In order to keep her academic work grounded in the real world, Susanne Johnson heads to the border.

Johnson, a scholar of practical theology, makes regular trips to the Mexico-U.S. border at locations in Texas, Arizona and California, where she listens to the stories of the people as part of her research.

“I believe immigration is one of the defining public issues of our era, and certainly one of the most important themes in Scripture,” she said.

Susanne Johnson helping to prepare an evening meal for migrants and asylum-seekers at the border in Tijuana, Mexico, where she conducts research. The food kitchen is a cooperative ministry of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) (United States), and the Methodist Church of Mexico.

These days, she’s especially energized by her project focused on El Faro Border Church, an ecclesial community that gathers each Sunday afternoon in an open-air plaza at the Tijuana/San Diego border. (A grant from Perkins’ Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religion has helped cover the costs of travel for this ongoing project.)

“What’s unique about El Faro is that parallel fences – militarized by the U.S. – cut through their worship space,” she said. “Thus, each week, there are worshipers on each respective side of the border fence. I’ve spent considerable time on both sides, getting acquainted with people related to the El Faro community and learning about ministry endeavors important to them.”

Her overall focus is on how El Faro members engage with geopolitical realities of the border through their ecclesial and liturgical practices.

“In gathering testimonios, I’ve learned how central the Lord’s Supper is to their self-understanding and their justice-seeking endeavors,” she said. “I am reminded of William Cavanaugh’s contention that communing at the Table transforms partakers into a body with a theopolitical dimension.”

One way members express their theopolitical imagination is through images and murals they paint along many miles of the border fence. It’s street-style popular art, Johnson said; the artists don’t paint in order to make hideous structures somehow look pretty. Instead, the wall serves as a vast canvas for art that critiques injustice and envisions alternatives.

“For example, there’s a big, ugly image of la cicatriz (the scar), which functions liturgically as a visual lament of the scar on the body politic and body of Christ, and on bodies of migrants permanently scarred by the trauma of detention, family separation and deportation,” she said. “Yet there are also many positive, hopeful images.”

The Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies recently published her article about the theopolitical and liturgical significance of the border artists’ work; she plans on doing further pieces on the topic. Through the lens of feminist practical theology, she has also written and published about gendered issues in immigration and structural violence against women and children at the border. This work also informs another writing project – a manuscript about justice-making as a theological means of grace as understood in the Wesleyan tradition.

Susanne Johnson (in black hat, black vest) sharing a Thanksgiving meal with day laborers in Dallas, served on the parking lot of a Conoco gas station. “This was the most meaningful and memorable Thanksgiving I’ve ever had – especially because undocumented migrants entrusted their stories to me, and I felt blessed,” says Susanne.

“I seek to integrate emphases too often split apart, namely, spirituality and social justice – both of which I’ve long been passionate about,” she said. Too often, she added, spiritual formation venues emphasize devotional practices, which Wesley called works of piety, at the expense of Wesley’s equal emphasis on works of mercy and justice-making.

“We need to recover, but critically so, Wesley’s double-emphasis on works of piety, and works of mercy and justice – and, as he did, view them as organically interrelated, mutually corrective and together comprising theological means of grace and Christian formation,” Johnson said.

However, in El Faro Border Church, she sees no such split.

“It makes a great case study for this larger project, because there’s no false split between personal piety and political activism – between ‘soulcraft’ and ‘statecraft,’” she said. “This community at the margins and borderlands has important things to teach the mainstream church in North America.”

 

Teaching Specialties

Susanne Johnson with Perkins colleagues after a faculty meeting, enjoying their occasional “wear your cowboy hat to the faculty meeting day.”

Practical Theology; Christian Religious Education; Education for Social Justice; Ministry with Children

Research Interests

Christian formation; immigration; faith in public life; social class and intersectional issues; justice-making as a means of grace

Favorite Bible Passages

Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 1:46-55. She likes the Isaiah passage for “its vivid metaphors for the justice God intends – namely, access to conditions and resources needed for human flourishing, interdependently with the created order.” Similarly, Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55 pictures a young, dark-skinned working-class woman – who soon becomes a refugee fleeing to save her child – singing about a God who sides with the economically poor and upends exploitative systems. “Scripture is extensively concerned with whether or not religious, economic and political ‘powers that be’ serve in ways that help extend justice and blessings to all families and peoples, and I gravitate to texts on this theme,” Johnson said.

Books on Her Nightstand

Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century, which aims to counter ways this practice, along with baptism, is privatized, spiritualized and sentimentalized by the dominant church in the U.S. Also, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx by Heidi Neumark, an Episcopal minister. “It’s an older but still timely book, and one of the most imaginative, helpful books in congregational and community leadership I’ve ever read,” Johnson said. “We know that a seminary degree can’t anticipate every possible situation of ministry, and Neumark is an exemplary model of how to improvise and innovate in the face of novel situations. I wish it was required reading for all ministry students.”

Fantasy Dinner Party

Johnson’s table would include a group of what she calls ‘badass’ women:  Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh; abolitionist Harriet Tubman; Septima Clark, who helped run Citizenship Schools, a key to the civil rights movement; Dorothy Day, who inspired the Catholic Worker Movement; Jane Addams, co-founder of one of the first immigrant settlement houses in the U.S; and Eva Cassidy, a singer of blues and jazz in our era, who died at a young age. Also, “if he’d be willing to be in the midst of these badass women” – she’d add Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for taking part in plans to topple Hitler, and James He Qi, her favorite contemporary artist. Said Johnson, “I’d ask everyone to talk about their source of strength to face adversity, and to resist unjust powers of the Empire – and the role that music and arts can play in all this.”

Favorite Travel Destination

Johnson has visited five of the seven continents, but at the moment, her favorite destination is  El Faro Border Church. She explains, “Both the physical setting and the people there are profoundly inspiring!” 

Hobby

Photography. “My camera goes everywhere I go, as does my coffee mug!” said Johnson. “Both have been around the world with me. I especially love to shoot outdoor scenes during the brief period just after sundown known as the ‘blue hour,’ during which you can capture brilliant hues of blue in the sky.”

Question She’d Ask at the Pearly Gates 

“If I’m admitted, how soon can I hear Eva Cassidy sing – and can I put in a personal request?”

Personal Spiritual Practices

Johnson does deep-breathing meditation regularly. Frequently, she visualizes herself at the Great Banquet Table – a biblical image that’s spiritually comforting and politically radical. “Here we see that the bereft, the despised, the exploited, the abandoned, have seats of honor,” she said. “We see that those with empty stomachs and unfulfilled yearnings are satisfied.  Sometimes I see myself with dear deceased loved ones and am comforted. But there are times I see myself seated by people I dislike, and am convicted to forgive.”