Interview with Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson
Editor's Note: In 2018, both Rev. Jacqueline Duhart and Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson were granted emerita status, making them the first two Unitarian Universalist female ministers of color to be recognized as such. Our warmest congratulations as well as gratitude for their service to our faith. Below is an interview with Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson. We will publish Pastor Jacqueline's interview in May after she winds down her tenure as parish minister at First Unitarian Church of Oakland.
Rev. Dr. Johnson served as the settled minister for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau since 2006.
What hopes and dreams did you have for your life as a Unitarian Universalist minister when you graduated from Seminary?
My hopes and dreams included lifting up the lay leaders of our congregations through leadership development and authentic shared ministry between clergy, other religious professionals, and the laity.
What are three highlights from your ministry?
Establishing the annual commemoration of Juneteenth over the past 15 years.
Having my congregation see me as a person of color and being comfortable with that, rather than as happened early in my ministry, when they saw me as minister but“didn’t see my color.”
Having a successful ministry as a 24/7 pastor to a congregation that I love dearly.
What are three wishes for your congregation?
I’d like UUCCN to have a “Black Lives Matter” sign without qualifiers.
UUCCN has worked hard and has begun to understand that we can’t all be on the front line at all times. , Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow; sometimes we serve; and sometimes we simply bear witness. UUCCN is a wonderful hub that shines in offering a liberal voice for all and I hope that will continue.
I pray that UUCCN will continue to live into its rich legacy of being a caring congregation that is actively making this world a better place by “practicing what it preaches”within—and without—its walls.
What have you liked best about your service as minister at your congregation?
I love—not just like—those whom I served.
Serving UUCCN has taught me more than I can imagine or articulate about the value of life. And love.
One of our former Ministers the Rev. Dr. Farley Wheelwright was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He marched in Selma. Though it never did work out, I was proud to learn that we fought to host a Head Start Center here at UUCCN. I am proud to know that Malcolm X spoke here. Personally, I am proud to have had a successful 15-year ministry here – especially swimming against the tide as a minister of color who is a woman.
What’s your happiest or proudest moment in this ministry?
I have two - both were surprises! UUCCN was the proud recipient of the UUA’s 2007 O. Eugene Pickett Award for its outstanding contribution to growth. And most recently, I was named Minister Emerita after 15 years of service.
What do you feel have been the important successes in your ministry?
Introducing my congregation, our neighbors of all faiths including Unitarian Universalism and the larger community, to Juneteenth which commemorates the emancipation from slavery in Texas on June 19th, 1865. We’ve commemorated Juneteenth since my first year at UUCCN. It has grown from a small worship service (why are a bunch of white people commemorating Juneteenth?) to a big event with a special program, a robust and scrumptious catered meal—southern style—and an opportunity to tell a more honest rendition of history. This was a portal to my work in identifying and dismantling racism.
Partnering with others on important initiatives including engaging and supporting social justice initiatives—including the right to water for all—nationally and internationally.
Encouraging UUCCN to become a Welcoming Congregation, and a hospitable one.
What do you feel have been the significant frustrations in your ministry?
Serving a congregation that was not able to imagine needing to work on issues of race and racism in Long Island outside of their neighborhood of great privilege.
Not being seen as a clergy woman of color by many of our neighbors. I was often assumed to be a cleaning woman—or worse, a woman breaking into the building.
Receiving short shrift from a few of my interfaith colleagues who could not imagine welcoming Unitarian Universalism into the circle of “serious” or “real” religions.
What’s the most difficult thing that ever happened to you in this ministry? How did you deal with it?
On more than one occasion I’d been asked to stay home and send my sermon in because of fears about my safety and the safety of UUCCN. We are a liberal voice in a conservative Village. I’ll admit that though afraid, I would have come out but I ended up staying home, and sending in my sermon so that UUCCN would have done its due diligence. I made sure that law enforcement knew not only who I was, but also, who UUCCN is as a congregation.
What do you think the turning points have been in this?
We focused on building trust, getting to know and to understand each other. Though there have been problems, that trust was never broken because the love was real.
What, if anything, would you have done differently in your ministry?
I would have been less afraid to take more risks. I’d have known not to take too much too personally. I’d have known not to take things too seriously.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were new in this ministry?
I now know how important it is to “focus on the healthy ones” rather than on everyone. It’s not really possible to please everyone.
What do you see as your place or purpose in life? How did you come to that conclusion?
I’m called to do my part to change the world for the better. I know that sounds arrogant, but it is real for me.
What would you like your congregation to remember about you?
That I loved and respected them. And that I learned more from them than they could ever imagine.
How has your respective ministry impacted this faith and faith community?
I’ve lifted up the value of Unitarian Universalism as a serious religion—no, we’re actually not a cult. I’m an “institutionalist” who has stayed true to my passion for Unitarian Universalism because I believe it is changing this world—one deed at a time, one heart at a time.
Through UUCCN I’ve discovered my passion and love for making sense out of life. No doubt this is why I can never turn down a memorial service or funeral if I’m available.
Over time, how have you changed the way you experience your faith as a Unitarian Universalist?
When I became a UU, the only two things I’d signed onto before were being a “Brownie” (a junior Girl Scout), and being a “Democrat.” I’m slow to sign onto anything but once I’ve decided to be a part of a whole, I’m in!