On the night of the violent riots that shook up Philadelphia’s 52nd Street in protest of police brutality, I received a terse text from my older brother, El. “Pastor Johnson has passed away,” it read. Another came a few seconds later: “Apparently due to Covid.” I hadn’t even stopped coughing from the tear gas I inhaled in the midst of the ruckus up the block; I struggled for both fresh air and the appropriate words. “Wow. Dammit… dammit!” is all that my fingers could muster.
I hadn’t been back to Holman Street Baptist Church in nearly two decades, but Shepherd Dr. Manson B. Johnson II was an instrumental figure in my childhood understanding of how to build community through spiritual service. At 71, the Nashville-born, Mississippi-bred reverend died a man of his era — an era that he helped to mold during his 40 years leading Holman Street, one of the most iconic Black churches in Houston’s Third Ward. It’s an understatement to say that his death will usher in a new epoch for the church and the neighborhood.
When I think about Pastor Johnson, who I hadn’t seen nor spoken to in years, I remember most starkly his slow, Southern cadence and snow-white beard. But perhaps more tellingly, I remember the galaxy of Black faces that called him teacher. The Georges, the Jeffersons, the Stewarts — all stalwart families whose figureheads could pluck me out of a pew, just off-stage from the pulpit, from among the snickering, yet-to-be sanctified kiddos making noise during Sunday service. I remember trying to keep my adolescent legs standing at the front of the sanctuary, holding down the doors as an usher while the good rev’s drawl rocked me into a catatonic lull. That is to say, when I think about Pastor Johnson and the first decade of my life under his ministry’s teachings, I recall a period where, unbeknownst to me, my spiritual journey and its connection to service was made salient through physical presence.
How are we to display acts of spiritual intimacy in a time of isolation; of healing hands when touch has been restricted; and acts of humane, soul service over a Wi-Fi connection?
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a leader in ministry in a time when the closeness of a church hug has been made impossible. My heart aches for a city that will not be able to mourn one of its paragons in a fittingly intimate way. Holman Street will join a number of congregations forced to grieve via video streams, text messages, and tearful phone calls. As monotonous as quarantine life seems, Covid-19 has tragically taken away more than 30 church leaders nationwide and, in its wake, accelerated the digital transformation of the sanctuary.
In the week following Pastor Johnson’s death, when American cities went up in flames and Black folks reengaged their unfortunate role as the country’s conscience, I returned to a number of conversations I’d had earlier in the U.S. Covid-19 crisis with Reverends Candace Simpson and Ahmad Greene-Hayes, ministers based in Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively. Though congregations around the world have moved toward digitization, many share a hesitation moving towards digital-only spaces. How are we to display acts of spiritual intimacy in a time of isolation; of healing hands when touch has been restricted; and acts of humane, soul service over a Wi-Fi connection?
Spiritual communities have been going digital for a while now, but quarantine also meant tending to unanticipated collective mourning. “I am really struggling with how to gather my folks,” Rev. Simpson told me via email. She explained how, on one pre-’Rona Sunday, a beautiful dalliance between dancers and the choir became an improvisational symbiosis. “There came a point when one woman started repeating the chorus of the song ‘All Is Well,’” Simpson recalled. “She was clearly moved in a way that was ushered in by the embodied ministry of the dancers. There are experiences I cannot translate digitally. I’ve been trying but they just don’t feel the same.”
From virtual baptisms to churches with their own YouTube channels, the sanctuary’s move onto the cloud seemed preordained, especially as ministries reach out to folks who might’ve left the congregation. Despite the distancing, some of these measures have been beneficial for connecting those seeking divinity through shared understanding.
The Holman Street Family started a YouTube channel about a year ago. While the views on its sermons, bible studies, and holiday celebrations are modest, you can see in the videos a foundation for a transition. For me, having not seen the Shepherd Teacher in action in more than 15 years, his voice and presentation remained as methodical as ever. Slowed but never dispassionate, Johnson’s Southern scriptural fundamentalism never belied his creativity. “We have a church that’s a hotspot, and a lot of churches aren’t hooked into Wi-Fi,” he said in a lesson directed towards men and boys. “Now the FCC believes they have control of the airwaves, but God’s in control.” Rewatching it, I let out a yelp; it’s delivered in perfect down-home deadpan, while showcasing the very creativity he wanted to instill in his church. The Wi-Fi wasn’t just a sign of the times, but a reassurance that the church could grow with a new generation. He had calculated that digitization was altogether a necessity to evangelize the gospel — one that would continue beyond his death.
For Greene-Hayes and other millennials, the shift toward virtual service wasn’t as drastic. “I’ve mainly continued the already existing spiritual community online,” the New Jersey-born PhD candidate in Princeton’s Religious Studies program told me, adding that his network of friends who were already ministering on the internet (like Rev. Dr. Melva Sampson of the Facebook community Pink Robe Chronicles) helped him push forward. What keeps him tuned in is the culturality of Sampson’s “African-centered, healthy, and holistic Black church community” that incorporates love for “self, village, God, and our ancestors in ways that do not demonize our African heritage nor propagate anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-queer theologies.” It was refreshing to imagine a congregation — virtual or otherwise — that fully acknowledges not just the realities and histories of practice, but protects and validates the many ways that Black people live and love.
The creativity that Simpson, Greene-Hayes, and the late Johnson agree is necessary in this new age ranges from mere tech-savviness to a complete reinterpretation of traditional rituals. Pastor Johnson, however much he enjoyed talking about it, was just dipping a toe into the streaming waters, while Greene-Hayes said that he and some of his colleagues “have been discussing the digital turn in religious communities for quite some time.” Still, neither Greene-Hayes nor Simpson felt totally prepared for the adjustments that Covid-19 forced upon them.
“It’s not about tech — tech can be managed — it’s deeper than that,” Simpson says. “We were not meant to live like this. I know that there have always been members of our community for whom activities had to be digital, people who’ve been in isolation in some sense, whether it is long-term hospitalization, incarceration, chronic illness, social ostracism, or some other force. I’m learning that my work and my faith practice is very intimate.”
As acclimated to that new reality as Greene-Hayes is, he, too, shares a sensitivity towards those craving physical community. “We are now in a moment where all of our sacred spaces for sacred gathering are compromised,” he says. “That bothers me. In times past, if you didn’t like the church house, you could still gather elsewhere. We need to find sage and healthier ways to gather online — government surveillance notwithstanding — even as we pray, yearn, and look forward to seeing each other, face-to-face, for rituals of all sorts.”
I can’t recall too many one-on-one conversations with Pastor Johnson; I was just a preteen. But I do remember how the church would reward kids for high achievements in school. Pastor Johnson would hand out trophies and certificates and whisper how proud of you he was. Sometimes he’d even hug you, and the bristles on his beard would itch your face. I could imagine the delight his flock would feel when he visited them in the hospitals or when he showed up on a nonprofit’s board of trustees. When he renovated homes in the Third Ward — a controversial choice that at once made it easier for some of his Black congregation to find affordable living but also made way for forms of gentrification — it seemed like a genuine effort to better the community he could touch. His family and his followers are not only mourning the temporary absence of the noise of the tabernacle but the great loss of care in the muted moments outside the walls.
In the aforementioned video, just after Johnson’s FCC quip, he slips into a small tangent that almost seems out of thin air: “So men, we have to be dominant.” I didn’t really understand the connection at the time, but it seemed to me that the purpose of our creativity, according to Johnson and his interpretation of the text, was to have dominion over other living things. I scoffed at that notion but didn’t mind it — the idea of male oppression is being dragged toward its own demise precisely because it cannot tend to, as Simpson terms, the forgotten. Patriarchy is not just a system of power; it’s one that thrives on isolation and amnesia.
As much as I may disagree with his fundamentalist reading of scripture, there’s no denying Manson B. Johnson II’s influence on my spiritual walk and the lived realities of his people. At his best, he presented a vision of community and gathering that was tuned into the technological changes of the time, even if his dogma was, for me, a patriarchal one that required an effort of unlearning later on in life. But I’ve learned, and Greene-Hayes reminded me, “not to forsake the gathering” and thus not to take for granted the time we spent with people — however flawed — that once edified us.
“I don’t know what baptism looks like virtually, but I know God will meet us at our open hearts,” Simpson told me. “It’s not about the water; it’s about the people. I don’t know what communion looks like virtually, because it’s not about the bread and wine. It’s about the people.”