Humans of the Keweenaw: Interview with Rene Johnson

There is a saying in West Africa that Westerners have watches, but Africans have time. Well, they certainly know how to share it in meaningful ways.

August 3, 2017

This is the sixth in a series of planned interviews highlighting humans in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties who are working to improve our community’s quality of life.

Interview conducted on 8/1/17 by Kyle Krym
Photos provided by Rene Johnson. 
First photo of Rene w/ hammer taken by Brad Beaudette.


Please, tell us a little about yourself.

I suppose it’s customary to supply demographic and professional details for this kind of question, and while those details have shaped me, they’re not who I am.  Fundamental to who I am is the pull toward mystery, wonder, and grace on my life which is what has really formed, no, transformed me into someone who believes that an out-pouring spirit is central to the human experience. Therefore, I am a curious and confident person. I like to learn new things, meet new people, and try new things. I have a healthy amount of confidence to pursue whatever is capturing my attention, but I am also confident that something good will come out of these new experiences, new acquaintances, and new knowledge…as long as I pour myself out and into these opportunities.

I recognize that I love to generate connections with people not like myself, and even better, create opportunities for others to experience the same.  I imagine several people in the community might know me as that woman who escorts groups of Finlandia students to Tanzania each May. I love this part of my job! I get to see Africa “new” again through the eyes of students. My own Africa connections started in my high school years. My church youth group fundraised every year to build schools in Tanzania. But our pastor didn’t just ask us to raise money; he was most interested in raising awareness and building relationships. Our years as missionaries confirmed for me the importance of connecting with people over carrying out projects, so I’ve designed the Service & Learning in Tanzania experience for Finlandia students to be focused on relationship building. Over seventy students have had the chance to do just that annually since 2006.


In case you’re wondering about the details, I grew up in a family of five girls in Alexandria, a smallish town in west-central Minnesota. I married my mate, Phil Johnson, in 1985 after knowing him for only 10 months! So far, it’s been just grand! We raised two delightful kids, Simon and Neal, who are now young men we’re very proud of. My education and work experience have been nurtured by opportunities in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, studying at Concordia College-Moorhead, MN, Luther Seminary-St. Paul, MN and serving as a missionary in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia over a period of 12 years. I’ve been the Director of Servant Leadership and Assistant Professor of Religion at Finlandia since 2005. I earned my PhD in theology in 2015 through the Graduate Theological Foundation-Oxford Program. More recently, I earned instructor certification in both yoga and indoor rowing and now teach wellness courses in both disciplines as well as religion courses at Finlandia. Oh yeah! In September I’ll be teaching one of Finlandia’s community enrichment courses. It’s called “Spiritual Formation in Everyday Living”. I’m looking forward to sharing a learning experience with community members. Folks can check it out HERE.


What were some of the hardest adjustments you faced when you moved from Addis Ababa to Hancock?

I don’t know if these are adjustments so much as things I simply miss. I miss the pace of life in Addis. Yes, sometimes things happened frustratingly slowly, but our evenings were completely unscheduled—imagine the books you can read, the art you can create or the music you can learn when all your evenings are unscheduled! So I’ve had to adjust to the full-calendar pace of life. 

I miss living in an international community, where the news and concerns of the world didn’t seem so far away because they were embodied in my friends from all over the world. The news from another’s home country really meant something to me. Likewise, we were in Addis on 9/11 and my experience of that day and the days to follow was of the world reaching out to me as my Ethiopian, German, Danish, Norwegian, English, South African, Canadian, and Dutch friends and the Muslim shopkeepers I bought my groceries from expressed their care and concern. 


I miss greeting rituals. Greeting rituals in Africa are very physical with handshakes, shoulder-bumping, cheek-kissing, and hugging. It’s a way of expressing value for the other person’s humanity. We have no greeting rituals in our country, especially when passing strangers on the sidewalk. In 2005, we had a student from Tanzania studying at Finlandia and early on she came into my office to say, “René, when I walk in the street people look down at the sidewalk. They don’t say hello to me. Is it because I’m black?”  “No, honey,” I said, “It’s because they’re American.” She was coming from a context where eye-contact and verbalized hellos were the normal exchange, even for strangers.


What does the Keweenaw have that is missing from the other places you have lived?

Lake Superior! Having grown up in Minnesota, I’ve known really clean (and warm) lakes, but there’s nothing like the majesty of Lake Superior. It inspires me!


Small town community support. While I grew up in a small town, I didn’t live in a small town for any of my adult life until coming to Hancock in 2005! I love that I can go into our neighborhood hardware store a few days after my husband, be greeted by name, and be asked, “Hey, how’d that project work out for Phil?” Also, every year I put on some fundraisers for Finlandia students going to Tanzania. I am so very grateful to the many who have demonstrated enduring support for this effort. I also go to a lot of fundraisers for other causes and know that those same faithful folks are supporting a lot of things that go on in our community. That’s a big part of the small community experience—showing up! You go to each other’s stuff!


How did you decide to become involved in education?

Kind of by default. I earned a B.A. in biology intending to continue my education in physical therapy, but during my senior year when I was getting some practical experience at a hospital, I realized that I wasn’t wired for that kind of work. Then I taught a little bit of high school biology, and while I loved teaching and interacting with students, I realized that wasn’t going to hold my attention either. I needed more mystery and wonder! So I went to the seminary to complete my M.A. and have been exploring mystery and wonder ever since with great students. I especially enjoyed working with students in Ethiopia. They were so hungry for the opportunity to learn.

Teaching at Finlandia is a great fit for me because I thrive in places where the human connection matters and Finlandia’s small size makes establishing human connections easy. Also, I find myself once again interacting with students who are hungry for opportunity. One opportunity that I was able to initiate at Finlandia is the Servant Leadership House, which is an intentional residential experience for women. I really enjoy working and growing with them in our understanding of important issues and practice of service and leadership.


What are the biggest lessons or feelings students take away from their time in Tanzania?

Consistently I hear that they are impressed by the hospitality. We spend the majority of our time at a secondary school, Kisarawe Lutheran Jr. Seminary (KLJS), where we deliver a creative arts curriculum. At this school of about 500 boarding students, we are taken care of by students and staff whose attention to all our needs is tireless. But more than that, these folks are taking the time to develop relationships. The sharing of time, stories, laughter, and sometimes tears is what really leaves an impression. There is a saying in West Africa that Westerners have watches, but Africans have time. Well, they certainly know how to share it in meaningful ways. When we finish our time in Tanzania staying with host families, the final and lasting impression is again of hospitality that does more than meet your needs. It communicates that you are valued as a person and as a new friend.


The nursing students who spend about a week at the national hospital certainly come away grateful for their education that they can confidently put to use. They also leave with some lessons about life and death that are a little tougher to absorb.


Why do you think the Tanzanians keep inviting you back?

Because they value relationship. Yes, we bring a creative learning curriculum, which the students really enjoy and the administration values, but it’s really about making connections. Because my colleague Mark Miron (Finlandia nursing professor) and I have been building these relationships for several years, and because of the consistency of our visits, the Finlandia students, who are a new group each year, are received instantly as family. Also, Finlandia’s visit to partners in Tanzania is part of a larger web of relationships of visitors from the Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran churches. To make my point, I will share with you an email I got from one of my friends at Kisarawe school on June 20:


“Praise God mama Rene, it’s has been a while since we communicated. But it’s my hope that you are doing fine. Here at kljs we thanks God that we are fine too.

We thanks God that three weeks ago we were with your pastor DJ and the group and today we had a great time to wish farewell to our Bishop Skrenes.  Really we count as a year of blessings to get an opportunity to host a group from our partner diocese three times.

We just want you to know that kljs community is thankful for all you and your synod have done to

Send our sincere greetings and thanks to everyone over there.

God bless you. Catherine.”


How do you choose to engage in local philanthropy?

Well, as I said earlier, I attend a good amount of fundraisers and try to be supportive of anything that creates opportunity for young people. But philanthropy isn’t just about giving money. It’s giving in to that desire to promote the welfare of others. For me it’s most meaningful to focus my energies on something that I believe in. I’ve long been a believer in Habitat for Humanity and served on the local affiliate’s board from 2006-2012 and now for a second run since 2016.  I used to find more time to volunteer on builds, and boy, do we need volunteers! I really liked what I learned from the regular building volunteers and construction manager. Plus, they’re just a great group of people (that’s my plug, people. Go to the Copper Country Habitat for Humanity website to volunteer). Housing insecurity is a real issue and it’s really satisfying to see families become homeowners and to get to know the family in the process.


What life advice did you give to your boys as they were growing up, and what advice would you give them today?

I’d be interested to know how my boys would answer this question. In fact, when they were in college and had no money, they gave us the best Christmas gift—a small, blank spiral notebook that they entitled “Things We Miss Hearing: as told by the boys.” They listed several of Phil’s and my oft repeated phrases, which you call words of advice, warnings, admonitions, or prompts intended to leave an impression (which, apparently, they did). Here are some of them:

  • Did you ask any good questions today?
  • Food is a privilege!
  • Did you look with your hands?
  • Don’t grow up to be one-dimensional man!
  • It’s in the details!

Seriously, I hope I simply advised them to always be considerate of others, but whether I actually said that or not, that’s who both of them have become. They are both very considerate people, in the usual sense, meaning they’re kind people. But also, they consider the perspective of others before jumping to judgments; they consider the plight of others as something that ought to concern them; and they consider the impact of their actions on others, for harm or healing.

The older I get, I think the best advice I could give them is to choose hope and project joy. The world just needs more positivity.  


For more information on the Servant Leadership Program at Finlandia University, go HERE.

Through philanthropic services, strategic investments and community leadership, Keweenaw Community Foundation helps people support the causes they care about, now and for generations to come. For more information on Keweenaw Community Foundation and how to give, explore our website at

Contact: Rene Johnson or Kyle Krym