In a church in Hartford’s North End, you can find Pastor AJ Johnson on any given Sunday preaching the gospel, leading the congregation his father built.
"He believed the church should be so much more than just singing and dancing on a Sunday. It should change the community where it is.”
At the corner of Westland and Barbour streets in Hartford, Urban Hope Refuge Church became a haven for the neighborhood, especially after the riots of the 1960s set the city on a new course.
"There was white flight, families left, synagogues left so it kind of destabilized the north end of Hartford. But my father stayed to do ministry,” Johnson explained.
His father raised Johnson in the church, teaching him every step of the way the importance of standing up for those who aren’t able to stand up for themselves.
" I was always raised to believe that you know a person by their actions and not by what they say,” he said.
Johnson has been described as a leader, an activist and organizer and a fighter.
He’s taken on slum lords.
“When our attorney general gets up and says I'm validating the fact that generations have been living in these deplorable conditions and we're going to do something about it- it just does something to you,” he said.
He works to help people make a better life.
"The median income in north Hartford is $13,000. I began to look at myself and say - where are my people working? And they're working in fast-food restaurants trying to make a living wage. But they can't afford rent,” he said.
"So we organized workers and we'd strike McDonalds, we'd strike Burger King. we would strike Dunkin’ Donuts, we would strike Subway.”
It worked. Last summer, Gov. Ned Lamont signed the $15 minimum wage bill into law.
But one of Johnson’s proudest accomplishments may be an idea birthed out five years ago.
"We call ourselves ‘Calling All Brothers’--- judges, lawyers, doctors, musicians, engineers. I mean you see guys with no jobs, guys with some jobs, with little jobs it doesn't matter. We come together the first week of school to greet kids back to our neighborhood schools."
He hopes the effort shows Hartford in a better light.
“What does Hartford really get noticed for other than some of the negative things?” he asked.
It’s that commitment that’s allowed Johnson to become a champion for justice. But his greatest chapter is still being written – he is a father.
"They never really say- what happens after that,” he said. “After you have kids no one ever says - this is how you raise the kids. "
He’s figuring that out, raising a 2-year-old and 3-month-old with the love of his life, his wife Melinda.
"Everything good that comes out of me - comes from the fact that I'm in love with someone who not only loves God, but loves me. "
It’s the same passion Johnson has for his neighborhood, a love of community he plans to pass on to his sons.
"The church that my father created was safe haven for me to be and to grow and I wouldn't take that back for anything in the world,” he said. “That's the vehicle that helped me be the man I am today. "
Johnson is also an entrepreneur. This weekend he’ll bring together hundreds of black business owners in celebration of Black History Month.
If you’d like to learn more about the seventh annual Black Business Gala, click here.