Innovating to Maintain Community

April 21, 2020

“There’s no reason to avoid trying something new. If people are working, parenting, and learning in more creative ways, the church is not absolved of this responsibility.”

These words from Rev. Theon Johnson III, Ph.D., summarize his approach to staying engaged with his congregation and the larger community he serves as pastor of Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland, Calif.

Johnson is a 2006 graduate of Millsaps College. He majored in philosophy-religious studies, with minors in education and Faith and Work. He received the college’s Outstanding Young Alumnus Award in 2018.

The historically African-American congregation at Downs Memorial represents an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-generational community. Johnson’s energy these days is spent managing several different efforts to engage and support this community.

“The past few weeks have been focused on curating online community connection opportunities and the necessary training experiences to ensure access for all who are interested—especially those who are not ‘digital natives,'” Johnson said.

Johnson noted the community-based activism with which he’s been involved, such as virtual press conferences for community activists and vigils and press conferences acknowledging individuals with COVID-19, those who have lost their lives, and those working on the front lines.

Johnson also has to focus on meeting even more basic needs.

“Many families in the extended community have been directly impacted by this pandemic,” added Johnson. “Both food and housing security are critical issues for which Downs Memorial UMC has been concerned for a long time. I’ve been working with leaders of the Downs Community Development Corporation—a non-profit organization established by members of the church—to streamline our current food distribution program.”

For Johnson and his congregation, the main goal is how to stay engaged as a community.

“Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation,” he said. “Communities of faith must be hubs of spiritual innovation.”

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