PBS NewsHour


A young black pastor on preaching hope amid despair

Todd Johnson is the youngest pastor in Warren, Ohio, and preaches at the oldest black Baptist congregation in Trumbull County. He says he has always felt driven to help the people he serves, especially during difficult times -- such as when a community member was killed by police in January 2019. Pastor Todd Johnson offers his Brief But Spectacular take on ministering in the city that raised him.

AIRED: May 28, 2020 | 0:03:30

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we hear from Todd Johnson. He is the youngest pastor in Warren, Ohio.

And he preaches at the oldest black Baptist congregation in Trumbull County.

Johnson is driven to help the people he serves, especially during difficult times, and when

a community member was killed by police in January of 2019.

Our Brief But Spectacular team spoke with Pastor Johnson before the pandemic.

PASTOR TODD JOHNSON, Warren, Ohio: As I preach to my congregation, I am ever mindful that

I am preaching and teaching to people who lived through segregation and Jim Crow, and

some who participated in protest and advocated for change.

So I always have in the back of my mind that I'm another link in the chain of progress,

and I have this legacy that I get to look at every day to encourage me that, yes, it

can be done.

I have wanted to be a pastor since I was a little boy. It's a pretty significant thing

for me to be able to minister in the same city that raised me.

In communities like Warren, it's kind of that place where everybody knows everybody. And

when you are working with a justice system in a community like that, there's a lot of

distrust of the system because you're well aware that the officers, the prosecutors,

the judges, the lawyers, they all know each other very well.

And, in our view, that might affect how tough they're willing to be with one another in

matters of justice.

There was an incident with a young man of color named Matthew Burroughs. He was originally

slated to have a court hearing. And that hearing was canceled. And on his way out, an officer

of the court attempted to stop him in regards to another matter. And Matthew chose to flee

the scene and go home.

A chase ensued. And, as Matthew pulled into the apartment complex where he lived, neighbors

and witnesses describe sort of slow standoff that culminated in a very quick firing of

weapons by Niles police officers, resulting in his death.

Many feel that he was not a threat to the officers at all. So, we have been fighting

all year long for the officers to be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately,

our Trumbull County prosecutor decided not to pursue charges, and the grand jury did

not indict those officers.

I have always had a positive view of law enforcement. I was taught to respect police officers and

judges. At the same time, I'm always cognizant that there are those who don't always respect

all people the same way.

I worry that our community will give in to despair. I worry that, sometimes, we can get

so stuck in the successes of the past, that we don't see the promise of the future. In

some areas of our city, it's often seen as violent or crime-ridden or rankled by drug


And while those things do exist, it's really not the prominent story of our community.

We really do have a wide swathe of individuals who are working in community organizations,

churches, students who are excelling.

And we're not just another Rust Belt city that doesn't have any hope or any promise.

I think it's vital for young people to be a bridge with the historical knowledge that

we have.

When I'm letting some young person know that they really do have a future ahead of them,

and I'm letting some older person know that their best days really aren't behind them,

that's when I feel the most free.

My name is Pastor Todd Johnson, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on being a young

black pastor in Warren, Ohio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular segments online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.