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Episcopal Bishop Deon Johnson: ‘I’ve always wanted to be in a place to help people’

Bishop Deon Johnson is the eleventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.
Emily Woodbury
Bishop Deon Johnson is the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

Growing up in an Anglican family in Barbados, Deon Johnson felt called to a religious life as a young child. On the date of his confirmation, he said, “I was the one who looked at the priest and said, ‘I want your job.’”

However, he added, “In many ways, I tried to run away from that call, because I was struggling with sexuality, I was struggling with a new culture, and the whole nine yards.”

Johnson’s family moved to the U.S. when he was 14. In college, he thought he might have a future as a doctor. Instead, he returned to that childhood calling and became a minister. He sees a common goal in those careers: “I've always wanted to be in a place to help people in their journey.”

Two years ago, Johnson became the eleventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. He is the first Black bishop and the first openly gay leader of the diocese, which covers the eastern half of the state.

Johnson is passionate about pushing for inclusivity in the church. In sermons, he frequently apologizes to those who have been hurt by or excluded from Christian institutions in the past.

“To apologize, to say that we as a church can and should and probably need to do much better, I think is a very first step. The other part is for us to just simply show up,” he said.

Bishop Deon Johnson joins St. Louis on the Air

“For instance, [with] Pride coming up, I know a lot of our congregations have tables and booths to just be present. We're not there to convert people. We're not there to say, ‘Well, you need to come join our church because we're inclusive.’ But we're there to say that ‘God loves you. And so do we.’”

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Johnson talked about how he plans to deal with the Episcopalian Church’s aging population, how he approaches being the leader of a church in a state with stark political differences and how he sees the intersection of faith and political activism.

“We must stand with those who are oppressed and marginalized. And we do that best when we actually see and recognize the folks that are marginalized and pushed to the side.

“The big issues that are happening in our world, [like] the violence that's being perpetrated against our trans siblings,” he added, “that, I think, is a church issue — to stand with those who have been pushed to the side.”

He said he believes a focus on people in need will bring young people back to the church.

“I think that we as the church are being called to a time of really examining: ‘Why are we here? Why do we exist in these communities and towns and cities? What's our purpose? And how are we able to be good news at a time when the news often seems to be such bad news?"

He added, "I'm convinced we need to go back to the basics: feeding the hungry, taking care of those who are lonely, clothing the naked, standing with those who've been oppressed and pushed to the side. … The church is called to stand in the margins with those who have been marginalized.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.