The community of Ferguson, MO, became the source of national attention on August 9, 2014, when a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American man. As civil unrest and protests began in the community, a five-year-old church plant was prepared to provide hope and healing.
Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson ’11 pastors Wellspring United Methodist Church, Ferguson, MO. Located less than half a block from the local police station, the church was in position to respond to the grieving community with the love of Christ.
More important than Wellspring’s location, however, were the attitudes and ministries already in place. The church’s social and cultural impact on their community had opened the doors for their ministry in this crisis to be radically effective.
Johnson leads his congregation to see that church is much more than Sunday worship. It has to extend beyond the four walls of a building.
“[It is] less about church and more about living out the very expressions and precepts of our faith and the spiritual heritage of the Wesleyan spirit,” Johnson explains, “which is one of engaging in context, wrestling and questioning, openness and exploration.”
Wellspring UMC has courageously sought to be the very presence of Christ in real time and space.
“We are willing to go into places and have conversations that maybe other people don’t want to have,” Johnson says. “We are willing to meet people wherever they feel God is or isn’t and in whatever language that is.”
Because of their determination to take the church into the community, when the events of August 9 occurred, the church already had partnerships in place with local schools, allowing them the opportunity to provide educational respite and support to parents in a critical time.
The church was also known in the community as a place for social resources, and they were readily equipped in the hours after August 9 to provide counselors and crisis prevention specialists.
Johnson shares, “We weren’t doing new things. We were doing things we had seeded sometime before, and these events gave amplification and magnification to that.”
Johnson’s ministerial vision stems from the deep calling to serve in community. His understanding of what it looks like to live that out was nurtured and refined at United.
“My time at United really challenged me. It was a safe place to wrestle with questions,” he says.
His work in the Doctor of Ministry program gave him the theoretical and intellectual organization to lead an urban church plant in an African American context. The focus on social justice and political action guides his approach to ministry as a United graduate.
“I continue to be challenged by the United community and its scholars to see the world as a laboratory as well as my parish.”
As Wellspring UMC and the community of Ferguson, MO remain committed to a vision of justice, Johnson is inspired by the story of the men who brought the paralytic to Jesus. It is a story of those who assembled to carry a hurt human being to a place of help and hope. While their actions made an impact, they did no more and no less than hold up their corner.
This has become Johnson’s mantra: “The best that I do, the least that I can do is to hold up my corner.”
Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson is the author of the forthcoming book Holding Up Your Corner: Talking about Race in Your Community (Abingdon Press, January 2017). Learn more at www.holdingupyourcorner.com.