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The Washington National Cathedral is about much more than pomp, circumstance, and gargoyles. The iconic, neo-Gothic colossus also plays a formidable role in community outreach and social justice causes. Leading this work since 2007 is Canon Missioner Patty Johnson, who oversees 14 ministries from homelessness to literacy to prison work. She’s also the point person for a vigil being held on Thursday with the Newtown Foundation for the more than 30,000 Americans who have been killed by guns since the Sandy Hook shooting last Dec. 14. (Some 1,000 people are expected.) I caught up to Johnson while she was taking care of her grandchild and daughter, who had the flu.
Do you ever relax?
I’m not very good at it!
You’re from Wisconsin and went to the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad. Why did you move here?
I got a Master’s in social welfare policy, and guess where they make social welfare policy? If you want to effect change, it’s the place to be. We also have a significant population here subject to all of the social systematic issues that create inequities.
So what don’t people know about cathedral?
Most don’t know how much it wants to be part of solving society’s issues, and how it wants to open its doors to all people. I went to lunch with an African-American minister on North Capitol Street and he said, “I’ve heard of the cathedral,” but when I asked if he’d been there, he said, “No.” It’s the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and people in our own city don’t know it. It shouldn’t be a grand place on the hill, it should be a place that’s a beacon to all people.
What do you see as your overarching mission?
I try to connect with everyone I can to make sure we’re doing our bit. I see part of my job at the cathedral as serving the city and assuring the cathedral is here for the whole city. I like to say that I want to take our resources and also send them across the river.
What are examples of some of your work?
I work closely with Friendship Place [a housing organization] on Wisconsin Avenue. People need housing before they can think about how to pull together the rest of their lives. If you don’t have place to call your own, an address, a phone number, you can’t apply for jobs, you’re not eligible for all kinds of benefits. Gun violence issues have been huge in my life. I’ve been working with the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, my colleagues who are living in Anacostia, who work hard for better restrictions and background checks and so on, and facilitating a course at the cathedral on gun violence. When Newtown happened, it was the tipping point for many of us. We were aware of gun violence, appalled by it, but it was time for the faith community to step forward.
It seems there are always new issues to work on as well.
We make sure to update for social change—we have an environmental advocacy committee, and work on LGBT issues. We’re now doing marriages at the cathedral.
Are things getting better or worse in the District?
I think things are getting worse with food stamps, the SNAP program, being cut. One in four kids go to bed hungry every night. The need is so great that during Thanksgiving we delivered over 330 baskets to Covenant Baptist UCC, they serve Wards 7 and 8, and our goal had been 200.
The vigil is Thursday, and I know you’ve been crazed. What are some of the details you’ve been working on?
We just put some 50 names of gun victims killed in D.C. in 2013 on T-shirts. It’s a volunteer activity we undertook with one of the people from Shiloh Baptist Church who joined my non-violence class. This is what I love—now we have a relationship and partnership with Shiloh Baptist. What a rich thing that brings to the cathedral community.
Photo courtesy Washington National Cathedral