LAFAYETTE - Jillian Johnson’s band mates from The Figs swayed from side to side Monday at her celebration of life, singing her own words to say farewell: “Goodbye land-loving strangers, don’t shed a tear for me.”
About 250 people — many unable to stop shedding tears — crowded into a wooden chapel with a vaulted ceiling at Delhomme Funeral Home’s Chapel of Flowers.
They tried to make peace with the death of 33-year-old Johnson, who was known to many as one of Lafayette’s most creative minds — an artist, musician, business owner, wife, mother and friend. Faithful to the city she loved until the end, Johnson’s casket was draped with a flag of Acadiana instead of flowers.
Over the past several years, Johnson’s friends recalled, she had gone on a journey, growing from an ever-striving artist into a self-assured entrepreneur. As she made the transition, Johnson was grounded by her deep love for her husband, Jason Brown, and her stepdaughter, Paxton.
Though Johnson was a powerhouse whose success could be intimidating, her friends said her vulnerability underneath made her special. Her life ended prematurely on Thursday night at the hands of gunman John Russell Houser in a Lafayette movie theater.
Josh Caffery, a longtime friend, said Johnson’s life made sense despite the senseless mass shooting at the movie theater last week in which she died. He said her constant hard work had a purpose: She had things to accomplish before she left the Earth.
“If you were a God living in that land beyond the sky … who would you pick to hang the skies with lights?” Caffery said. “Who would you choose to sing the glory amongst your angel band? If you had any sense, you would pick Jillian.”
In a melancholy service, Caffery delivered one moment of light laughter as he envisioned Johnson and her tireless work ethic entering heaven.
“All I will say though, and I hope this isn’t sacrilegious, God better be prepared,” he said. “Because, as another old song goes, there will be some changes made. When Jillian Johnson walks through those pearly gates, there will be some changes made.”
As several speakers recited Bible verses and others eulogized Johnson’s life, her husband and stepdaughter sat with their fingers laced together in a front pew next to Johnson’s parents, Jackie and Sally, and brother, Bram.
Caffery read a message from Brown, who said his wife could convince him to do anything and everything, including quitting his job to start a business with her. Johnson and Brown opened the boutique Red Arrow Workshop in Lafayette’s River Ranch in 2012. The store expanded to New Orleans in 2014.
“I was in love with who she was, and who she wanted to be; what she knew, and what she wanted to know,” Brown wrote.
Light streamed through red and blue stained glass windows over Johnson’s casket and pews of friends and family. Next to the casket were wedding photos of Johnson, pieces of fabric and artwork, one of her hats, along with sunflowers and sprays of red and peach roses. A photo slideshow played in the corner before the service started, with pictures of Johnson during her childhood, growing up and starting a life with her husband.
The Rev. John Wamsley told those at the service to hold on to the hope that they will see Johnson again, and when they do, it will be forever. He compared the grief of Lafayette in the wake of the shootings to the grief that Jesus felt when he saw the death of Lazarus.
“You can look at the people here and say, ‘See how much they cared,’ ” he said. He told Brown and Johnson’s family to lean on the strength of others and to let the people of Lafayette love them.
Christiaan Mader and Aileen Bennett, also both close friends of Johnson, recalled how her success drove them to be better.
“She was in touch with her limits, but she chose not to accept them,” Mader said.
The crowd joined hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer, then joined their voices with The Figs to send off Johnson to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Standing in between two pews, Brown joined the chorus, then wrapped an arm around his daughter and kissed her forehead.
Hundreds of people behind them continued the verses of “Amazing Grace” as Brown and his daughter clung to each other and faced Johnson’s casket. A binder of Johnson’s song writings and musings sat nearby.
“Honey, I pray for you each night sweetheart,” read one line of her writing. “Please know and do what’s right.”