Studying the City: Johnson University

By Jennifer Johnson

Several of the colleges and universities affiliated with our movement understand the need to reach their own cities while preparing students for an urban future. Here’s what one of them is doing.
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JOHNSON UNIVERSITY
Knoxville, Tennessee, & Kissimmee, Florida

Across the country, Johnson University has developed a variety of programs for its own students, for local high school and middle school students, and for the surrounding communities. In Knoxville, Kenny Woodhull leads the Urban Alliance, a Johnson initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development.

“A few years ago, a group of students approached our president, Dr. Gary Weedman, and requested a holistic urban studies program,” Woodhull says. “We’ve been working on it ever since.”

Urban Alliance is a Johnson University initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development. Jacqueline Jackson and Rebecca Schuster are two Urban Scholars from that initiative.
Urban Alliance is a Johnson University initiative that partners with local organizations to offer educational experiences, mentoring, and leadership development. Jacqueline Jackson and Rebecca Schuster are two Urban Scholars from that initiative.

Today the Alliance includes the Urban Scholars program, a scholarship for promising urban high school students; Urban Plunge, an inner-city residential experience for Johnson University students; Royal Explorers, a two-week, field-based summer science camp for sixth-graders; Future of Hope, a six-month practical and theological exploration of issues facing Knoxville, designed for urban high school students; and ExtendEd Knoxville, a degree-granting and leadership development program for adults in partnership with Knoxville Interdenominational Bible Institute.

“The goal is to connect the needs and resources of Johnson with the needs and resources of Knoxville,” Woodhull says. “It’s a two-way street; we are diminished to the degree that we are not engaged with the city.” He views his work in terms of creating new programs where none exist, cultivating existing passions and programs that need to expand, and coordinating each initiative so they all complement each other and remain healthy.

A fourth key—collaboration—runs throughout the work.

“We’re delighted we’re having opportunities to come alongside existing organizations,” he says. “In overseas missions we’ve realized the future is indigenous leadership, and it’s true here, as well. God was at work in inner-city Knoxville way before we showed up, so we’re joining God in his mission and partnering with others who are already doing good work.”

The same spirit of innovation and interdependence marks the urban ministry work at Johnson’s Kissimmee, Florida, campus. In addition to an urban emphasis in their existing Intercultural Studies degree that requires significant time out of the classroom, Johnson Florida is developing Engage Orlando—a residential program for upper-class students similar to the Urban Plunge in Knoxville—as well as an Urban Ministry major and a degree in Global Community Health.

“For that degree, we’re working with urban developers and community development organizations who are already doing relief work and education,” says Kendi Howells Douglas, professor of intercultural studies. “Students will learn from these partnerships, and graduates will be equipped to help local communities with real health issues.

“For instance, someone with this degree could go into an inner-city school and talk about the Zika virus, which is a big concern right now because the lower-income areas of town have a lot of dirt and standing water, but don’t usually get sprayed for mosquitos.”

Johnson is also working on a TESOL—Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages—major and considering a certificate in Christian Ministries offered completely in Spanish for the many local pastors who have immigrated from Puerto Rico or Honduras and have no theological training. This will require not only coursework offered in Spanish, but also bilingual administrators, tutors, and support staff.

While this big initiative is still in the planning stages, Johnson is already building relationships with the Spanish-speakers near its campus. On October 15 the school held a Fall Fiesta, a huge family-friendly party with a Spanish speaker, rap group, and games and activities for kids. At the fiesta they also announced a new program called Mission Metropolis, a camp for 10th- through 12th-graders that includes a week learning about urban ministry and participating in projects off campus, followed by a week in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

“My dream is 10th-graders would begin learning about urban ministry and missions in Mission Metropolis, after three years they enroll at Johnson, they do their undergraduate degree with an urban concentration, and then do their master’s online!” Howells Douglas says. “I realize not every student will follow that path, but we have to dream and prepare at that level. The projections for urban growth are unbelievable—we must train the majority of our students, regardless of their major, to be engaging urban contexts.”

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