The call to preach and protect

By Latisha Catchatoorian
Staff writer
The Durham VOICE

What do pastors and police officers have in common? For Greater Emmanuel Full Gospel Baptist Church on South Goley Street, the answer is – one man.

Pastor Keith L. Johnson preaches a sermon to his congregation from the pulpit at Greater Emmanuel Full Gospel Baptist Church on South Goley Street. His dedication to the Lord as a pastor and his dedication to the law as a police officer are both part of his dedication to his Durham community. Staff photo by Latisha Catchatoorian

Pastor Keith L. Johnson who holds a Master of Divinity degree and preaches at Emmanuel Baptist, is also a police officer for the Durham Police Department.  He divides his time between his two roles, but all the while serving his community.

“Sometimes he comes in, takes his uniform off, puts his robe on, then puts his uniform back on,” said Cathy Gilmore, a member of the congregation and president of the usher board. “That takes dedication.”

Johnson said that he was called to the ministry early on in life.  He said his parents were strong in the church and that prayer and “God moving” were big parts of his life.

Before attending divinity school, Johnson was in the XVIII Airborne Corps of the U.S. Army, attended Fayetteville State University, married a “Fayetteville girl” and went to the police academy.

“I’ve always liked people, but I didn’t always want to be a preacher,” he said.  “The way things transpired in my life, I got closer and closer to the Lord.”

Johnson will soon celebrate his eighth year at the pulpit. He took the reins after his predecessor, Pastor Artis Plumber Jr., died in a car accident.  His father, Artis Plumber Sr., is still a deacon at Emmanuel Baptist.

“When I first met Deacon Plumber, it was on a burglar alarm call at the Ebenezer Baptist Church,” Johnson said.  “When I met him, the Lord said, ‘You will see this man again.’”

When Pastor Plumber died, Johnson said his name was mentioned to the church and he was asked to preach.  He said he again met Deacon Plumber –and the rest is history.

When Johnson began preaching at Emmanuel Baptist there were just 22 people on the church roll.  There are now 200.

“People say we’re a small church, but we’re a growing church,” said Gilmore.  “We don’t consider ourselves small.”

The growing church continues to expand and will move to a new location on the corner of East Pettigrew Street and Bernice Street.

Johnson said his biggest disappointment as a pastor is seeing people he wants to help and not having the facilities to do so.

He has big plans for Emmanuel Baptist and the new building.  Johnson plans on building a kitchen that will run 24 hours a day for seven days a week, an education center, a closed-in basketball court that is safe from gangs, a place to watch television and more.

He said that he has struggled for eight years to answer a simple question – how do you balance being a pastor and police officer?

“They both are calls into service,” he said.  “Neither one of them, you’re going to make a lot of money doing. So you‘ve got to love people. Each position involves people.”

People like Gilmore appreciate Johnson for how hard he works and for his selfless nature.  She said that Johnson is “the greatest” and that he willingly and literally would take off his shoes for someone else.

Johnson said that he may not have a lot, but people can have what he has.  His hospitality in turn ripples through members of his congregation and through the way his church operates.

Deacon Plumber, a widower with two extra bedrooms and an extra bathroom, is quick to offer his home if people need a place to stay.  He owns the art sign shop next to the church building, which Plumber also owns.

Shirly Crittendon is the president of the Sharing and Caring Committee which collects clothes and furniture for give away.  The committee also coordinates the church’s monthly free meal that is given away on the third Saturday of each month.  The deacons deliver 50 to 60 meals each month to community members in addition to those served at the church.

Emmanuel Baptist’s Thanksgiving meal is by far its biggest giveaway of the year.  Gilmore said that in the meal’s first year, they fed around 200 people.  In 2009, they fed over 900 people in the community.

The community knows about Emmanuel Baptist because Pastor Johnson tries to get the word out.  He encourages his congregation to pass out fliers and invite all to come. He personally interacts with his congregation as well as with people he meets while on the job as an officer.

“I was a detective,” he said.  “I answered a call where a lady had been raped and stabbed 32 times but still survived.  I went into her room and I talked to her and that lady said, ‘There’s something about you. Are you a preacher or something?’  I knew there was a separation of church and state; that I shouldn’t be talking to her.”

He said she asked him where his church was and he gave her the address. She was eventually baptized and joined his church.

Cathy Gilmore is the president of the hospitality committee, in addition to her role on the usher board.  She said that Johnson has two very hard jobs.

“Just think of what he has to go through,” she said.  “He has to take on all the church’s problems and all of the city of Durham’s problems.”

Johnson said that he has done funeral services for people he has met in the streets as a street officer and as a patrol supervisor.

“I was doing a funeral service,” he said.  “A guy says, ‘Hey, ain’t he the po-po?’ And another guys says, ‘Shut up man, he’s a pastor as well!'”

Johnson said that he used to have a problem differentiating between his roles, but he has now found that being a pastor helps him on the street.  He said when he first got out of the police academy he wanted to arrest everybody.  He said an older officer told him he was different, he told him to talk to people.

“I find that very rarely do I ever have to go hands-on with a guy anymore,” he said.  “Because now, I have learned the art of talking. Guess what? Not everybody has to be arrested.  Not everybody has to go to jail.  Some people need to just be talked to.”

He said that he is no less aggressive, but his mind has been opened to different things.

His church upholds its motto that, “You look down on no one unless you are looking down to help them up.”

“Whoever comes through our doors, we’re going to sit down and talk to them. Not preach to them. Talk to them,” he said.

Johnson said that he has had many opportunities to leave and go somewhere else but that God put him here in Durham to build. He said that God has given him a vision and he is going to build and impact his community.

“Sometimes I come in this church and I look around and I say, ‘This is meager means,’” he said.  “But like the sermon I preached today, God can take a little bit and turn it into a lot. And that’s what we’re looking at.”

Keith L. Johnson said that people are trying to do positive things in the community.  Pastor or officer, he said that with his church he can be a beacon for these people and these things to come to pass.