Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson has always considered herself a city person. So it has come as a bit of a surprise that the congregation she has presided over for the past several years, as a black woman, is majority white, located far from an urban setting on the East End of Long Island — and yet she considers it a perfect fit.
Rev. Johnson has been the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork for more than three years but was officially installed as its permanent minister on May 5 at the congregation’s Meetinghouse in Bridgehampton. Her relationship with the congregation started as a one-year contract, then was extended to a three-year contract, and at the end of that term, they made it official.
Rev. Johnson speaks with a breezy kind of lightness that conveys openness and optimism, but she is fiercely intelligent and decisive about her views and what she considers to be her mission — and has a long track record of putting words into action. Before becoming a minister, Rev. Johnson worked as a union organizer, for both the United Auto Workers and graduate teaching assistant in New York. She also worked for several years teaching women and gender studies at several universities. Education and social justice spoke to her heart and were her passions, she said, but there was still something missing.
“A lot of my work was about helping people to understand their own power and articulate a vision for their lives and future, and how to make that real for themselves,” she said. “Being a minister, I get to do all those things and there is this other aspect that is more personal. In organizing and teaching, I wasn’t helping people connect to an understanding of God. I can be a lot more explicit about that now. However we imagine God, having a deep connection to that gives our lives more meaning and power.”
Rev. Johnson was raised in New Jersey as a Baptist but said she “never felt entirely at home” in that world, drawn to sense of community and caring for each other, but put off by the adherence to dogma and strict interpretations of the bible. She said she discovered Unitarian Universalism in her mid 20s and was drawn to the “theological openness” of its belief system.
That kind of open discourse is part of what Rev. Johnson says she found appealing about the congregation that comes together at the Meetinghouse on the Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike. She also likes how the congregation is committed to political activism, which has always been close to her heart.
Rev. Johnson spoke about sometimes hard but necessary and productive dialogues the congregation has had about lack of diversity in its congregation, conversations about race, and how to engage more people of color in the community. She said hiring her was a sign that they are serious about the issue.
“I’m different from them, but they didn’t say we want somebody who is like us,” she said. “We want somebody who is going to bring difference and challenge us.”
Her permanent installation as minister was welcome news for many. Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming was at Reverend Johnson’s installation ceremony earlier this month. She said that Reverend Johnson’s long-term commitment will not only be felt with the walls of the Meetinghouse, but beyond.
“I know the Reverend Johnson to be a compassionate, courageous leader, so I am so pleased that she’s decided to be part of the community here,” she said. “I know she’s going to serve the Unitarians well, as well as the community at large.”
Rev. Johnson said that reaching beyond the walls of the Meetinghouse and partnering with people and groups in the community that aren’t part of the congregation is a key mission, and one both she and the congregation support.
Events like the upcoming fourth annual Interfaith Iftar, set for May 26 at the church, are examples of that, as well as other discussions and meetings that tackle important topics and questions about both spiritual and political issues that are open to the community at places like the John Jermain Library.
“We try not to do too many things where we’re not partnering with others in our community,” she said, pointing out that it’s particularly important for a small congregation to adopt that mindset. “We try to offer opportunities for people in our congregation and beyond to connect to what gives their life meaning and then figure out how to live in that world. We’re not trying to convert people or get more members, but we just want to provide opportunities for people to think more deeply.”
Of course, Rev. Johnson admits she’d love to see the Unitarian Universalist congregation grow under her guidance, especially now that she is committed to being there for the long haul.
“We do want people to come by and check us out,” she said. “We really do think that people want to be connected to other folks who are figuring out how to live their lives in these times. And we think it’s better to do that in community.
“You have to believe something, but not the same thing,” she added. “We think what we have to offer is amazing, and we want to share that with people.”