There and Back Again, Pt. 2

May 06, 2014

John Johnson (M.Div. ’77) and Barbara Johnson (M.A. Biblical Counseling ‘06)

John and Barbara Johnson currently serve the Lord and his people on the Navajo Reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico, where John is the Chief Medical Officer at Crownpoint Indian Hospital and Barbara is the director of the local chapter of YoungLives, a ministry to teenage mothers. The road to serving the Navajo people was anything but direct, with the Lord leading them from Westminster into over 20 years in the church-planting ministry, from the pastoral ministry into medicine, back to Westminster, then on to ministry amongst the Navajo.

In the second of a two-part story, the Johnsons share with us their service among the Navajo people. Click here to read part 1.

John and Barbara Johnson

Upon the conclusion of John’s medical residency and Barbara’s studies at Westminster, the Johnsons decided to relocate to New Mexico in 2006 to work among the Navajo people. 

John says, “To fund my medical studies, I had been given a National Health Service Corps scholarship, which required me to practice medicine in an underserved area upon finishing my training. I’d always wanted to serve the Navajo people, so that’s what we did. From 2006 to 2010, I was a family practitioner at the Crownpoint Indian Hospital on the Navajo Reservation. Then in 2010, when we lost our clinical director, I was chosen to succeed him. That’s where my training at Westminster and my 22 years of ministry have proved so helpful. As I’ve assumed the responsibilities of clinical director of this hospital, it’s like I’ve taken on another ministry.” 

John explained, “I feel I have as many counseling opportunities here in the hospital as I had when I was planting churches. People walk into my office thinking that they’re coming to complain about the lack of equipment in the ER or such; but from their complaint I can tell that they’re just angry. I try to deal with the anger - and people respond to it. I take these opportunities to turn things in that direction. So just like they did in the ministry, people come from far and wide, because they know I will talk to them about these things. I look at this as the Lord giving me an open door.”

Meanwhile, Barbara worked to establish a YoungLives ministry to the local Navajo teenaged mothers. Barbara shared, “While I was back in Philadelphia, I got in touch with a ministry called Young Life which I’d become familiar with through my work in Washington DC. What I got involved in eventually was a part of their ministry called YoungLives, which is targeted at teen moms.” Barbara eventually became the founder of the YoungLives ministry in Philadelphia. “When I spoke to the Young Life director, I told them I wanted to start YoungLives in Philly. He replied to me, ‘Barbara, I’ve been praying that someone would come along and start YoungLives in the Philly area!’ So I started it in Norristown with a meeting once a month. We did parenting presentations and gave out things like diapers and wipes. I also had great people serving alongside me who would mentor the girls who came.” 

Barbara’s ministry among teen moms continued to grow. “One day at Westminster, I was sitting in class with some students who ministered in the North Philadelphia area, and I started sharing what I was doing with YoungLives. They told me, ‘You need to come to North Philly and start another one!’” So Barbara’s ministry grew to two YoungLives groups.  She remembers, “It was pretty complicated running the two groups on top of studying, and I don’t know how I did it but God really blessed the ministry. I think the two groups I started have now grown into six groups. I wanted to stay, but God was sending us to New Mexico. I wondered to myself ‘What do Philadelphia and the Navajo Reservation have in common?’ And the answer, of course, was lots of pregnant teenagers! There was no YoungLives ministry in New Mexico, so I ended up starting it again.

Barbara Johson with student“Now we have all these kids coming to the church for YoungLives who’ve never been to the church before! Transportation around the area is so bad and there’s not that much going on here by way of entertainment. Teen moms will bring along their grandmothers and aunts and siblings because this is the most fun thing that is going on in town. We have 70 people who come to the meetings (which we call clubs) and usually only about 20 of them are my target group – but it’s packed and they’re all getting to hear the gospel even if they’re not the target group.” Barbara runs a club meeting and two Bible studies (for teens, up to age 25) every two weeks. She shares with excitement, “They come! The teen moms and dads are studying Luke, and I have a class which has turned into discipleship – I’m trying to train future mentors to work with the younger moms.” Barbara continued, “I give out diapers and gas for their cars if they come, so sometimes you think ‘They’re just coming for the diapers and the gas,' but I feel like God is at work and things are changing. Couples have gotten married – they’re trying to do things God’s way. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the ladies and men that work with me and in the kids. It’s been slow, but it’s happening – Jesus is really changing lives.” 

At the same time, Barbara has also ministered to the women in her local church. “I’d just finished seminary, so I wanted to study the Bible with other women. I wasn’t sure if anyone would come, but I thought about it and said ‘Why don’t we just start it in the church and if they come, they’ll come, and if they don’t, we can just move it later on.’ Well, the Navajo ladies have been so faithful! They come, they love it and they’ve changed so much because of it. We’ve studied Genesis, Romans and Isaiah – what I’ve found is that they had a lot of faith but not much theology, so it’s been really exciting to see them grow. When I told them I was starting YoungLives, they became my prayer support and they’ve been so supportive. For the Navajo, often when a teenager has a baby, they are written off like there is no future for them. But the emphasis of the gospel is to go out to those lost people, those lost young moms that need Jesus. So they are so excited to have a way that they can reach out. One lady told me, ‘You’ve taught us how to love these kids.’”

Ministering among the Navajo, there are also significant challenges that both John and Barbara experience. Barbara shares, “I love working with the Navajo people – but it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. This area is rural and so poor. People live 20 miles away and don’t know each other because transportation is so difficult. There’s a lot of isolation and lack of community here. Spiritually, most don’t know the gospel – they think it’s 'a white-man’s religion.' There’s resistance to hearing about Jesus. Ministry has been slow for us because they don’t readily trust outsiders. But the longer we’re here, the more opportunities arise – it’s been eight years and counting.” 

John adds, “It can be a pretty dark culture with scary aspects like skin-walkers and other fearful traditions; they’ll come having nightmares and won’t be able to sleep, and they’re haunted by a far ranging set of taboos – the nurses won’t touch a dead body in the hospital.” John also sees a range of health and social issues in the Navajo community. “These people are sicker than most Americans. Alcohol abuse is a big issue. I was at Walmart the other day, and there was a bald guy walking up to the counter with three bottles of hairspray, and I realized he had no hair to keep in place, and he was probably going to punch a hole in it and drink it. They drink hair spray, Febreeze, vanilla extract, and other very toxic substances. The population is so poor that this is the only kind of alcohol they can afford. One third of the people who come into the ER don’t have running water, electricity or even wood – and it gets colder here than in Alaska, at times, because we are at 7,000 feet above sea level. They sit out in their cars to try to warm up.” John also sees issues of domestic violence. “On the East Coast, women would come into the ER who are battered by their husbands, but we could never get them to press charges. Here, battered women will want to press charges and go so far as to write a police report on their abusers, but the Navajo Nation tends to ignore them. I’ve told authorities that they need to hold men accountable for how they treat women, but brutality towards women seems to be accepted here in ways it’s not accepted elsewhere.”

John continues, “The Navajo Nation is the biggest Indian reservation in the country – it’s a large and sovereign nation and a rather large enterprise, but it’s like a third world country in many ways. I’ve had access to the Navajo President and the First Lady and other tribal authorities, and I’ve dialogued with them to try to help them come to terms with the medical situation the Navajo Nation faces, with the hope of improving funding for health care and support for improving patient care initiatives.”

The Johnsons have also faced personal suffering in their time with the Navajos, with Barbara continuing her struggle with cancer. Barbara shared, “Here I am with cancer again, and the kids I work with know. Navajos don’t talk about sickness, but I do! They’ve seen me with no hair! They ask me about it – one of the girls said to me “Are you scared? How do you do it?” I just tell them that I try to keep my eyes on Jesus. They could see me as “the doctor’s wife” who has everything going for her, but they know that’s not true – they know I’m sick and have medical issues. They know that if Jesus can help me, He can help them.”

Please join us in praying for the Johnsons as they continue their work with the Navajo people in New Mexico, and as they continue to battle Barbara’s cancer, which is, by current medical understanding, in its terminal phase.

Barbara has offered her E-mail address to any who would like to contact her, especially fellow alumni.