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3:07 pm
Thu August 14, 2014

Ferguson Pastor: This Is Not A Race Issue; This Is A Human Issue

Originally published on Sat August 16, 2014 8:43 am

It's been a tense week in Ferguson, Mo. Protests erupted after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer Saturday. For many, the fear and frustration is familiar.

Amid the demonstrations Wednesday, the Rev. Willis Johnson tried to talk down 18-year-old Joshua Wilson. A photo in the Washington Post showed the two in a powerful moment.

Johnson says police were ordering protesters to move aside as police advanced, and that he was trying to keep Wilson out of harm's way.

He says he was not attempting to discourage protest.

"If anything it was to affirm him — and to affirm both of us — because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed," Johnson tells NPR's Melissa Block. "We were being told ... that what we were doing was wrong, and it was not wrong."

Johnson, the father of a teenager and pastor of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, had never met Joshua Wilson personally. But, he says, "I've met 'Joshuas.' " In fact, he says, he's been Joshua.


Interview Highlights

On why he was trying to get Wilson out of the way

I just embraced him. Because he was so angry, and you could feel it in his body, you could feel it in his speech. ... Something just said, "Grab him. Hold him." Maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what really is symbolic of the situation ... at hand.

People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt; people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like this: I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harm's way and from doing something that we would need not to do. ...

If you're going to fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me. Do it in my ear. And at the same time, I just begin to pray with him and to say, "Give him the strength — give us the strength — to be courageous enough not to do what they expect us to do."

On knowing many "Joshuas"

I had not met [Joshua Willis] personally, but I've met Joshuas. I was 18 once, and a young black male. I have a young man that I'm trying to grow. ... People may not understand, but many of us look to the eyes of young people — doesn't matter about color, doesn't matter about the things people assume. This is not a race issue, in and of itself. This is a human issue. ...

And if you're honest and you're true, you can't help but look at other people and look at situations and say, "But by the grace of God go you — and me." That's what I saw. ... I've met too many men in the last four days, five days, of every age. And no matter how old we are, we all remember and know that that is us, in some shape, form or fashion.

Because when I get pulled over, even with my credentialed and degreed ... self, I revert back to that 18-year-old and the things that my father told me about what to do when the police stop you.

On events in Ferguson touching a nerve

I am not alone. It's that way for all of us, because that is the human nature that we live. That is us. If it's not touching you, if it's not personal, that's where there's a problem.

On Johnson's father's concern for his safety

It's an intergenerational thing: to know that my father fears for me at 39 the same way he feared for me at 18 today. He texts me every morning and says, "I'm praying for you. Do what you've got to do, but be careful." He shouldn't have to say that, and I shouldn't have to say that and feel that way for my son or my daughter — or anyone's son or daughter. We want the cycle to stop.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Our eyes were caught by a dramatic photograph from Ferguson in the Washington Post today. It was taken on a street in the daytime in the midst of a protest. We see an African-American man standing face-to-face with a black teenager named Joshua Wilson. The boy's jaw is set. He looks determined both defiant and sad. Well, we've tracked down the man in the photograph, he's Reverend Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson. Reverend Johnson told us police were ordering protesters to move aside as police advanced and he was trying to keep the boy out of harms way.

WILLIS JOHNSON: I just embraced him because he was so angry and you could feel it in his body. You could feel it in his speech. And I have a newly turned teenager and I've been Joshua before and something just said, grab him, hold him. Maybe initially to keep him back. But ultimately to become what really is symbolic of the situation that's at hand. People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt. People who are angry to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like this - I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harms way and from doing something that we didn't - need not to do.

BLOCK: You were trying to get him - you said, he was shaking with anger; you could feel it and him. You were trying to get him to move back, to not go forward and to protect himself basically.

JOHNSON: Well, one of the things I shared with him is that I understand and I know you want to - I know you want - you got to channel this in another way. Not to discourage protest, not to discourage his expression that was never the case. If anything it was to affirm him and to affirm both of us because in that moment we were being disaffirmed. We were being told and suggested that what we were doing was wrong. And it was not wrong. People are feeling, I believe, empowered by the fact that there are others who feel passionate like them. And it's hard for people who are not there in it to maybe understand or understand why someone would channel or choose that mean or mode to express themselves. I don't understand it fully, but what I do understand is what it means to be that angry. So I'd rather you, if you're going to fuss and cuss and be mad - I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear, you know. And at the same time I just began to pray with him and say, give him the strength, give us the strength, to be courageous enough not to do what they expect us to do.

BLOCK: Had you ever met him before, Joshua Wilson, this 18-year-old?

JOHNSON: I had not met him personally. But I've met Joshua's. I was 18 once and a young black male. I have a young man that I'm trying to grow and hopefully...

BLOCK: I'm sorry.

JOHNSON: People may not understand, but many of us look into the eyes of young people - doesn't matter about color, doesn't matter about the things people assume - this is not a race issue in-and-of-itself. This is a human issue. Human condition and if you're honest and you're true you can't help but look at other people and look at situations and say, but by the grace of God go you and me. That's what I saw. So, yeah, I hadn't met him. I've met too many young men in the last four days, five days, of every age and no matter how old we are we all remember and know that that is us in some shape, form or fashion. Because when I get pulled over, even with my credentialed and degreed - terminal degreed self, I revert back to that 18-year-old and the things of my father told me about what to do when the police stop you.

BLOCK: Reverend Johnson I'm so sorry.

JOHNSON: Oh, you're okay.

BLOCK: Take your time.

JOHNSON: I'm the weeping prophet.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: And that's why there's so many of us that, yes, marching is part of it. And is that my first strategy? Personally no. I wasn't out there marching on Monday, wasn't out there marching on Tuesday. I was doing the things that I thought were necessary and I continue to do that. But I also know that it requires by every means necessary to do what is going to bring about the sense of awareness, the attention, that will allow people to not only express and attempt to explain but to expedite and encourage us to some point of not only reconciliation but resolution and resurrection. Because we have to live when everybody else goes and leaves from that place.

BLOCK: It's really clear in listening to you talk that - that what's going on this week in Ferguson is tapping into something that's very raw and very deep certainly for you and your own experience.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, I am not alone. It's that way for all of us because that is the human nature that we live. That is us. If it's not touching you, if it's not personal, that's where there's a problem. And I think if we are honest with ourselves, I'm fortunate enough I hope, that I have the outlets or the means to process and to exercise through what it is that I feel, I have an outlet, you know, my thing - usually someone who was asking me how I was doing. They know I usually run and try to work out on a daily basis and I joked and said, well, my routes been kind of been messed up. Yeah, you know. But, yeah, I mean, I have outlets. I haven't been out there at one o'clock the morning. I've been like a lot of people I watch it on the news and I wake up in the morning and see things. And it's an intergenerational thing to know that my father fears for me at 39 the same way he feared for me at 18 today. He texts me every morning and says, I'm praying for you, do what you got to do - but, you know, be careful. You know, he shouldn't have to say that. And I shouldn't have to say that and feel that way for my son or my daughter or anyone's son or daughter. So we want the cycle to stop.

BLOCK: That's Reverend Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri. Reverend Johnson, thank you so much.

JOHNSON: No, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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