The Marvin Center will soon pulsate with the sound of international music on Sunday mornings when a new religious leader brings his own unique brand of ministry to campus.
The Rev. Jonathan Siafa Johnson, a native of Liberia and the first International minister on the Board of Chaplains, said he came to GW last year after realizing the campus lacked a Christian outreach or support network for international students and “students of color.”
“For international students of color, their chaplain is seldom also of color,” he said. “I want to be able to support international students and create a multiethnic, interfaith dialogue to answer any student’s questions.”
Johnson, along with a team of volunteers from local churches, is beginning a church service at 10:30 Sunday mornings in Marvin Center rooms 403 and 405. The worship service will include a gospel choir, Bible study, discussion of contemporary issues and international music representing dozens of cultures.
Johnson said a key aspect of his ministry will be “comparative religion” sermons, designed to answer the questions of both Christian and non-Christian students. Questions will be answered from a Christian perspective, and then will be analyzed according to the Koran and Torah.
“I want those who have never been to church before to come,” Johnson said. “I want to make it clear that we use a variety of texts as an example to educate.”
Johnson’s team includes volunteers from some local black churches, namely the 19th Street Baptist Church. Johnson said that community congregation support is important. He said there are several other churches in D.C. that have also expressed interest in helping a multiethnic church on GW’s campus.
Johnson ministered at the International Church at Yale University for six years prior to his arrival at GW. He also volunteered as Executive Director of International Students USA, a non-profit organization supported by local churches to aid international college students. Prior to that, he worked with two Baptist Churches in Liberia, West Africa.
Joan King, a volunteer from the 19th Street Baptist church, decided to help Johnson after he spoke at the church. She said she fills a need on Johnson’s team for “someone who understands Greek life,” as the president of the D.C. chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She will lead discussions among students on Sundays after the service.
“I want to get students to talk,” she said. “I have learned how to work around silences in groups. Nobody is ever too old to learn.”
GW was founded by Baptists in 1821, but a chapel was never established on campus because Congress forbade it. Johnson said most universities have a campus chapel, but GW lacks an on-campus service that is open to all students.
“I want international students to be able to come to GW and find a church,” Johnson said. “We will focus on Christian teachings, but engage people and learn from them.”
Phyllis Young, another 19th Street Church volunteer, said she brings extensive knowledge of foreign cultures to Johnson’s team. She will facilitate discussion among students struggling to adjust to life in the United States as she speaks dozens of languages and has visited almost every country in the world.
“We want international students to come and have someone to talk with,” she said. “They need to know it’s OK to not be perfect at English. They need to be heard, not told.”
She will also help bring international music to Sunday mornings.
“This is an opportunity to maybe sit next to a person from Zimbabwe. It’s an opportunity to learn,” Young said. “At the end, you’ll find that we’re all the same.”