Canton native Robin Johnson first became acquainted with the Catholic Church when she started dating her husband, Fred, who was a devout Catholic and parishioner at St. Benedict Church—now part of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, in Canton. After they were married, this meant that every weekend they would attend Catholic Mass at St. Benedict every Saturday and Robin’s church on Sunday.
“I wanted, as a couple, to go to the same church, so I took RCIA and I learned a lot. I learned that Catholicism is Christian, and that was a major thing that held me back,” said Johnson, who is now the president of the Catholic Interracial Council, which serves the Youngstown area.
Johnson has been a member at St. Benedict Church for 23 years now, and even after her husband passed away eight years ago, she continues to be as involved as ever at the parish—serving as a eucharistic minister and volunteering for parish events. She also uses her involvement in her neighborhood association to make it known that all are welcome at Mass.
“[St. Benedict] is a white church nestled in a Black neighborhood,” said Johnson. “I live in the neighborhood surrounding the church … and we do a lot in conjunction with the church. I try to [strengthen] that bond.”
As president of the Catholic Interracial Council, Johnson’s influence extends beyond her neighborhood and throughout the diocese. The council, which was founded in the ’60s, is dedicated to two initiatives: evangelization and education.
“We’re constantly doing things to spread the Good News. We want people to know that God is love and God loves everyone … the council also leans strongly in Catholic education. We try to recruit and get children in there and get them to know Jesus, and then try to get their families to know Jesus,” said Johnson.
Supporting their goal of evangelization, the council organizes seasonal activities—such as preparing and delivering Easter baskets to senior citizens—as well as regular events, including a community dinner every three months at St. Benedict Church.
“It draws people,” Johnson said about the dinners. “Jesus loved food. Jesus loved weddings and parties. And that’s our way of getting people to the Church.”
In promoting Catholic schools, the council works closely with Father Edward Brienz—their diocesan liaison, who is vice-rector at St. Columba Cathedral, parochial vicar at St. Edward Parish and Holy Apostles Parish and the director of Propagation of the Faith and Missions Department for the diocese. They also work closely with the diocesan office of Catholic Schools to help create opportunities for students who, otherwise, might not consider Catholic education. For example, each year the council awards scholarships to six students at St. Thomas Aquinas High and Middle School in Louisville.
Johnson also recently represented the Diocese of Youngstown at the National Black Catholic Congress held in National Harbor, Maryland, in July. In addition to providing educational and worship opportunities for those in attendance, one of the primary goals of the congress, which is usually held every five years, is to create a pastoral plan. The plan that will come out of the 2023 meeting is expected to be released in the new year and will contain useful suggestions and ideas for parishes and other Catholic institutions to improve on evangelization and education efforts.
This year’s three-day congress, themed “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive,” included representatives from more than 80 dioceses around the United States and thousands of Catholics from diverse backgrounds—even some non-Catholics were in attendance, according to Johnson. There were also many Black priests, religious brothers and sisters and bishops at the congress, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the United States’ first Black cardinal, celebrated the opening Mass.
“When they did the rollcall, they did each diocese alphabetically. Youngstown was, of course, the last one announced,” said Johnson. “All the other dioceses, when they called their names, there was a big applause. I kind of felt alone … then, when we were announced, there was thunderous applause for us. I felt very well-received.”
One of her favorite breakout sessions, “Evangelization Across Cultures,” presented by Donna Toliver Grimes, the USCCB’s assistant director of African American Affairs, addressed six key tenets to creating a culture of evangelization in a Catholic faith community: 1) Redefine success for those who lead 2) Realize that sharing the Gospel isn’t about us 3) Help people understand their purpose in the Church 4) Pray together 5) Choose a simple method for sharing the Gospel 6) Share your stories.
Johnson was also moved by the stories of the six U.S. Black Catholics who are being considered for sainthood. Banners featuring each candidate were hung in the main gathering space, and she enjoyed learning about them throughout the congress, particularly Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman.
Sister Thea Bowman died of cancer in 1990, but her work as a Franciscan Sister of Evangelization still resonates today. In a prolific address to the United States Conference of Bishops in 1989, Sister Thea encapsulated many of the priorities that Johnson said continue to be important to Black Catholics. In it, Sister Thea asks, “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” and she discusses the need for cultural understanding and the role of Catholic education in the Church.
Johnson was enthusiastic to bring her learnings from the congress back home to Canton, where she feels they will contribute to her work with the Catholic Interracial Council.
The Catholic Interracial Council currently comprises 20 members, and they meet every third Sunday of the month at Christ the Servant Parish in Canton. They are actively recruiting new members.
“You do not have to be Catholic [to join],” said Johnson. “We invite people to come and sit with us and see if they’d like to be a part. And we go from there!”
Anyone who might be interested is welcome to join the “Catholic Interracial Council” Facebook group. They can also call 330-453-6456 for more details on the meetings or to express interest in the council. According to Johnson, the only prerequisites to joining are a passion for education and evangelization.
“We are a welcoming Church,” said Johnson. “It is not about colors. It is not about race. It is not about what religion you are right now. We are welcoming. We will walk you through. We will help you through. We will answer questions. We are there for you.”