Matters of the Divine: Bishop Deon Johnson’s Open Invitation to Dream Big

If you find yourself in a conversation with Deon Johnson that veers toward matters of the divine, don’t expect declaring yourself “not really religious” to provide an exit route.

“You can have a profound experience standing in your backyard watching your chickens,” Johnson says.

In an era of DIY spirituality, the sentiment isn’t particularly unusual. It is a bit surprising, however, to hear it expressed by Johnson, who in June 2020 became the eleventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

“We tend to think of religion in terms of the place we go on a Sunday morning,” he says. “Gathering in church is walking the journey together, certainly, but enjoying the sunshine is a religious experience.”

While he strongly prefers the gathering-and-walking approach to faith — it’s his job — he’s attuned to the legions of those who have been marginalized and, in many cases, condemned by mainline Christian churches.

We are flawed people and flawed institutions, and we can and should do better.

“On the big Sundays of the year, I apologize for the times the church has hurt you,” he says. “We are flawed people and flawed institutions, and we can and should do better.”

Nearly a year after his arrival in St. Louis, Johnson says that doing better is his top priority. While “doing better” is often little more than a platitude when it rolls off the tongues of transitional presidents or CEOs of troubled corporations, Johnson arrives at the conversation after traveling avenues that do not typically lead to a consecration.

When he addressed, via video conference, the convention that ultimately “called” him to the position (church-ese for job interview and job offer) he shared the screen with his husband, Johovanny Osorio, with whom he is raising two children, Lilohalani and Ja’Lon.

“They knew what they were getting,” Johnson says. A native of Barbados, Johnson emigrated to the U.S. when he was 14. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he graduated from General Theological Seminary in New York City in 2003 and was ordained a priest later in the same year. He served congregations in Ohio and Michigan, and on Nov. 23, 2019, he was elected bishop of the diocese here. At 43, he is the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Johnson says he didn’t expect to get elected. The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, after all, is a Christian organization in the eastern half of what has become one of the country’s most reliably and aggressively conservative states.

I didn’t think they were ready for a Black-gay-married-with-kids-immigrant bishop.

“I didn’t think they were ready for a Black-gay-married-with-kids-immigrant bishop,” Johnson says. “I didn’t think I was going to be elected, but the holy spirit has a great sense of humor, and I was elected on the first ballot.” His election, put simply, was decisive.

For decades, the Episcopal Church has prided itself on its decidedly liberal stance on issues ranging from the death penalty to the ordination of women to wholehearted support for full legal equality for queer people. But even in 2020, Johnson’s election represents a couple of significant milestones: He’s the first Black bishop of the Missouri diocese, which was founded in 1840, and the organization’s first openly gay leader.

Bishop Deon Johnson. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

“We’ve had gay and lesbian clergy forever,” he says. “They just weren’t out.”

Not too far west of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis, which serves as headquarters for the Episcopal diocese, the area’s Catholics also welcomed a new leader in 2020. In sharp contrast to Johnson, his Catholic counterpart, appointed by Rome, had objected strenuously to a gay men’s chorus performing in his previous diocese, was named in February in a lawsuit for his improper handling of abuse allegations and, in early March, garnered considerable media coverage by advising members of his denomination to avoid the COVID-19 vaccination offered by Johnson & Johnson. Its use of a cell line derived from an aborted fetus renders it, in his words, “morally compromised.”

Dividing Lines

Politically, Missouri is deeply, perhaps irreparably divided. While many defend the conduct of a senator who is the very face of January’s insurrection at the United States Capitol, many others are proud to be represented in Congress by a Black Lives Matter activist. Both of these, Josh Hawley and Cori Bush, won their races handily, and both are lauded and attacked with the same fervor.

While the Episcopal denomination is widely and accurately credited for its liberal leanings, it’s not exempt from Missouri’s ideological schism. For instance, in spite of being an ordained Episcopal priest, Jack Danforth, heir to the Ralston Purina fortune who represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1995, played a pivotal role in ushering both Josh Hawley and Clarence Thomas onto the national stage.

While Johnson’s role isn’t a political one, at least not overtly, his duties do give him a uniquely front-row view of the state’s ideological diversity. The Missouri diocese is actually the diocese of eastern Missouri (the Diocese of West Missouri is based in Kansas City), where divergent views thrive. In locations ranging from Kirksville to Poplar Bluff to St. Louis, the diocese has 41 parishes along with the Deaconess Anne House, an intentional community that’s part of the Episcopal Service Corps, and a campus ministry.

Johnson doesn’t dispute the significance of the differences between people who live in cities, suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas, but unlike many of his counterparts in the world of politics, he doesn’t see those differences as insurmountable.

I think some concerns go beyond partisanship…People are concerned about their communities. They want to be healthy and safe.

“I think some concerns go beyond partisanship,” he says. “I’ve found that the needs of the rural congregations are the same as the needs of the urban congregations. At the individual level, I think the farmer in Louisiana, Missouri, and the teacher in downtown St. Louis have a lot in common. Regardless of where they live, people are concerned about their communities. They want to be healthy and safe.”

Shortly before the presidential election last November, Johnson couldn’t help but notice the barrage of political signs on his drive to Kirksville, most of them for the candidate who ultimately lost.

But once I got there, regardless of my views, I was just the bishop there to hear their concerns.

“But once I got there, regardless of my views, I was just the bishop there to hear their concerns,” he says. At the same time, there are also congregations in the St. Louis area that he suspects are not enthusiastic about gay rights issues. “But I’ve reached out and done town halls regardless,” he says. “I am the bishop of the diocese, not just of the churches that agree with me. I think that’s built a bridge and allowed us to build trust.” Johnson believes that not forging those connections is detrimental. “I want us to see that we have so much more in common when we work together than when we try to do our own little thing in our own sandbox,” he says. “God’s vision for us is far bigger than we tend to imagine. We dream too small. If we look to scripture, God doesn’t call us to do small things.”

If It’s Not About Love

Even though it was overshadowed by COVID, Johnson’s ascension to the role of bishop of a Midwestern diocese generated its fair share of buzz for all the obvious reasons. While he’s quick to emphasize commonalities rather than differences, it seems disingenuous to ignore the fact that his personal connection to queer people, communities of color and immigrants is far more than fodder for talking points and mission statements: It’s his lived experience. It’s deeply personal.

After spending the first fourteen years of his life in a culture where almost everyone looked like him — including those in leadership roles — he arrived in New York, where images of Black men are often not positive. Today, Johnson thinks it’s critical for him to serve as a tangible model of intersectionality — in his case, the blending of race, faith and sexuality.

Being authentically himself, he says, is an important part of healing the wounds that divide queer communities and mainline churches.

I want to create a church where everyone is a beloved child of God.

“I’ve found the church to be a place where I’ve been affirmed,” he says. “And I’ve tried to create spaces where people can see that there are no outcasts. I want to create a church where everyone is a beloved child of God.” Reaching those who have been traumatized by predatory religion with that message is challenging. “It can be hard for people to hear they’re good just as they are when they’ve been programmed to think they’re an abomination. But if it’s not about love, it’s not about God, and claiming catastrophic hurricanes are God’s response to gay people is not about love.”

Johnson is proud that his denomination has been grappling with queer inclusion since the 1940s. “Thanks to groundbreaking and pioneering folks stepping out to say, ‘This is who I am,’ we’ve been wrestling with it for a long time,” he says.

At the same time, he’s utterly direct about the fact that the church has hurt people. Open acknowledgement is his approach to healing those wounds.

“I’ve been calling churches on naming,” he says. “We need to name where we’ve failed to acknowledge things. We need to name the Black and brown folks who have contributed. We need to name the places where we’ve fallen short and then make better choices moving forward.”

At the center of those better choices, he says, is the creation of a space that welcomes everyone and supports connection.

We’re the original Facebook. Some people have unfriended the church, and understandably.

“When you boil it down, social media is all about wanting connection,” he says. “In a very real way, Christianity has been connecting people to the divine and to each other for centuries. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we mess up horribly. We’re the original Facebook. Some people have unfriended the church, and understandably. What I’m saying is: Give us a chance to change.”

Constance

“My grandmother raised me to know that I was a beloved child of God,” Johnson says. He credits his grandmother, Constance, for his understanding of the world, his life as a Christian and what awaits. She died in 2001. “She also taught me that because I am a beloved child of God, I have to treat everyone else as one, because they are.”

His grandmother believed in getting up, dressing up and showing up. “Sometimes just your presence is enough to make the church wrestle with itself,” Johnson says. “She attended school only until age 14, but she read her Bible every day, and she knew how to sing.”

Redemption is course correction.

One of the most important lessons Johnson learned from his grandmother was the importance of forgiveness and redemption. “One of my grandmother’s rules was that you can throw away things and stuff, but you can never throw away people,” he says. “Even the person who has done you the most wrong.” That’s because forgiveness, in the most pared-down sense of the word, is a selfish act: It’s about the self. Forgiveness, says Johnson, is letting go of the hope you can change the past. “If someone does something terrible, I can continue to live in that moment and let them have that hold over me, or I can let go of the hope that we can redo the past.” Redemption is in the same vein, he says. And it’s because we have no way of knowing when we might be redeemed that his grandmother forbade the discarding of others. Or, put another, more contemporary way: “Redemption is when you’re driving somewhere, following directions from Siri or Google, and you go off course, and Siri says, ‘Make the first U-turn you’re able to make safely and legally.’ Redemption is course correction. And in order to forgive yourself, you have to first forgive yourself.”

An Open Invitation to Dream Big

Obviously, not everyone had a grandmother like Johnson’s. Throughout history, many churches have failed outright to see queer people as blessed children of God. While dramatic improvements have been made, Johnson admits there’s plenty of work to be done, and that’s where he invites those who have been ostracized to play a role in the healing.

“The best way to call the church to be better is to be part of that calling,” he says. “It’s hard to tell an institution to change when you’re not a part of it. The way the Episcopal church has changed over time is by faithful LGBQT folks standing up, saying they love it and demanding we be authentic.” Johnson’s first year in St. Louis has been focused largely on the pandemic. “There have been zero super-spreader events, and I want to keep it that way,” he says.

I am convinced God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.

In spite of his tenure in Missouri starting during a year that was severely challenging for organizations that rely on being able to gather large numbers of people in confined spaces, Johnson is optimistic about the future. That optimism is based in part on his election as a gay man who is Black and from another country. “If Missouri can do this, think of all the things we can do as a nation,” he says. “But I am convinced God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.”

While he isn’t divulging specific plans or goals for the year ahead, he draws on the foundation of Christianity for guidance: If God didn’t believe in going big, says Johnson, Good Friday would have been the end of it. “Where dreams will take us, I have no idea,” he says. “But I want to invite the people of Missouri. I invite you to dream with me. We can tackle poverty, racism, the urban-rural divide. I believe the possibilities are endless.”  

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