Life Stories

Life Stories: Former Bishop Robert C. Johnson Jr. known for listening, action

CorrespondentMarch 16, 2014 

  • Robert C. Johnson Jr.

    Born: July 18, 1938, in Columbus, Ga.

    Family: Born as the middle child of three, he marries Connie Smith Johnson in 1959 during their senior year of college. They have two children, son Robert Kinley Johnson and daughter Julie Johnson Hege. He has three grandsons and two great-grandsons.

    Education: Earns undergraduate degrees in English and history from Mercer University in Macon, Ga., in 1960. Graduates with a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., in 1964, later earning an additional M.A. from N.C. State University in 1973. He is awarded two honorary doctorate degrees, one from the Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.), the other from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

    Career: Begins his career as a Southern Baptist minister but converts to the Episcopal Church in 1964, eventually rising to be the North Carolina Diocesan bishop in 1993. He is posted at various Episcopal Churches: St. Peter’s in Charlotte; St. Paul’s in Smithfield; St. Christopher’s, in Garner; and St. Luke’s in Durham. He retires in 2000. He also teaches English on and off early in his career, both at the high school and collegiate levels.

    Dies: Jan. 3 in Durham.

About five or six times a year, the telephone rang in the Johnson household in the middle of the night, and Robert C. Johnson Jr. did his best to handle the needs of a stranger in crisis.

A career as an Episcopal priest armed him with the skills to counsel others, but his friends and family say Johnson had a particular gift for truly listening to people. It was a strength that helped in matters of life or death, such as when he worked with the local suicide-prevention hotline. For years he served as the emergency contact, called only when hotline workers found themselves in over their heads.

His wife of 54 years, Connie Johnson, remembers a call from a woman from their church who was fearful for her children and her own life at the hands of an abusive husband. Johnson picked them up and brought them back to his house. The next day, after the woman’s husband had sobered up and left for work, he drove her back to gather some belongings and then took her to refuge with a family member.

“Nobody ever knew about things like that,” Connie Johnson said.

The Rt. Rev. Robert Johnson spent 37 years ministering to his community, regardless of whether the people he helped shared his faith.

He died in January at the age of 75.

‘The best bishop’

Johnson’s association with the Episcopal Church began when he found insufferable the racial segregation of his childhood denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. A friend had introduced him to Episcopal liturgy, and he felt that denomination was taking a better stand on equality.

That will to take on intolerance toward others was never quieted. He remained outspoken, even as an Episcopal bishop, about the principle that all people should be accepted regardless of creed, gender, race or sexual orientation. He welcomed the election of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, in 2003.

Upon his retirement in 2000, a man approached Connie Johnson and said, “I want you to know I do not agree with your husband on a single issue, but I think he’s the best bishop we have.”

This made sense to his wife.

“Bob just went in and loved people first before he tried to change what they were thinking,” she said.

Overseeing 122 churches

Robert Johnson’s father worked for the Home Mission Board for the Southern Baptist Convention, advocating for teens at risk. His mother taught the fifth grade.

It was no small thing for Johnson to change denominations, his wife said.

But in the 1960s, he could not abide by the overt racism and segregation taking place within the church community, she said. Before Robert Johnson finished his master’s of divinity degree from Yale University, the Johnsons became Episcopalian.

Johnson considered himself a “local yokel” not destined for high office, but he was nominated to become a bishop in 1993.

It seems his work had not gone unnoticed. He spent the last seven years of his career as the 10th Episcopal bishop of North Carolina. In that role, he oversaw 122 churches through the middle of the state – a region three times larger than those encompassing the coast and mountains.

Taking on many roles

Though he refused to take credit, his family said he helped found the crisis hotline, as well as the Durham chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

In the late 1970s, Johnson helped St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham sponsor a refugee Cambodian family. The Johnsons greeted the Ung family, with all of their worldly possessions stuffed inside pillowcases, at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. A mother and father, grandparents and four children depended on Johnson’s parish to provide everything from bed linens to help enrolling the kids in school.

Johnson was known for being hands-on. Bill and Grams Gutknecht, longtime parishioners, remember one day not long after the Johnsons started at St. Luke’s.

“Bob showed up at our apartment,” the couple wrote in an email. “It was a real and wonderful surprise that a priest would do this. In fact, he did his best to visit every parishioner during his early days at St. Luke’s.”

Something else that perhaps set him apart from other top clergymen, his wife said, was his deep involvement with church youth initiatives. For 19 years, the Johnsons personally ran the Episcopal Youth Community at St. Luke’s, spending more than an hour every Sunday night with youths from the time they were 12 until they were 18 years old.

His wife counted 28 EYC alumni at Johnson’s funeral, some coming from as far as New Jersey to pay their respects.

“I remember how often one of his sermons would even grab and hold the attention of my teenage children at the time, an event of some amazement to me,” said Bill Yarger, a longtime parishioner.

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