The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri will soon have a new bishop. The Rev. Deon Johnson officially will become the 11th bishop of the diocese when he is consecrated on June 13. Johnson’s transition into the role is historic: He’s the first openly gay bishop to lead the Diocese of Missouri.
He and his husband and their two kids moved to St. Louis in February with hopes of getting adjusted to the region. That was put on hold as the coronavirus pandemic grew. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Johnson about his new role and how he’s approaching the position in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: What kind of guidance has the diocese given as a result of everything that’s going on with the coronavirus?
Deon Johnson: In the midst of all of this, the highest priority are the people in our communities, making sure that they stay safe. So, one of the things that has come out of the bishop's office here in the Diocese of Missouri is that we have closed all public worship until the end of May, at which point we'll re-evaluate. But we really wanted to make sure that those vulnerable populations, our neighbors in Christ, were not going to be impacted directly by actions of either clergy or just going to church or getting together.
Lewis-Thompson: What has the response been to all of that?
Johnson: What it's done is allowed us to be very creative in how we continue to connect. We've made a point to not say "socially distancing," but to say "physical distancing," because I think we're more socially connected now more than ever.
Lewis-Thompson: How do you expect or hope to lead the diocese in the midst of everything? It's a serious transition, and now it's kind of a time where leadership is more important than ever.
Johnson: Well, one of the things that I've been doing is I've been offering a daily prayer each morning, just to kind of give us a way to begin a new day. We've also shot a couple of videos that will be going out on the diocese and Facebook page and on our YouTube channel and other media, so that people can stay connected. I mean, we're leaning into something that: A.) nobody could predict, and, B.) none of us have a clear path to what the end of this looks like.
Lewis-Thompson: So taking on a job as the 11th bishop is a pretty big deal, and you don't get there overnight. What led to your call to priesthood?
Johnson: We'd have to go all the way back to when I was about 11. I'm originally from Barbados. And so, growing up in Barbados, one of the things that we have to do in preparation for confirmation, and confirmation is kind of reaffirming the vows that your godparents took for you at baptism. So part of our preparation in Barbados for confirmation is that we have to look at all the different ministries in the church. And so, I spent time with the choir; with the people who prepared the pass for worship; with the musicians, and so all those people, so all of the different ministries that were happening. One of those ministries is to spend some time with the priest, and I was that impetuous child at 11 who looked at the priest and said, 'I want your job.' And so, that was kind of the beginning of my process of realizing that I was called to something.
Lewis-Thompson: So, you're a black man — you're an openly gay and married black man with two kids. And, as you mentioned, you're originally from Barbados. Why is it important in this day and age for people to see an openly gay person of color, who's also an immigrant, in such a high leadership role in the church like this?
Johnson: I think that we all need those people in our lives that become icons. This is nothing that I ever thought that I would be doing. But, you know, again, God sometimes has to send a two-by-four. And so, for me it was pretty clear that this community was calling me to this. And I think considering the times that we're living in, having positive role models and positive icons out there, especially blending faith and sexuality, to me, is important. I mean, I grew up in a culture where everybody looked like me. So the doctors and so everybody else looked like me. So, I had a pretty good sense of self.
When I immigrated here, that stopped being the case. Most people didn't look like me. And so, being able to see those folks in leadership roles as a kid growing up was really important. And I suspect that the same is true for our young people and even some of our adults now. Being able to see someone who is being authentically themselves, especially as a person of faith, it’s something that we don't often see. I mean, most of the images of black gay men are not necessarily always positive. And so, having something that is a positive that says the church is and can be something different, to me, that becomes really important.
Lewis-Thompson: What is your vision for the diocese going forward?
Johnson: I don't have a specific vision. I tend to be one of those people that I would rather go through and meet as many people in the diocese as possible to hear what their hopes and their dreams are. And that, together, we can create a vision that we all can follow.
I mean, there are a couple of things that I really do want us to focus on: I think the church, especially the Episcopal Church, has to redevelop, or rediscover, what evangelism is. And evangelism is really just telling our story. We tend to have negative connotations with evangelism, but, at its best, it's us simply sharing the stories of where God has impacted us and impacted our lives. So, I think that needs to become a focus.
I also think that the church needs to step into that area of being champions again for social justice. I mean, most of the movements that have happened in this country's history, the church has been in the forefront, or the church has been leading the way. And I think that we're called, especially now, to step back into that role of leading and casting that vision of beloved community.