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New bishop brings language of the deaf to church

The Rev. Peggy Johnson, elected July 17 elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church, has spent most of her 30 years of ministry working with the deaf community. A UMNS photo by Norine Rowe.

By Linda Bloom*
July 18, 2008 | HARRISBURG, Pa. (UMNS)

When the Rev. Peggy Johnson of Baltimore was brought to the stage after being elected a United Methodist bishop, she made sure she spoke in two languages.

“I would like to sign this,” she told delegates in both English and American Sign Language at the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, “because there are two young people here who are deaf, and I would like them to think that a bishop can talk to them in their language.”

Johnson – who was elected July 17 and takes office Sept. 1 – has dedicated much of her nearly 30 years of ministry to work with the deaf.

As he introduced her, Bishop John Schol of Washington, who leads the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference, alluded to the impact that passion could have. “In the coming years, we, as United Methodists, will learn a whole new vocabulary,” he said.

Working with the deaf

Johnson, 54, said later in a press conference that she “always had an affinity with the disabled community” because she was born with one eye and has an artificial eye.

She had planned for a career in music education, but suffered a personal crisis after losing her singing voice. She was so impressed when she saw a deaf choir perform for the first time that she signed up for the first of many sign-language classes, even though she is not deaf.

After graduating in 1980 from Asbury Theological Seminary – where she met her husband, the Rev. Michael Johnson – she returned to Baltimore. When an opening at Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf came up eight years later, she took the opportunity.

Besides leading the day-to-day operations at Christ Church, with a staff of four, Johnson has coordinated the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s deaf ministry for the past 20 years and has supported a deaf ministry program in Zimbabwe since 2000. She also worked for four years as a deaf ministry consultant for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Johnson founded and directed deaf children’s camps, a deaf-blind camp and young adult deaf camps, led the Global United Methodist Conference of the Deaf in 2005 and taught about deaf culture at Wesley Theological Seminary for 11 years.

Her personal theology of inclusion and empowerment of the disabled also has led to hands-on ministry at state institutions, including the prison, deaf school, mental health facility and developmentally disabled group homes. She directs a traveling sign language choir that has performed more than 400 times around the United Methodist connection during the past 20 years.

Advocating on HIV/AIDS

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the deaf population in the late 1980s, Johnson began advocating for that issue as well, eventually convincing the state of Maryland to set up HIV/AIDS education programs for the deaf. “Our church went out on the road, in tandem with the state of Maryland, to teach deaf people about HIV/AIDS,” she said.

For her efforts, she received the “HIV/AIDS Activist Award” from the Family Service Foundation of Baltimore in 2004 and the “Helping Hand Award” from the Maryland Association of the Deaf in 1991 and 2005. She currently serves on the mental health task force of the Governor’s Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Johnson, the mother of two grown sons, has family roots in the church as deep as her roots in Baltimore. She represents the Evangelical United Brethren side of the merger with the Methodist Church that created The United Methodist Church 40 years ago. Johnson said her maternal great grandfather built the third EUB church in Baltimore, and each of his 10 children helped establish new churches in other parts of what was then Baltimore County.

On her father’s side, her grandfather, born in 1875 in England, was part of the original Salvation Army, working with founder William Booth, a former Methodist minister.

Johnson herself was baptized, confirmed and married in Lansdowne United Methodist Church, a suburban Baltimore congregation. She and her husband were co-pastors at Lansdowne from 1985 to 1993 and he again is its pastor, just starting his eighth year there.   

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio Interview with Bishop-elect Peggy Johnson

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