If you were asked to share stories of the women who have inspired you in your faith journey, who would you pick? In this conversation, prominent United Methodist Carolyn Johnson, shares vivid stories of women who modeled a life of prayer, showed her that not all skill sets come with formal credentials, caused her to see an ability as a gift rather than a burden, courageously stood for what's right by telling stories of injustice, and taught her that sometimes children are the best teachers.
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About Carolyn Johnson
- Conference secretary for the Indiana Annual Conference and a leader in her local congregation
- Former president of the national United Methodist Women
- Past trustee of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
- Seven-time delegate to General Conference
- Active in Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), currently serving as a chairperson in the North Central Jurisdiction BMCR.
- Director of the Diversity Resource Office at Purdue University and former public school teacher and administrator
Links for more information
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, prominent journalist, activist, and researcher
- "All is prayer" by Joe Iovino, about praying for others
- "Finding healing and peace in a polarized political climate" talks about conflict transformation
- Watch "United Methodist Children on Prayer," highlights some of what children can teach us.
- Listen to "Learning about God by Listening to Kids" Get Your Spirit in Shape, episode 18.
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- Email our host Joe Iovino about this episode, ideas for future topics, or any other thoughts you would like to share.
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More Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes
- Get Your Spirit in Shape and other United Methodist podcasts
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This episode originally posted on May 4, 2018.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, a United Methodist Church podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
For this episode, I got to talk with Carolyn Johnson, director of the Diversity Resource Office at Purdue University and an active United Methodist. In addition to a career as a teacher and school administrator, Dr. Johnson has a long list of service to The United Methodist Church.
She is currently the conference secretary of the Indiana Annual Conference, has served as a trustee of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a leader in the North Central Jurisdiction of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, and was president of the national United Methodist Women. And that’s just a fraction of everything she has done in the church.
I asked Carolyn to tell me about some of the women who have inspired her. Her answers are very moving and a little surprising. I hope this conversation encourages you to remember those who helped shape you as a person of faith.
In the studio
Joe: Welcome, Carolyn.
Carolyn: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Joe: I’m excited for our conversation today because we’re going be talking about one of those things I enjoy learning about: Mentors in the faith, the people that have influenced us, and the ways that we can influence others and help them in their faith journeys as well. Specifically you and I are going talk about women who have been influential in your faith journey. As you reflect on that, who is one of the people that comes to mind?
Carolyn: Oh, I have to start with my grandmother. She definitely was my heart. I was very fortunate, actually, to know all my great grandparents, all my grandparents. So that really was a blessing.
My maternal grandmother lived very close to us, so I saw her every single day. That was wonderful. Very strong woman in her faith, so a part of growing up with her was, again, watching her in her faith execution (if you want to say it) on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t just all the things that…. She was an avid reader, but it wasn’t just the fact that she was reading and doing her Bible study, but all the little ways that she did things that helped me know this was center to her life.
Joe: Can you give me an example?
Carolyn: Sure. You know how we oftentimes talk about intercessory prayer? My grandmother was a homemaker. She generally had these kind of housecoats that she wore all day. She loved to iron… she did lots… She was doing things all day. But if you came into the house and saw her in her housecoat you’d kind of look and wonder, “What are all those things on that housecoat?”
What she would do is to take small pieces of fabric and a safety pin and she would just pin it on her housecoat. But those would be people she was in prayer for. So if you were to call and say, “I need this,” or she knew something, or something on the news or anybody, she had all kind of scraps of fabric. She—just no big deal—she’d just pin it there and that was her day-to-day reminder. I’m praying for that person. I’m holding them in my heart.
It wasn’t something that you saw as this big initiative, but you knew every single time you saw my grandmother in her home with her housecoat on that she was physically carrying prayers for people, whether she knew them or not. And so she was always known in the neighborhood also as the care person because….
In fact one of our neighbors was a young man who just laughed and said whenever he saw Mrs. Young coming down the street he knew something had happened. Somebody might have died or somebody in the neighborhood or a family member, or it might be time for the Heart Fund or this fund or the Cancer Fund. He said, “You just gave it to Mrs. Young because you knew if she was in charge, you know, it was good.”
We saw that in much later years when she was bedridden and we decided to… we were very fortunate to be able to keep her at home. In our dining room that made the big living room she held Bible study. She did all those thin…. You know, people would come in to see her, but in fact, they really came for their own spiritual nurture and refreshing. She was just that kind of wonderful woman. You never questioned that she was a woman of faith. The only thing you would question is: How did this happen? How do I get to be like her?
Joe: Has it shaped you? Like, do you have a prayer life like that? Or do you…
Carolyn: Oh, I try. You know, I’m probably not as disciplined in the same way. But if there’s one thing I think she helped me with is how important it is to pray for people you don’t know, that your knowledge of them isn’t the only reason that you pray for people. That was really very helpful to me.
Probably the other factor that she did that was so important is this sense that caring is more…. You’re not doing it for you. You’re lifting up someone to God and you’re believing that God will take care of this. And the taking care of it may not be as you prescribe it. And she would say things like, “Now don’t forget, God doesn’t need you to tell him what to do. He just need to know that you also care about others.” Oh, okay. He wasn’t waiting on me, but he is waiting on me to be me and to know…. So that was really a good part. And she was feisty. You know.
Joe: What a lovely memory. I like that image of carrying the prayers with her, like pinning them on her housecoat.
Carolyn: All the time.
Joe: I imagine in things she was doing around the house… You mentioned ironing and sewing things…
Carolyn: All the time.
Joe: …and always being reminded that there’s this opportunity to pray for the people who have asked her to.
Carolyn: It’s people that would ask, and I think that’s why she used different pieces of fabric, because you would say, “Oh, I haven’t seen that one. Who is that for?” Oh, that’s for…. And she would tell….
Joe: Oh, it became a conversation piece. That’s wonderful.
Let’s move on, is there a second one that…another person that comes to mind?
Carolyn: Oh, sure. And this is a little…probably a little different. These are two women who I don’t know their name. I encountered them for maybe 2 or 3 minutes and in different parts of the world. One was in France. One was in my town.
I’m a public transportation person. You know, I love riding buses. People ask, “Why do you ride the bus, girl?” When you’re riding the bus you see a whole part of humanity that you may not ordinarily see. So one day I was on the bus and a young woman, and it happened to be a young white woman… I don’t know how old she was, but probably very early 20s. She’s getting on the bus and she had a toddler, and a baby in a carriage. She has a laundry basket and she has a bag of groceries. And I’m watching her negotiate getting all this on the bus. Then she was going to the next place, she was headed was to the library with both her toddler and child. Then as she was talking to the bus driver, he said, “Oh, so you just about finished?” She said, “Yes, this is my day. I have to do all these things today.”
Now I looked at her and I thought, this is a young woman…and as she later said…. When I saw her coming back on the other route, that she hoped she could go back to school and get her GED because she would really like to get a good job. And it just hit me. She already has credentials. That was the most organized person I saw. I wondered how many other young people—how many people period—have those skills and abilities. They know what they need to do. They know how to make their life work. But what they need is that other push. So I just kept thinking, what is my responsibility to help in any kind of supportive services? How do I look at her and not see potentially single mom, or see this, or see all the things that would make it look as though she would be marginalized? How do I look at her and see an asset? Isn’t that the responsibility of a person of faith—to see each person as who they really are on the inside, and who God is intending them to be? And so that young woman stays with me a lot.
Another woman who was at the very opposite end of the spectrum. I was… I called myself running away, but it wasn’t truly running away. It was a particularly difficult school year, and so I had decided to use my frequent flyer miles, and I was going to Paris.
Joe: Oh, wow!
Carolyn: So I did that. And it had been a difficult year in terms of a lot of race issues that had been happening and so on. I thought, “You know, this is going to be a great week. I’m gonna be in France. This is the Josephine Baker life, the James Baldwin, all these people. This is where there’s just so much racial tolerance and all these kind of things.
I’m getting off the jet way, and as I walk off the jet way just entering into the terminal I look over, and first of all I notice that everybody was moving. So nobody…. There was nothing there to make anybody stop. But I stopped. And I stopped because as I looked over there was an older black woman. I don’t know if she was a native of France or if she was an immigrant into France. But she was one of the cleaning staff, and she was bent over cleaning out the ashtrays.
I just froze because I had cleaned up so many things that year in terms of situations and conflictual pieces. And that’s what I was running away from. And I thought, “My goodness, are black women to be the cleanup women for the rest of our lives?”
It was a rhetorical question to me, but it hit me because I thought, “Okay, and that’s okay.” Maybe what I had thought of as a burden and a problem as something to run away from. Maybe what I really needed to know how to do was how to embrace that as a particular aspect of this moment in my life and then be able to understand that’s also a part of my faith journey. So I wasn’t trying to say that the woman who was cleaning, that was her only life’s work. But it just helped me see that again sometimes the things that you’re leaving, you have to stop and re-look at it.
But what I also noticed was, everybody kept walking. And I wondered how many people become those folk who do things and services for us all the time and remain unnoticed. We notice if their work isn’t done. So I think about that and it…
Just right after that I heard a person on television who talked about…. She made a point that she would always look service staff in the face at a restaurant or whatever, She said, because one of your test… So I do this all the time. One of your tests is, if you can’t remember who your service person is when they come to your table, it’s because you didn’t take the time to really look at them. And so particularly as an African American that hit me because I wonder, sometimes we say this across all kind of cultural groups, “Oh, well they look alike, or they do the same….” But it’s only because we’re not taking the time to really look and see, okay, who are you? You know, we see the one marker and then move forward.
That’s been really helpful for me from a faith point of view, to say that as a woman of faith, as an organization that talks, particularly United Methodist Women, we want to help women, children and youth. Or we want to say that we’re a part to help people in this transformation of the world. What greater transformation than to really be able to practice, really being able to see the world, to see the people of the world, individually and collectively.
Joe: I want to dwell there just for second because I think that’s a really important point. I want to remind me, too, about the woman on the bus as well, was someone that’s easily overlooked and actually could be seen, I imagine, by others on the bus as somebody’s who kind of in the way or slowing them down. But you took a moment to see and see positive aspects of what was going on here. There was something beautiful here. And the same thing, I think, you saw the same with the woman in the airport as well, that was cleaning ashtrays.
Carolyn: And for me it was credentialing…
Joe: Help me….
Carolyn: Well, so a lot of times I would do workshops with corporate execs for big firms. And interestingly enough, oftentimes I’d do kind of little piece and say to….And most of the time they were guys, and say things like, “Well, if you have a minute to do a trip this afternoon what would you do?” “Well, I’d call my wife and she’d pack,” or whatever. Then we would talk about also, well, “Tell me what the biggest barrier is in getting women in the workplace or getting representative minorities. “Well, it’s hard to find people. You know. People haven’t done this and they haven’t done that.”
So we have—which is good in this sense, I mean—we have patterns of practices and processes that you have to go through to be in certain jobs. But if you’re in a situation that you can’t be in those, how do you expand to understand what may be some other credentialing.
So this young woman, I’m looking at her thinking, you could be great in a corporate setting for somebody who has to do strategic planning. You knew how to take a small amount of bus money, navigate a pool of people, look at what you had, and make all those schedules. That’s an organizational planner. How do we make that….? And so I kept going back to, a Scripture that keeps coming back to me a lot is Paul in 2 Corinthians 3. He’s being kind of put on a line about has he actually…you know, what kind of credentials does he actually have? And then he brings it back and he talks about, well, to the church there, you are my…you’re living letters, you know. You basically are my credentials.
I think, okay, this really does happen. There are times where there are people who you look at a different way. What do you bring…what does your faith bring to be your credentials to be able to approach or to do something? And how do you help…. When we talk about inclusion and diversity and all those things, and make it so that it’s a legalistic as opposed to saying, “Why wouldn’t I want to have as much talent and as much skills and gifts that we know God has distributed throughout the human family? Why wouldn’t I want to use that as a stewardship issue? How can I steward these and bring those and leverage those to the use of the church and organizations and businesses so that everyone sees this fulfillment and this wholeness, not just, well, I just want to climb a career ladder.”
Joe: Help me with the other thing you mentioned was you felt like…. I think I heard you say you felt like you were running away from having to clean up other people’s messes in a kind of metaphorical sense, and when you came to the airport and saw the woman literally cleaning up physical mess, there was this connection that happened for you. Can you speak a little more about that?
Carolyn: Some of it was very race based. Let me back up.
There’s a wonderful chart called a Mager chart. He’s an educational psychologist from a long time ago, but I loved his work because one of the things he does is to say, “What are some of the things you do when you monitor performance?” There is the one piece that always just hit me. Sometimes people do things where they perform really well, and that performance is punishing. Or sometimes people don’t perform and non-performance is rewarding.
Well, I was very fortunate in that somehow I tend to do conflict pretty well. But of course that means that when you do conflict well, “Oh, let’s assign her… You can go do it because you did it well.” Well, I might be able to do it well, but it doesn’t mean that’s what I want to do all the time. So whenever there was a situation of some racial discord, something that even people may perceive that, “Oh, let’s call Carolyn.” Yes, I’m very thankful.
What I learned to do, is to think maybe instead of not even being resentful or thinking that this is just because people don’t want to put the work into it themselves, just take it as maybe this is a gift. Maybe it’s what I thought was…,
Sometimes you look at some people and say, Well, you can do that. You can do that. Well, maybe they could, but if you already can why not offer, and think of it as necessarily gift and not exploitation.
Seeing that and because it has stayed with me all these years, all these decades, I know that it was something that I was meant to use again and again and again. And so I think, “Okay it’s okay. Being a cleanup woman sometimes is okay.” I found in my personal life…in my work life particularly… I like being an interim for different kinds of positions because usually you need an interim when sometimes things haven’t gone well or whatever. And it’s great because these aren’t jobs I want, for the long term, but I have that kind of little thing in me, “Okay, this is a gift. I can come in and help clean it up and get it ready for the next person. Get it preserved or whatever.” Now I don’t want to do that for my permanent work forever and ever, but it’s a part of my both my volunteer life and other life. So, I don’t mind going into messy situations because a messy situation can be cleaned. And oftentimes people run away from a messy situation because they think, “Oh, I don’t want to do.”
Think about all the messy situations we find ourselves in in the church sometimes, and whether you decide to run away from it to avoid it, or think, “I’ll just jump in there and we together…. We may all come out a little dirtier from it, get a little smudged, but we’ll have something really nice and clean and shiny on the other side.
Joe: Wonderful. Wonderful. I just admire your ability to see the people around you in that way.
Do you have another one?
Carolyn: Yeah. Yeah. I do. I’ll take somebody from the past: Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a fascinating, fascinating woman, born in the late 1800s. She was a journalist. She was a suffragist. A woman who had different kinds of tragedies in her life. Her father had been a slave, but she was not. But when her family…her father and parents died in the yellow fever epidemic, and she had all her siblings and there were plans to distribute these children. She was a young, young woman, but she gets a teaching job and she finds people to care for the kids, but the long story short is she was able to keep her siblings together.
Her dad, while he was alive, was considered a race man. So he was one of those men who really wanted to speak out. He did speak out about racial injustices that he would see. He never ran for office. But he really supported people in political offices.
Ida really became one of those women who not only saw injustices, but really did something about them. A lot of work on anti-lynching was really a part of her work as she grew up…grew older. When I look at her work she did this as a young woman, and she did it as a lifelong body of work.
She understood a lot of things. One is how important it is to document what’s happening. If there’s something about Ida B. Wells, she had this passion for justice, an absolute passion for justice. And she knew how to take something from dealing with it in a small setting, to scaling up. It needed to have a national presence, an international presence if you wanted to have that maximum impact to change and eradicate something. So she found herself caught between movements, between movements that related to race, movements related to woman. Sometimes those would be in conflict with each other.
But she was a fascinating, fascinating woman. Again, the idea of, if you see an injustice, you can do something about it. And the way you can do something about it is one, make people aware of it, and then scale it up so that people will know if they work together they can do something about it.
Joe And that’s something we can continue to be a part of today.
Joe: We have time for maybe one more. Do you have one more?
Carolyn: Oh, yeah, I always have one. So another one that I would do again in my faith journey… the little kids, probably because I originally was an elementary school teacher.
My very, very first friend, my first best friend is Carol. I met her when I was 4 years old. And we are still best friends after a whole lot of decades. [Laughter]
Joe: I wasn’t going to ask that question.
Carolyn: Many, many, many decades. She was a 4-year-old with brothers and sisters, and I was a 4-year-old as an only child. We both went to Methodist churches—not the same church. We lived in the same neighborhood. And again, as an only child, there were things I wanted to do and my parents would say, “You’re too little. You don’t know how to do that yet.” And I really didn’t. I wanted to cross the street and go down to a local store…all these things that I don’t know why. Carol Loraine, I wanted to comb my own hair. Now, for a little black girl that’s a big deal. You know, you’re 4 years old, you want to comb your own hair. And Carol Loraine said, “Well, you just need to learn these things.” And so, at 4 years old she gets a comb and she’s telling me how to comb my hair. And she gets 3 pieces of rope and then she puts them together. She says, Now here’s how you braid. And you do this and you do and you do this. And then she…. Her mother was a teacher. She got a piece of paper. Here’s how you cross the street. You have to look this way….
So now you know you think that’s not a big deal. You know, we were 4. We were ready to be 5. We’re going into kindergarten. I mean, how much more grown can you be? But what that taught me… I can still remember the day we were sitting on her stoop and she’s teaching me these things, is that when you care for people, if you have information, teach them.
She’s a…even this day she’s a phenomenal Bible school teacher. She was an elementary school principal. She’s just one of those people who inspires you, inspires kids. I think that really helped me know that children can be teachers. So Scripture, “Bring the children…” Our development doesn’t begin when we’re 21. Our faith development really starts...
She would ask questions, “What did you all talk about in Sunday school?” I had to remember, oh, we have to remember what we talked about in Sunday school because Carol Loraine is gonna ask me. And we were regular 4-, 5-, and 6 years old as we grew up. But it was that you can be and you can take responsibility for knowing things, and that education is really powerful. And so I always credit Carol Lorraine for saying, “You can learn; you can do this.”
I have been very, very, very blessed to know so many women and men—but you asked me about women—so many women who’ve been so influential. While I want to think that they’re special and they are, but I also know statistically it means that that’s what the world is made of. Lots and lots and lots…. It probably is more normative… On the news we’ll see the…. I don’t know if you want to call them the bad apples. …we’ll see the extreme situations. But I have to believe that God’s family is really on the… it’s normative toward goodness. And that’s what really carries me. And so…
Joe: Let’s flip the script a little bit. Instead of being the one kind of receiving from these, you’re a teacher. How do you share? Do you think about that? Do you think about the way you’re influencing the lives of young adults today?
Carolyn: I do. I mean, I always hope I am. What probably catches me more times than not are when I get letters or notes or comments and people will say, “I remember when you told me…” In the same way, I will say to somebody, “I remember the day you…” like with Carol Lorraine. What I discover is most of the time when people have done it for you, they’re not aware of what they were doing for you. You needed it. And so therefore it stays anchored in you. They may not remember it. The same thing for me. Or they don’t remember it with the same way. So sometimes a student will say, “Oh, Dr. Johnson, I remember the day you…. I said, I needed something or I was hungry and you said, Oh, come on. I’ll take you to lunch. And that changed everything.” And I’m thinking, really?
Joe: Yeah. It seemed minor at the time.
Carolyn: And so you have to always be mindful that things you do for others might be THE thing that changes the course for them. You know. It’s not that you have to go out and plan it. It just…it will happen. And it will be THE moment, THE day they needed the kind word. THE time. Not too long ago I opened a letter from a woman. I remembered her name. And she sent it to me. We were at a school of Christian mission together. We had been in the school, I don’t know, 15 years ago. And she said at her local congregation there were doing a study of…and they had some activities that the pastor had asked them to do. And one was to write a letter to someone who had done something that really lifted them up and made them feel better. She had chosen me. And I’m reading this and cry…. And I remember what it was. I don’t know that I remembered it was…. I was giving her encouraging words because I thought she was somebody to be encouraged. Great talent. But that was not how she saw herself. And so having that conversation for her was life…. I mean, those were her points, not…. And so again it was that…that piece one more time. I know I’ve written letters to people like that, to say thank you.
Again, I just can’t stress enough that God really does use us. You know. And that means you really are on duty 24/7, whether we think about it or not. So…. And then to be appreciative that we’ve been placed in a certain time, in a certain context that we can be a blessing to others.
Joe : So is there a practice you would recommend? Like, if I wanted to be better at this, and some of it, like you said, is…it’s the subtle things that we do. But is there something you’d recommend that we could to get better at being a model for other people?
Carolyn: I think one thing… Well, there’s really 2 things.
Find something that you do really well and keep doing it. This is how I’m gonna make it better. Then tackle something that you do not do well at all, and just make it…. That’s gonna be your discipline.
For me it’s been journaling. I like the idea of journaling in theory, but at the end of the day I’m doing a bunch of other things. I finally decided, “Okay, I just need to make space to do this.” So I decided that I would not sleep until I have done some journaling. But I don’t have to do it at night. I could journal throughout the day.
One of the things that I do on my phone is I just keep notes. In that Notes app, or whatever app you have on your phone. I just have Notes and all the time because I can dictate them in.
I was always thinking journaling had to be long narrative pieces, but it can be just a thought or a prompt. I find that when I go back just how many things I have forgotten and that will prompt me to think, “Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten about that,” or “Oh yeah, that’s it. This is great.”
It can be something that came out of somebody’s sermon or a TV show, or an interesting phrase….. Just anything. But if it hits you at the moment, put it down because again…
And what we discover is, I’ve discovered with my grandparents and my parents, how much we don’t know about the people we love. We know them from our one-on-one interaction, but there’s so much more dimensionality to them. Until you read old letters and see this or old thoughts of things. And so that people will get to know you. So those are my….
Joe: I’m also kind of flashing on your grandmother’s housecoat with the prayers on them. You write it down in your phone. She would have pinned it to her housecoat in a very similar way….
Joe: …to remember those things and to remember those people.
Carolyn, thank you so much. This has been such a great conversation.
Carolyn: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
That was Dr. Carolyn Johnson, an active United Methodist serving as secretary to her annual conference, and as director of the Diversity Resource Office at Purdue University. Learn more about Carolyn on our website UMC.org/podcasts and search for this episode.
Since that conversation, I keep thinking about the profiles that Carolyn so vividly painted for us: her grandmother’s housecoat with prayers pinned on it, the young woman on the bus with the laundry and her children, the older woman at the airport cleaning out the ashtrays, Ida B. Wells, and her best friend Carol Loraine teaching her how to braid her hair.
As you think about the women in your life who have inspired you, take a moment to write them, and then email me – there’s a link to my address on every podcast episode page. I would love to hear your story of people who have shaped you in faith.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.