The small, tidy building at 8th and Newton avenues in north Minneapolis has a message for those who have found themselves adrift.
“Homeless?” a sign reads. “Come home.”
For 30 years as pastor, the Rev. Ethel Johnson-Lee made United Christian Ministries Center, 1919 8th Av. N., “your community church,” a place where everyone was welcome to worship — some as early as 6 a.m.
Johnson-Lee, who also opened her Minneapolis and Golden Valley houses to the homeless, and who in her late 50s graduated from the University of Minnesota despite never having attended high school, died May 4 while in hospice care. She was 92.
She lived for three years in a Golden Valley townhouse owned by a daughter, Dorothy Moore, who suggested that Johnson-Lee stay there when she moved to Georgia in 1995. The homeless who were invited into the pastor’s home were church members, at least one of whom was under court-ordered electronic monitoring — complete with ankle bracelet, her daughter recalled.
No issues arose. Her Golden Valley neighbors loved her. But Moore said that they also were glad when the daughter returned to town.
“Most of us are more skeptical than she,” Moore said of Johnson-Lee. “But wherever her home was, if there was a need she could accommodate, she would.”
Johnson-Lee was born in Vicksburg, Miss., and her family moved about the South until her father heard there were Depression-era soup lines being set up, and he’d have no part of it. He moved the family to East St. Louis, Ill., to find work. Until then, the family’s nomadic lifestyle kept Johnson-Lee from attending school, and she did not begin taking classes until she was 9 years old. She dropped out in the seventh grade, in part because she towered over her younger classmates.
“But she loved reading,” a daughter, the Rev. Diana Stewart, said last week. “She’d read everything she could get her hands on.”
Johnson-Lee had a spiritual calling in 1961, and served as assistant pastor at Gospel Feast Pentecostal Church in East St. Louis. She also handled the bookkeeping for her husband Jefferson Lee’s trucking business. The couple’s daughters remember the home being open to extended family, even though their father was not as generous by nature. He had grown up in a more well-to-do family that gave away the walnuts from its walnut trees, and he resented it, Stewart said.
“My mom’s family was from the poorer side of the tracks,” she added. “She would give away everything.”
After moving to Minnesota, Johnson-Lee was ordained as a minister by the Rev. Willa Grant Battle in 1978, and she opened United Christian Ministries Center, a nondenominational church. The desire to extend her learning beyond Biblical materials — and, in turn, offer counseling services — led her to enroll at age 53 at the University of Minnesota, where she became a fixture on the dean’s list, her daughters said.
Johnson-Lee also opened a day-care center in her home for families whose parents worked at night.
Nine years ago, Stewart succeeded her mother as pastor. Outside, a sign with chipped paint still reads: “Pastor: Rev. E. Johnson-Lee.” Stewart said she now may change the sign, perhaps even replace it with an electronic one.
Johnson-Lee, who remarried after Jefferson Lee died, is survived by spouse Christian Smith and children Moore, Stewart, Barbara Snyder, Jefferson Lee Jr., Jackie Lee and Gregory Lee. Services have been held.