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Where are they now? Potawatomi Leadership Program sculpted Gage Johnson’s career and family

Gage Johnson’s life gained speed following his summer as a member of the Potawatomi Leadership Program class of 2013. Several major events happened in a short time: getting married, graduating college, obtaining a degree-related job and becoming a parent. No matter what life throws his way, he faces it all with diligence.

Making ministry

Gage Johnson, his wife Karis and their daughter Evelyn.

After graduating in 2017 from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, with a Bachelors of Arts in religion, Johnson started his job as the middle school ministry leader at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Tulsa. He creates religious education programming for sixth through eighth graders and oversees their small group events on Sundays and Wednesdays. He usually works with about 65 students.

“Middle school students are a kind of happy medium between really being able to grasp some of the concepts that we get to talk about, but also they haven’t grown the ‘too-cool-for-school’ syndrome that some high school students tend to get,” he said. “They’re actively engaged. They love to be silly and play games.”

He said he loves his job, which includes starting the church’s ministry from scratch. He applied not knowing the program did not exist yet, but Johnson enjoys the challenge.

“It’s been deeply rewarding to see what things have done super well, what things our students love and are growing from,” he said. “But it’s also very satisfying to say, ‘That is not working, and we need to scrap that before next week starts.’”

Youth leaders at his childhood church took a particular interest in him as a high school student, and it shaped his path as an adult. Johnson tries to give that same attention to his students.

During his time as a PLP participant, the exposure to different lifestyles and belief systems made him consider aspects of his own. The experience solidified his self-identity, spirituality and heritage. He distinctly remembers the group’s participation in the ceremonial sweat as one of the most influential events of the summer.

“It was great because it was such a spiritual experience,” Johnson said. “One of the things that our leader Burt … did, being a follower of Jesus himself, he invited the Holy Spirit into the sweat with us to participate, which was a very spiritual act. It was an intense time of prayer.”

Those types of experiences strengthened his decision to study religion from an academic standpoint in college. Now, he plans to enroll in Minnesota’s Luther Seminary online program next fall, learning more about youth ministry and continuing his education.

First-time father

Johnson met his wife through mutual friends during his time at OBU, and they married in May 2016. Shortly after their daughter Evelyn was born in July 2017, they moved to Tulsa, where Johnson started his job. Johnson said parenting is both fun and hard. He describes last summer as “a whirlwind of not really knowing what I was doing.

“I have learned a lot about myself, but it really is such a joy to watch her grow and watch her learn,” he said. “She’s such a funny kid. She has way more personality than I do already. She is a very expressive and opinionated lady.”

He said he appreciates and notices the small things like watching her learn to feed herself and play with their puppy. He plans to teach her about her Potawatomi heritage and pass on the Native American history and culture he learned while in the PLP. Language, traditions and dancing top the list.

“My desire is to pass that on to Evelyn so that she knows who she is,” he said. “I went 18 years without really being able to articulate that or to understand that to the extent that I was able to come to understand it through PLP. So hopefully, I’m able to allow Evelyn … a much earlier run at that understanding.”

The Johnsons also applied to become a foster family and began training for the responsibilities. They hope to foster children around their daughter’s age. Johnson sees it as another way outside of his job to spread his resources and compassion to kids.

“I really feel like that’s our family’s calling is to help young people that come from hard places that are going through pain and loss,” he said. “It’s really great to be able to walk through that with my students and with their families as well.”

Johnson’s favorite section of the Bible is the Minor Prophets, particularly the book of Amos. It delves into injustices, how to care for people and God’s vision for the oppressed. He says it helped form his worldviews throughout his life and the choices he made, although sometimes it is not what he anticipated. Nonetheless, he expresses his gratefulness daily for his job, his family and the opportunities, both past and present.

“The Lord has a plan. I didn’t foresee this at all,” he said. “But He had a plan for our life, and this is where it’s taken us. It’s been very exciting and very scary at times, but I’ve loved every minute of it.”

For more about the Potawatomi Leadership Program, visit plp.potawatomi.org.