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Local pastor leaves Ferguson, reflects on strengths, weaknesses of community

Rev. F. Willis Johnson on "St. Louis on the Air"
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Rev. F. Willis Johnson is leaving Ferguson to start a new church in Columbus, Ohio.

After serving his community in Ferguson for more than seven years and emerging as a leader following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, Rev. F. Willis Johnson is being transplanted to Columbus, Ohio, where he will grow a new church.

Johnson was the pastor of Wellspring Church in downtown Ferguson until it recently closed. He is also the co-founder/director of the Center for Social Empowerment and author of “Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community.” On Tuesday, Johnson joined host Don Marsh on St. Louis on the Air to discuss his time in St. Louis.

“I never came here looking to leave, but always knowing that I was sent here on assignment,” Johnson said. Though his church has closed, the Center for Social Empowerment will remain open to serve the community.

As the minister reflected on his work, Johnson admitted that he has not seen a drastic change within the community.

“I’ve been on this show before and said, ‘Yes, things have changed,’ but much has not changed, because systems continue to operate and avail themselves as systems do,” Johnson said. “I’m glad we have diversity on the school board, I’m glad we have diversity on the city council, I’m glad we have a more diverse police force, yet we still have a municipality that still is struggling and surviving and yet not thriving.”

While Johnson acknowledged a diverse group is assuming more leadership, he noted that the community needs to uphold another responsibility.

“We have to make sure when people get into a particular responsibility of office that we are holding them accountable,” Johnson said. “We’re so adamant and partisan at times that we aren’t logical, we aren’t empathetic, we aren’t decent, that we aren’t smart.”

Along with keeping leaders accountable, Johnson mentioned that individuals need to participate in the process when it comes to electing the people in power.

“We continue to see that voting participation, the civil activity of individuals, has not progressed or [is] challenged,” Johnson said. “We have to honor the fact that while it is a right to [vote] or not to, the result of our actions or inactions are what we’re dealing with.”

Calling his transition “bittersweet,” Johnson said he’s hopeful that he and his colleagues “seeded something that others can nurture and harvest.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.