a trustee on its Board of Directors.

"I made it because I surrendered; God changed my life," said Johnson. "I'm blessed. To surrender your will means taking yourself out. There's no pride, no arrogance. I serve the King."

Then, without hesitation, Johnson recites Proverbs 3 5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

Spiraled out of control

Walking the straight path is paved with personal potholes that the 59-year-old Johnson uses to help other men who have also faced a rocky road.

Tony Johnson No. 2Tony Johnson holds his copy of the New Testament that he read while in jail. He continues reading it in the morning. Johnson served time in jail 13 times and has been convicted of three felonies. The Flint native was homeless for a number of years and couldn't shake an addiction to crack.

Earlier in his life, Johnson enjoyed success as a wrestler in high school, and colleges expressed an interest in him but his grade point average was too low. He worked for a time as a firefighter and EMT following graduation, and, later on, coached his son as a wrestler.

By then, Johnson was using crack. And although his son enjoyed similar success as a high school wrestler, he patterned his father's bad habits. His son committed six-felonies and was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole when he was 21 years old. He's now 37.

Johnson grieved over the direction his son's life took.

"When that happened, my life spiraled," recalled Johnson. "I didn't care about my life. I could have done something and I didn't. You always want your kids to be better than you."

Where is the nearest shelter?

"Two or three months after (his son's sentencing), I went on a bus with $15 in my pocket to Grand Rapids," said Johnson, who is married to his wife, Mary Higginbottom Johnson. "There was a time in his life I spiraled out of control. I chose Grand Rapids because, years ago, I drove trucks and made deliveries here and thought this is not to far from home (Flint). When I got on the bus, I asked the cab driver where is the nearest shelter and he said Mel Trotter."

Johnson said he found MTM easy enough thanks to the lighted cross that shines like a beacon at its entrance at 225 Commerce Ave. SW.

MTM wasn't an automatic solution to Johnson's personal problems. His life was a blur of homelessness, using drugs, serving time in jail and living in MTM's homeless shelter.

Found God's peace

He lived at MTM for a year where counselors mentored him while he studied the Bible in-depth and learned biblical principles. More to the point, God became more than a glass-stained impression.

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And during one of his stints in jail, Johnson was given the opportunity to find a job through its work-release program. He landed a job at Buffalo Wild Wings. When he was released from jail, Johnson vowed it would be the last time he was incarcerated.

"I found that peace of God," Johnson said of his time at MTM. "And then towards the end of the program, the manager of Buffalo Wings asked if I was ready to go back to work? I said yes, I'll be done with the Mel Trotter program in a couple of months. When I was done, I went back to Buffalo Wild Wings as a cook."

To his delight, Johnson eventually was promoted to wing-certified trainer, a job that involved training new employees, which then led to a management position.

But it didn't stop there. Buffalo Wild Wings' parent company CHM was opening a series of Smashburger restaurants in Grand Rapids.

John was hired as a manger and in 2016, became general manager of the Smashburger located in the food court across from Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

It's a job that keeps Johnson and his staff hopping, particularly during the lunch hour. Some of the employees were once Mel Trotter residents like Johnson.

"Some have been homeless, getting out of prison, these are the guys I've hired," said Johnson. "I'm giving them a chance. Some are great, great people. Some of them make it and some don't."

To those who need encouragement Johnson advises: "Believe in yourself and to die to yourself and trust God in all of His ways. Never quit, quitting. Never stop giving up and trust in God. People who talk about you might mean getting the door shut in your face but God will open a door. He will show you the way."

Johnson worships at Kentwood Community Church.


Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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