Poem #46: The Minister by Fenton Johnson

Estimated Reading Time: 3.5 minutes

A black and white photo of Fenton Johnson leaning on his right arm and looking towards the camera
Source: Wikimedia
Title: The Minister

Author: Fenton Johnson

Source:  Poerty.org


          I mastered pastoral theology, the Greek of the Apostles, and all the difficult subjects in a minister’s curriculum.
          I was as learned as any in this country when the Bishop ordained me.
          And I went to preside over Mount Moriah, largest flock in the Conference.
          I preached the Word as I felt it, I visited the sick and dying and comforted the afflicted in spirit.
          I loved my work because I loved my God.
          But I lost my charge to Sam Jenkins, who has not been to school four years in his life.
          I lost my charge because I could not make my congregation shout.   
          And my dollar money was small, very small.
          Sam Jenkins can tear a Bible to tatters and his congregation destroys the pews with their shouting and stamping.
          Sam Jenkins leads in the gift of raising dollar money.
          Such is religion. 


The poem draws out two interesting and overlapping ideas.  The difference between an expert (the speaker) and the teacher (Sam Jenkins) and the difference between someone who is knowledgeable and one who can lead.  Both are false dichotomies but we often pit them against them because it's easy to do.  I see this divide as it exists in higher education between researcher who teach and teachers who do research; often a dividing line or viewpoint that you can't do both successfully at the same time.  

Of course, this also reminds me of politics where in the US, we have seen the more qualified candidate lose to the one who can invoke populist fervor.  Jenkins seems like the quintessential outsider that American politics often waggles its tongue over whereas the speaker seems like the one who should have the role.  But, like so many things in a capitalist society--including faith--comes down to money.  Thus, the final line "such is religion" is a fascinating line by the speaker.  

In condemning religion, the speaker is condemning his faith and all the energy he has put into it. It raises a question of whether it really was because Sam rose more money or if the speaker did indeed fail at his job.  After all, he states taht "I love my work because I loved God", by condemning his religion, has he shown that he does not love God in the way that he is expected.  That is, is he questioning God's judgment and if so, does that mean, he really should not be minister?

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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