Ministry on the Edge


Rev. Willis Johnson gets a lot of questions that don’t have an easy answer, but he recently had one question during a workshop session on the church and race that he didn’t even need to think about.

“Would you be involved in these issues this if (the Michael Brown shooting) hadn’t happened?” one participant asked.

“Without a doubt,” Johnson replied. “Wellspring was established to be a public place. When the decision was made to launch a new church here, we knew we were going into Samaria.”

Wellspring is located on the corner of Ferguson and Wesley, or, as Johnson puts it, the corner of hurt and hope. It’s just down the street from the police station that was the epicenter of civil unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown one year ago.

Although the issues brought into the spotlight in Ferguson were already issue’s close to Johnson’s heart, the civil unrest put the community, and Johnson, in the spotlight of media attention. He recalled getting a text from his wife as he was rushing between television interviews that he was excited about.

“That’s nice,” she texted. “What are you going to do when you stop talking?” That gave him pause.

“I decided right then that I couldn’t leave that place without discerning why God had given me such a platform,” he said. “And I knew I had to go home and lay out a plan to my wife as to why I am doing this.”

Part of what he did was partner with neighboring pastor Steve Lawler of St. Stephens Episcopal Church to offer Ministry on the Edge, a week-long series of thought provoking conversations in the week leading up to the one-year anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting.

“Why are we here? To reflect upon not specifically Ferguson, but our ministry and faith journeys. Situations are occurring that literally have us at a tipping point,” Johnson said. “While we have an infamous event that has traumatized our community and is forcing change, we know that type of event isn’t the only thing leading to change.”

The event had four broad themes: 
  1. Telling the story – how do we tell the story, what needs to be told, how do we share the story.  
  2. We know there’s a great deal of pain, and not just here in Ferguson. 
  3. What does it mean to guide people through the questions that are challenging? We can worship God through our questions. 
  4. We are called to have a prophetic presence in others.
The meeting on Wednesday was attended by about a dozen people. Ken Willard, a church consultant and a member of Morning Star UMC, said the situation in Ferguson has ignited movement in many places.

“There’s been a conversation that needed to happen. The conversation may have not solved anything, but it’s been powerful,” he said. “Some churches probably still need to have a conversation about how this translates into their community.”

Rev. Rudy Rasmus also attended the meeting. Rasmus is senior pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston, Texas, a church he grew from nine to more than 9,000 members. He explained why he was there.

“I’m here because something significant happened here that shifted how America sees response. 
  1. I’ve encountered young people around the country who protested here, and they weren’t conventional protest types. 
  2. I want to see how a place that was so volatile in one moment return to extreme normalcy in one moment, as though nothing had happened. 
  3. I find it fascinating as to how quick America gets distracted when there is another crisis.
Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank is superintendent of the South District of the Desert Southwest Conference, which includes churches in Arizona, Nevada and California. She spoke at the Conference on Wednesday morning, relating stories of her own Hispanic heritage, and the plight of immigrants that is going on today.

“As a global church, we have not been telling our stories,” she said. “The stories we tell have the power to transform everyone of us. Telling them will cost us something: creature comfort, worship comfort, relationships, unveiling of who we a church, we’ve gotten to a place where we judge peace above truth. We think of peace as non-conflict, non-confrontation, non-movement. That’s not peace, it’s pause.”

She called on the church to make room for story telling again, saying that the only church John Wesley ever designed had pews with backs that hinged, so every other row could change their position to face each other for discussions.

“We need to teach the church to have respectful congregations with people they don’t agree with,” she said.

“I never dreamed when I grew up in the 70s that today we would be dealing with racism. I thought we would be done. We hoped we would be done, but we didn’t finish. I want to be finished. I don’t want to pass this baton to the next generation. The Ferguson story is transformative because it got told – the dirty, the ugly, it all got told.”