Minister to swap pulpit for grill this weekend

James Fenton
After nearly two years of service as the interim minister at the First Indian Baptist Church in Farmington, Neil Johnson officially will take over as pastor in August.

FARMINGTON — Since he came here in 2005, Louisiana native Neil Johnson has followed a mission to serve the community through faith and food.

Johnson, who has served nearly two years as interim minister at the First Indian Baptist Church, said he has accepted the call and will formally become the downtown church's pastor on Sunday, Aug. 21.

But first, on Saturday, the focus will turn from the pulpit to the kitchen when Johnson will help flip burgers and make Navajo tacos with frybread to help raise money to pay for ongoing improvements at the 60-year-old church.

Johnson said he hopes to be able to raise enough money to make the stage at the church one level instead of two, remove tripping hazards, and retile and repaint the pulpit. The work is included in the third phase of ongoing improvement efforts at the church.

Minister Neil Johnson examines the new cushioned chairs at the First Indian Baptist Church on Thursday.

With about $6,000 having been raised at barbecue fundraisers last year, the renovation of the church's fellowship hall and the replacement of aging pews with more comfortable cushioned chairs was recently completed.

Johnson said the old pews found a new home at another Baptist church, Hoghan Si' Ani' Community Bible Church, near Mexican Water, Ariz., through a connection with a First Indian Baptist member. Minister John Tohtsoni Sr. said he and other members of his remote "cowboy church," located just south of the Utah border about 88 miles west of Farmington, came to town and collected the pews last month.

"The pews look nice," Tohtsoni said. "They really fit into our church. Everyone likes them."

Tohtsoni, who is a retired power plant worker and former interim pastor at First Indian Baptist in Shiprock, said, in turn, Hoghan Si' Ani' donated the benches it used as pews to another church.

Tohtsoni said he looks forward to attending Johnson's church to thank him and the First Indian Baptist congregation personally.

Minister Neil Johnson looks over a banner made in preparation for a fundraiser the First Indian Baptist Church will have Saturday.

Johnson was raised in the heart of Cajun country in the self-proclaimed spice capital of the world — Opelousas, La. — "where great food originated from," he said.

Legendary zydeco musician Clifton Chenier is Johnson's cousin and used to jam with the late B.B. King in Johnson's childhood home while his family cooked Creole staples like crawfish étouffée, gumbo and boudin, Johnson said. Many of the church's improvements were helped along by Johnson's culinary talents and devotion to the family recipes of his Southern Creole cookbook.

Johnson, who works by day at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Farmington Field Office as a petroleum account technician, said it's his congregation of 50 to 60 regularly attending members that has made real progress at the church possible.

"We pray before we do everything, so when we get the OK from the Lord to go ahead, we do," he said. "It’s not up to us. It’s all up to the Lord."

Many of the church's members work at one of the two nearby coal-fired power plants or one of the two coal mines that supply them, Johnson said.

Minister Neil Johnson poses in front of the First Indian Baptist Church on Thursday as he prepares for a fundraiser this weekend.

"We're a working congregation," he said. "They're all really good people. We call it a family congregation: no matter who are you are, we treat everybody the same. Not too many African-American pastors (like me) around here, but for me to be accepted is great. It’s not about the color of your skin, it's about the content of your character. There's no color when serving God or any barrier with race."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

If you go

What: Navajo taco, hamburger and frybread fundraiser

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: The First Indian Baptist Church, 501 W. Broadway Ave.

More info: Deliveries are available throughout Farmington. Call or text message orders at 505-327-7704 or search for First Indian Baptist Church on Facebook