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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Retired mathematics professor committed to peace

By Mary Stamp

Having attended Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA) annual international conferences since 2006, Roy Johnson, a retired mathematics professor in Pullman, suggested four years ago that the 2013 conference be held in Spokane.

It will be held July 15 to 20 at Gonzaga University.

Roy Johnson
Roy Johnson visits Spokane for meeting at Calvary.

Roy and his wife, Carole, are among a contingent of people who regularly show up wherever the conference is held.

“I’m attracted to the ideals of justice and multicultural understanding that the Baptist Peace Fellowship emphasizes,” he said.  “Peace is about working for justice and reconciliation.”

Every year, Roy picks up new insights he can put into practice.

He mentioned learning two years ago that “working for the abstract goal of reducing poverty was not as effective as the more concrete goal of wanting every child to have enough food and a decent place to live.”

Roy has been a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Spokane since 2009.  He began attending Calvary from time to time in 2001.  He attended Pullman Baptist until it closed in 2008. 

When it’s difficult to come to Spokane, he attends St. James’ Episcopal Church in Pullman and is involved with peace and justice committees of both St. James’ and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pullman, where his wife is a member.

“I’m at home with the Baptist Peace Fellowship gatherings,” he said.  “They are ecumenical.  Every denomination and faith—Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian, Jewish and others—has peace fellowships.  This one is special because it has an annual meeting.”

Although he grew up Baptist, he did not know about the fellowship until he heard about it through the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches.  He served on the Evergreen regional executive committee from 2003 to 2006, and attends Evergreen’s annual meetings.

While the Baptist Peace Fellowship board is racially mixed, attendance at the conferences is mostly European-American.

“There is nevertheless a strong desire to make participation more ethnically inclusive so everyone’s voice is heard,” he said. “This year’s theme, ‘Entertaining Angels: Peacemaking through Radical Hospitality,’ goes along with the idea of learning from those of other ethnicities.”

Roy grew up in Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in math in 1960 at St. Olaf College.  He earned his doctoral degree in math at the University of Iowa in 1964, and then spent two years teaching math in the Peace Corps—one year in Lagos, Nigeria, and one year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

He came to Washington State University in Pullman to teach math in 1966.

“While the connection between math and peace may not be obvious, math and science help give insights into people’s lives and struggles,” he said.  “For example, looking at statistics on the minimum wage in different states and contrasting those figures with income taxes can bring some understanding.”

Roy sees that in states with higher minimum wages, a higher percentage of people pay income taxes.

In Pullman, Roy is also involved with the Common Ministry at WSU, serving on its council and helping plan the annual Roger Williams Symposium.  The speaker in March was the Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews of People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), whom he met last summer at the Baptist Peace Fellowship conference. 

Roy appreciates speakers that both WSU and the University of Idaho draw to the region, bringing new ideas and perspectives.

“We always have to have hope,” he said.  “We are called to do what we can.  There’s a difference between hope and blind optimism.  As long as we recognize we are in the effort of working for peace and justice for the long haul, we can maintain hope.”

He finds the Baptist Peace Fellowship conferences nurture him for the long-term commitment needed, introducing him to many things that he did not know 10 years ago.

“We need to go to conferences to gain insights we would not otherwise have,” he said.

For example, he said that 10 years ago, he might have thought it was a good idea for prisons to be run by corporations.

The 2007 conference pointed out problems of having corporations run prisons: Corporations are not as accountable as government.  To stay in business, they need a steady flow of inmates into prisons, so there is no motivation to encourage prisoners to leave prison and stay out, Roy summarized.

“That’s just one example of a justice issue I would not have been aware of without the conference,” he said.

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