Unhoused outreach guided by faith
When Jenkins and Beth Weirick, the downtown Business Improvement District’s CEO, decided to create a full-time position for homeless outreach, they struggled to find the perfect candidate, interviewing more than 15 people without finding someone who had the right demeanor, ability to connect, and most importantly, a willingness to learn.
Eventually it struck Jenkins that they had the perfect candidate already on their team. He pulled Johnson in and offered him the job. Johnson hesitated, saying he needed to talk it over with his wife, and pray on the matter.
“I said, ‘I can’t think of any better Christian job that you can do for helping people,’ ” Jenkins remembers.
Johnson came back and accepted the job.
It was apt that Johnson chose to pray on the matter, because his faith guides his work. Johnson has spent his whole life at Rockhill Community Missionary Baptist Church.
His grandmother initially brought him to the church. Ruthie Morgan, the wife of the pastor, remembers Johnson as a boy, when he would play drums for the church.
“He’s always been a good kid,” she reflected. “Kind and respectful.”
Johnson has become more involved over the years. He now runs the church’s sound engineering, plays the organ and serves as youth minister.
He sees his work as directly tied to his faith. The most important part, in his mind, is listening to someone and learning what they need from them.
He recounted building rapport with a man who he came across living on the street last winter. The man said that he just needed something to eat. Johnson dipped into his pocket and bought the man a bowl from Real Chili, and then sat down and talked with him for an hour. After the conversation, he was able to help the man get into a shelter and off the cold streets.
For Johnson, the process of outreach is a lot like prayer. He reaches out and asks, and then his job is waiting for an answer and acting.
“He’s always giving back,” Morgan said. “To the city and definitely to his church.”
Winner of the ‘Heart of Milwaukee’ award
After two years on the job, Johnson’s tenure has been a rousing success, according to Jenkins, so much so that the district is looking to hire “another Brian” to expand the work.
What makes Johnson so special is how he has managed to quickly become the person people in downtown turn to when they need help. He is constantly in MacArthur Square, where a small group of unhoused people — approximately 30 tents — have sprung up.
Johnson also has connected himself to businesses downtown, to the point where he gets their first call when they are having issues with the unhoused population. Those businesses used to call Milwaukee police, and Jenkins, a former police officer himself, said the work Johnson has done to build trust on all sides has been invaluable.
In June, Johnson was recognized for his contributions, winning the Heart of Milwaukee award from Visit Milwaukee, which specifically noted how he “acted with compassion and courage” to help the woman in crisis on the West McKinley Avenue bridge.
For Jenkins, the award was not a shock, but an appropriate moment of appreciation for a man who has the “biggest heart” in serving others.
Morgan was not surprised either.
“In any way he can help you, he will help you,” she said. “He has a heart of gold.”
This article was shared with permission from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.