Des Moines pastor uses religion to increase mental health awareness, political engagement in black community
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Rob Johnson is coming to you.
Whether you’re praising in a pew, getting a haircut or sitting in a Polk County detention center, Johnson has been there.
The Des Moines-based associate minister and community activist has traveled to churches in Sioux City, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, among other places, to volunteer. He’s talked with incarcerated youth about a crime-free path forward. He’s even advocated for voter turnout in local elections while in a chair at Platinum Kutz, a popular barbershop in the Drake neighborhood.
“We respect Rob. Rob's the man," Daniel Bradshaw Jr. said while working inside the shop earlier this month. “We typically don’t talk about religion. I would say more politics and just, in general, the city and our neighborhood and what we’re surrounded by.”
Johnson's relationships and activism have helped grow local charitable efforts involving Des Moines' black barbershops and spawned The Urban Impact Show, a news and culture program on Facebook that highlights people of color.
"The Urban Impact Show is an opportunity for us to really focus on the marginalized communities, communities that are underrepresented," said Johnson, one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2020.
He’s got more planned once the calendar turns.
Johnson, an associate minister at Corinthian Baptist Church, will lead the city's 30th Juneteenth celebration. He also plans to engage more black Iowans in the upcoming year's political process, and use faith to increase mental health awareness.
Sherry Washington, a lifelong member of Second Baptist Church in Fort Dodge, said she's been impressed with Johnson since meeting him last year. He's returned to her church several times and helps to organize weekly speakers there.
Second Baptist wanted him to return, she said, "after hearing Rob preach and hearing his message, all the positivity that he carries along with him. Whether it's politically or in the church or in the community, Rob is a beacon of light for all. ... He's just genuine."
'We meet the kids where they are'
People willing to speak on Johnson's behalf range from business owners to church leaders and political activists. That ability to connect with different types of people may be the most important skill for Johnson, who grew up in Chicago before coming to Des Moines in 2006 and graduating from Drake University.
That skill helps him reach some of Des Moines' most vulnerable youth. Derrick West, a barber from Texas, said Johnson got him involved with speaking to young people in the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center.
"After I went to prison, I started doing 'Scared Straight,' gave my life to God and kind of turned things around for the better," said West, 44. "I said (to Johnson), 'Hey, I want to outreach with kids...
"Now on Sundays, once a month, we go down and talk to juvenile kids, and I kinda give them an outlook of what prison is like."
After coming to Iowa in 2007, West said he was locked up for the first time in his life because a friend said he could make almost $80,000 if he drove 16 hours for him. He was arrested and charged with felony drug trafficking, Oklahoma court records show. He tells his young audiences that he ended up literally fighting for his life in a prison cell.
It's important that the teens see people who look like them trying to help them learn the gravity of each decision, Johnson said, even if they have different backgrounds.
“We meet the kids where they are. This is why it’s important for people like us to come" to the juvenile detention center, Johnson said. "You can then go and tell another kid, 'Hey, this isn’t what’s up. We heard from a guy who told us that this isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing.'”
'You need your therapist and Jesus'
Central to Johnson's work, with youth or adults, is mental health.
"You tell a black mom that she’s not dealing with something mentally after she just lost her son to violence," Johnson said. "You tell a child who’s growing up and watched the police come into the house and take their mom or take their dad away from them, for whatever the case may be, that they’re not suffering with something mentally."
Johnson has spoken with his church's pastor, the Rev. Jonathan B. Whitfield of Corinthian Baptist Church, about on-site mental health resources — an idea that could offend more traditional religious leaders.
But Johnson said Whitfield is on board. Johnson isn't sure when Corinthian might have that help readily available, but the two are trying to connect more parishioners with mental health services.
"My pastor will tell you, 'I’ll handle the spiritual part.' We’ll make sure that you understand what's happening spiritually, but we also need you to get some help mentally," he said. "Because sometimes your mental is going to block what’s happening right here (in your heart) spiritually because of how you think about it, because of how you look at the situation."
Johnson said he is among several community leaders who want to destigmatize the mental health discussion among black Iowans. Too long, he said, people have been told to pray instead of seeking help, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
“You need your therapist and Jesus," Johnson said. "I don't go to my mechanic if I got a toothache. So why would we just think that the only thing we need to do is go to church when there are people here with a God-given gift to give us tangible steps to help people overcome what they’ve gone through or process differently the trauma that they’ve experienced?"
And for those outside the church, there is Code R.E.D., or "restoring everything damaged." Johnson said he partnered with the Iowa-Nebraska branch of the NAACP to start the program, a series of forums centered on mental health. There were multiple forums in 2019, and more are planned in 2020.
"I don't only want to focus on mental health. I want to focus on financial literacy and making sure credit scores are right. I want to focus on education. ... And not only our mental health but our physical health," Johnson said.
“But if we don’t start with the mental piece, all the rest of the pieces won’t fall in line."
15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year
Nudging more black Iowans to vote
When discussing his projects, Johnson mentions others who have helped him along the way: He notes Whitfield, his pastor; Betty Andrews, who runs the NAACP's Iowa-Nebraska branch; his late mother, Jaunice; and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who recently ended her presidential campaign.
Johnson said he traveled the state as part of Harris' faith outreach team. He did the same for Deidre DeJear when she ran for secretary of state.
Johnson doesn't talk about his personal politics as much as he talks about increasing the number of active voters. He lamented that only about 20,000 people voted in Des Moines' mayoral race, but said he understands election seasons can be taxing.
“(Then) you've got to caucus in February, come back in June for the United States Senate primaries and for the local primaries. And then after the primary, you have the general election in November. It’s a lot to remember in 2020."
Johnson has a political science degree. The possibility that he might run for office seems plausible. When asked, he doesn't dismiss the notion: "Let's just say we'll all see clearly in 2020."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Rob Johnson
- BORN: Chicago, 1988
- RESIDENCE: Des Moines
- EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in political science from Drake University
- OCCUPATION: Insurance wholesaler; travels the country, selling insurance to banks and independent accounts that can then resell the product to costumers
- CLAIMS TO FAME: Juneteenth; The Urban Impact Show; creator, Code R.E.D. mental health forums
- POSITIONS of NOTE: Minister
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