Growing Christians in the soil of Hope

In the last issue of the Anchor, Voices focused on the importance of the incoming freshmen. To finish this topic for the year, I sat down with Dr. Johnson, Convocation speaker and associate professor of history at Hope with an extensive background in “19th century civil war and also US 20th Century and US policy in Africa.” This background is reflected in his evolving dissertation, as he began to explain. “I originally started out writing about the Confederate government’s war against the Baltimore Ohio Railroad. But I recently narrowed my scope from the Confederate Government to Robert E. Lee to make the subject more practically easier to write about. Robert E. Lee of all the southern commanders had the most acute understanding of connections between that technology and the fortunes of success and defeat on the battlefield.” Dr. Johnson then went on to explain how he started his background in Civil War history. “Dr. Vern was my graduate advisor. He was just a sweet guy from New Jersey and he had the most fabulous way of lecturing. He could paint a picture for you that made you feel that you were right there watching it. The thing that really endeared him to me was when he assigned me to go investigate a project down in West Virginia. There was a house of a former slave owner A. G. Jenkins.” Dr. Johnson continued to explain why he didn’t want Jenkins as the subject of his thesis: “I said to my mentor] directly ‘Why on earth do you think I would like to write about a confederate slave owner?’ But I went down there and looked into it and discovered that in addition to being a slave owner Jenkins was also a husband and a father.

When Lee came forth at 1863, he [Jenkins] was at the tip of the assault. A cannon shell exploded over his head. After he recovered, he asked Lee if he could go back to Virginia because his wife was going blind. Lee said ‘I can’t lose any more generals. I need you to stay with me.’ Now your wife is going blind and you stay for the cause? That’s commitment In the process of writing about this guy I got in touch with his humanity. I still think his cause was repugnant and reprehensible, but I couldn’t just dismiss him as a two dimension cartoon character who owned slaves. I had to accept the full dimension of his humanity. And what that taught me was to be more serious about the people of history and to not just whimsically dismiss them because they’re doing something I don’t like.” Dr. Johnson surmised the civil wars importance in the statement “The civil war and the reconstruction that comes after it are the foundations that deliver us many of the problems that we have today.” Proof of this sentiment can immediately be found in Dr. Johnson’s own life as he would go on to explain. “I spent the first half of my life in the Philippines. I didn’t come to America untill I was in the fouth grade. In the Philippians of course the majority of people are brown so it was the white people, Americans, who were the minority. Within six weeks of landing in Maryland, I learned all I needed to know.

We had courtordered bussing to desegregate the schools. Practically, that meant that all the black kids in black neighborhoods were sent to schools where we didn’t want to go because they did not want us, and we knew they did not want us. It was lethal. There was a race riot in Washington DC. 7/11 blew up behind our apartment building. By the time I got to be a teenager I nearly lost my life one night when four bigoted cops beat me to a pulp. Oftentimes my students say ‘well, what were you doing?’ That’s them asking a question from their world where cops don’t beat you up unless you do something. In my world people get beat up just because they’re breathing. When you have these kinds of experiences you get past them, Christ will help you heal, but getting past them doesn’t mean forgetting them. I don’t kid myself about the present and the lethality of the issue. You see it playing itself out over and over again.” Dr. Johnson’s way of getting past the issues of America was to reshape it.

He ran as a Democrat in the Holland area in 2008 and 2010 describing his inspiration for running as follows. “I always told my students that if things are going on in your country and your community. If you are an American citizen you are obligated to try and change it. So I was either going to walk my talk or just be quiet.” While his political attempts were not occupationally successful he did take pride in the knowledge that “a lot of other Democrats saw what could happen if you actually get serious about running and there’s been a lot of activity since then. So we established a foundation of a possibility of accomplishment.” When asked why he ran as a Democrat he responded “People told me that if I ran as a Republican it would be easier and I said ‘And that’ll be the first lie I tell. I agree with a lot of what the Republicans say, but there’s some features of their policy stances I can’t abide. So either I have to be true to myself or I have to say ‘homie be quiet.’” It can be easily seen Dr. Johnson’s disagreement with Republican features in his critique of the current administration which he didn’t hesitate to relay: “We need to have some leadership in government which have spine to do the right thing.

You can’t look at what happened in Charlottesville with clansmen and Nazis and be serious when you say there were good people on both sides. When we have leaders talking about how Muslims are not going to be allowed to be in the country, is that really who we want to be? Is that our historical legacy? Does that truly fall within the parameters of ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal’? If not we have work to do.” That ideal of more work to do brought us to the next generation of Hope students, the leaders which would have to do the work of the next generation. Dr. Johnson’s message to them during convocation revolved around the passage “Blessed are those who don’t see, but believe,” the importance of which stayed with him even to our interview two weeks later. “Those freshmen are embarking on a journey of liberal arts education that politicians and policy makers are dismissing.

We’re telling them this does matter. [They] can’t see that in this stage of their career any more than Thomas could see that Christ had risen. Thomas said ‘Look, until I see it. I ain’t gonna do anything.’ But then the Christ showed up right? Jesus goes, ‘Alright Thomas, you set the condition; this is one of those rare occasions where you set the condition and I’ll comply.’ Some people say, ‘Until I get a job with this education I’m not going to believe that I’m landing on my feet.’ But what we’re asking the students to do is something different than what Thomas did, and to believe in the education they’re getting is going to build them, equip them and make them fully functional human beings, to be better equipped to handle a complex world before the proof of it all in a job interview and a good salary.”

Dr. Johnson certainly believes in the education he promoted as he explained in the following: “An institution like Hope is necessary, because of its Christian orientation and emphasis it sees the value in investing in the human being, in developing the entire human being; because after all human beings aren’t pieces of human they’re total humans. You can teach somebody how to do a thing but that’s not the same thing as teaching them how to be a human being, teaching them to appreciate human beings or teaching them to be a good citizen. And whatever our improvements may be around here, that is the mission statement, and it’s done based off an ethos of the Judeo-Christian model which just it so happens to tend to all those things.” He finished on the note that: “We’re growing world Christians in the soil of Hope. That is a good name, the school of Hope.”

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