Bishop Alfred Johnson and Katie Reimer

Bishop J, The Electric-Sliding Shepherd Who Taught Me How To Dance

A few weeks after Bishop J announced he was retiring, I felt inspired to join his ‘electric-sliding shepherds’ in the COTV Christmas pageant.  For those who know me, this was no insignificant moment, because I have never really danced much before.  Dancing has always felt awkward to me, and I’ve always watched people dancing from the sidelines, wondering how dancing could bring them so much joy.  But I thought to myself, ‘This is my last chance to join Bishop J in one of his signatures on the life of our church.’  We had a few rehearsals, and I watched a video while practicing the electric-slide in my apartment probably a million times.  The rehearsals and performance were so much fun, and so awkward at the same time, and I felt slap-happy (in the way a five-year-old might be slap-happy) and empowered to conquer my fear of dancing!

That experience captures the essence of how Bishop J has impacted my life and my faith.  Bishop J taught me how to dance, literally and figuratively.  He taught me how to have joy…not a cheap, sentimental joy…but a deep, hard-won joy.

I have been journeying through the Psalms over the past year, and the biggest struggle I have had is the call to sing and give thanks while in the darkness.  Psalm 42:8 talks about having a song at night, Psalm 63 talks about giving praise to God while still in a dry and weary land, Psalm 108 talks about singing to awake the dawn (meaning it’s still night), and Psalm 112 talks about rising as a light while still in the darkness.  I have been fighting with God on this all year, asking constantly in my prayers why the Psalm writers don’t ask God to first get them out of the darkness, and then they will sing and give thanks!!  I have slowly been accepting that singing is the way out of the darkness.

One of the first sermons I heard Bishop J preach that made a deep impact on me was about taking out an ‘insurance policy on our joy.’  He preached about how there are so many things in the world that will steal our joy, and we need to work with God to protect that joy.  As I reflected on where I was in life at that time, I realized that not only had my joy in life been stolen, but also it was never something that had been particularly important to me to protect. Also, it was a complete mystery to me how I would ever find that joy again.

The way Bishop J guided me to joy started with trust.  When I first started attending COTV, we went out for lunch, and I spent a lot of time talking about my frustrations with religion, and anger towards the church and Christianity.  He listened deeply and openly and never once became defensive.  He actually seemed to really understand my frustrations and anger.  That made me start trusting him. Another level of trust came when he taught a Village Time class on Star Trek.  I remember his comment in the first class that it didn’t bother him that Gene Roddenberry was agnostic, because he sees God everywhere.  It made me trust him more to know that his faith was broad enough to respect and learn from an agnostic worldview.  Trust kept building as I watched his openness to learning from all of us, as he exclaimed frequently how he was constantly amazed that we were still teaching him new things about God even after a lofty seminary education and almost 40 years in ministry.  I also observed that he was open to learning from voices, which are frequently overlooked in our society, which made my trust keep growing.

My trust became deeper when I watched him handle the situation with a member of our church who was incarcerated for dealing drugs.  Bishop J visited him, talked about him, and helped our community continue to embrace him even after his incarceration.  Bishop J had him call in on Easter Sunday during the service, put him on speakerphone, and say a word to us.  Bishop J said to us that even though he knew there were hard feelings in our community over what this person did, that we need to be really clear about who we are. He encouraged us not abandon this beloved member, even after what had happened.  When 20-30 of us gathered in the courtroom to support him at his sentencing, I said to myself ‘This is church.’  Watching Bishop J handle that made me know deeply that he was worthy of trust.

My trust became very deep when I wrote an email to him late at night, telling them that my beloved friend and former pastor, Karen Ebert, had died from cancer.  Bishop J wrote me back within 20 minutes saying he had read her obituary, and signed her guest book in my honor.  I was deeply moved by the way he journeyed with me in my grief.  That was the first of many times that he was present to me in my pain.

Trust was the first, and most difficult step, in my journey towards joy.  The second step was grace.  Like joy, grace was not deeply ingrained in my experience of faith.  Of course all churches talk about grace, but it is rare to come across a Christian that embodies grace as deeply as Bishop J.  He talks openly and regularly about his own shortcomings and how he accepts God’s (and our) grace.  And, I have seen so many situations where someone in our community is getting something negative out of their system, and Bishop J stands there patiently with open arms of grace every time.

He has talked about how the only way for a community as diverse as ours to talk about racism or sexism or homophobia or any other prejudice is for us to have grace with each other.  In a conversation we were having once about race relations between black and white Americans, he made a comment that he thinks about the parallel conversation between men and women – he said that he assumes he will never fully be free from being sexist, but that by God’s grace, he is always working on it and getting better.  He has helped me as a white person by extending grace towards me, which has allowed me to feel safe even when I make mistakes as I grow in my understanding.

What I have found in being the recipient of Bishop J’s grace is that grace makes space for joy.  Bishop J has always journeyed with me wherever I was at.  He never forced or pushed me to have joy, and he never diminished the reality of my pain.  But eventually, joy just came after he sat with me through much of my pain.  The thing that perhaps astonished me most was that he was as fully present to me in my joy as he had been in my pain.  The instant I started to smile, his broad smile encouraged me to keep going.  He laughed with me as deeply as he had cried with me, and that made me want to take more steps toward joy.

Bishop J, thank you for teaching me how to find joy.  Thank you for teaching me how to sing in the night, and to awaken the dawn with praise.  Many of the things that used to steal my joy are still here, but they’re not stealing my joy anymore.  There are many places that still feel like night to me, but you have taught me how to dance and smile and be playful, even when tears are falling.  I will keep dancing the electric-slide with joy.  May our paths keep meeting in grace, joy, and deep peace. God be with you ‘til we meet again.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of stories from parishioners and others about Bishop Alfred Johnson or Bishop J as we affectionately call him. Parishioner were invited to submit stories honoring Bishop J’s ministry at Church of the Village.  They shared stories of the first time they met him, or perhaps something that Bishop J did or said that was important, life-changing, or hilarious to them. Please join us this Sunday, June 21  for Bishop J’s final worship service at Church of the Village after serving as its founding pastor of ten years.