Garden City church leader living a legacy
A few minutes before her Sunday morning sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau in Garden City, the Rev. Hope Johnson pauses in front of the coatrack in her office and studies her array of multicolored stoles and robes.
"Should I look like a minister today?" she says out loud, before reaching for a black robe. "I think so."
Donning the vestment, and straightening the silver earrings -- leaf-shaped with turquoise stone -- that add a dash of color to her otherwise modest outfit, she flashes a bright smile. "I'm hard to miss!" she said.
True on many levels. Johnson, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and commutes to Garden City by train, is Afro-Caribbean. Fifty years ago, when the congregation was formed, the idea of a black face at the pulpit in a church in Garden City -- indeed, a church in almost any white community on Long Island -- would have been almost unheard of. But in the 21st century, thanks in part to one of Johnson's long-ago predecessors and many of the congregants at the time, the colors that now get the most attention among the church's largely white membership are Johnson's earrings.
"I love them!" said one woman admiringly, as Johnson paused to greet some of the members in the back of the room, before proceeding to the pulpit.
"I like chunky jewelry," Johnson said later, with a laugh. "Kind of a Jamaican thing." (She declines to give her age -- also a Jamaican thing, she noted.)
The church Johnson now leads began in 1962, when an established Universalist congregation in Floral Park merged with a newly formed Unitarian fellowship in Garden City. Both represented freethinking, liberal Protestant denominations. Their first minister, Farley Wheelwright -- a politically active, Harvard Divinity School graduate -- almost immediately sparked controversy by inviting Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam leader, to address the congregation, which was then meeting in a chapel at Mitchel Field.
"He had all his bodyguards and followers with him," recalled Jean Heacock, 86, a former congregant who lives in East Moriches. "He said a lot of extreme things. He said a lot of things I could agree with, too. So it was an interesting evening."
In 1963, Wheelwright led a contingent of Long Island Unitarian ministers to the historic March on Washington in the nation's capital. He spent several summers in the 1960s doing voter registration drives in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. Wheelwright became acquainted with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. He was photographed walking with Emily Taft Douglas, wife of Sen. Paul Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, and the picture ran in Life magazine.
"When I returned, I got one of the few standing ovations of my ministry," Wheelwright, who is 97 and lives in Mexico, wrote in an email.
But some in Garden City felt Wheelwright's high profile in the civil rights movement was giving the church a negative image in the community.
"The situation became rather heated, some unkind things were said, and a few of our most active members left the church," one member wrote in late 1967 in an unpublished history of the church. Wheelwright left the next year to become minister of a Unitarian church in Cleveland.
A life journey
As the church grappled with its leadership troubles, Johnson was growing up in privileged surroundings. Her father, Keith Johnson, was a Jamaican diplomat, representing the newly independent Caribbean nation in capitals around the world. Johnson and her twin sister, Janice, were born in Kingston but followed their father to his various postings, including the United States, attending United Nations schools along the way.
It was a life far removed from that of poor blacks in the American South. Indeed, at Fordham University in the Bronx, which they attended in the early 1970s, Johnson and her sister found themselves snubbed by black students. "When they heard we were the daughters of an ambassador, they didn't want anything to do with us," she said.
After graduation, the sisters moved to Germany, where they did environmental research. The pair eventually returned to New York, and in 1989 opened a travel agency on Fifth Avenue. Both married and had children (Johnson's daughter, Jova, 25, is a filmmaker in California). Later, Johnson got divorced; her sister's husband died. A Unitarian Universalist minister in Manhattan presided over his memorial service, and afterward invited Johnson to visit her church. A rebel early in life against her family's Anglican faith -- "I was kicked out of Sunday school for questioning the Bible," she said -- Johnson was surprised at what she saw and felt at Community Church of New York in Manhattan.
"It was so inclusive, like a UN of religions, so it felt like home," she said.
Johnson soon had another sensation. "I felt that I was being called to serve," she said. At first she resisted, but the calling was powerful, and in 1997 she entered New York Theological Seminary, where she eventually would earn a doctorate. She and her sister sold the travel business two years later. (Although not a clergywoman, Janice also became involved with the Unitarian church and now works as a multicultural leadership director for the denomination's national office.)
Road to acceptance
In 2002, Wheelwright's former Garden City congregation was looking for a minister, and the newly ordained Johnson was on a list of candidates. After meeting with her, the congregation's president, Dave Coddington of West Hempstead, was impressed but had concerns.
"She was a black woman, moving into a position in Garden City, with not much experience," he said.
She was hired, and after Johnson began in early 2003, Coddington's reservations vanished, and he said he's been happy with her ministry. "Once people got to know her, color had nothing to do with it," he said.
But that wasn't the case across the board.
Johnson remembers one of her first sermons, in which she spoke about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who guided many slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. At the end, she recalls, an irate member of the congregation came up to her and said, "We didn't hire you to tell us we're racists." Johnson was flabbergasted. "The point about my sermon was that without the help of white people, Tubman couldn't have done what she did."
Another time early in her tenure, Johnson was at the church office on a weekday when a vendor came in. "He said, 'Oh, I'm sorry to disturb you from your cleaning, I want to speak with the minister.' I said you are speaking to her. He said, 'That's impossible.' He left and slammed the door behind him." Johnson said she wasn't sure whether to scream, cry or laugh over the encounter.
As she often seems to, she eventually chose the last.
Such early misunderstandings aside, Johnson said she now feels warmly embraced.
Eleven years into her ministry, the mostly good vibes continue.
"I loved Hope from the moment I met her," said Jennifer Hoffman, 21, of Bethpage, who began attending services late last year. "Something about the way she spoke dug into my soul."
Her colleagues seem to agree. "She's a lovely woman, and quite accomplished academically," said Linda Goodman, a Garden City resident who is also a rabbi at the Union Temple of Brooklyn and has worked with Johnson on community interfaith projects.
At her church, Johnson has launched initiatives, such as a Juneteenth program, in which prominent local African-Americans are invited to speak, and tries to continue the good works of her predecessors. In 2007, Johnson -- who never learned much about the civil rights struggle growing up -- went on a 10-day Civil Rights Heritage tour of the South.
"It was transformative," she said. Johnson now leads tours of civil rights-era sites as part of a Unitarian-affiliated group called the Living Legacy Project (uulivinglegacy.org), following the footsteps of one of her predecessors at the Central Nassau congregation.
Wheelwright, for his part, said he is delighted that his former congregation, while still predominately white, now has a woman of color as minister.
Clad in her black robe, Johnson walked up to the podium on that Sunday, greeted the audience of about 50 -- all white except for one Latino family and an Asian woman. Her sermon on that late January morning was about the nearly half century since ground was broken for the Garden City building in November 1964. She mentioned Wheelwright -- whom she has met -- calling him "a hero of the [civil rights] movement," and talked about how she is the product of what he and so many others fought for in the 1960s.
"It would be easy to say that we've changed or that we've come full circle," she said as she concluded her sermon. "I believe that we've simply become better at making the invisible visible."