Meet Joshua Johnson, Baton Rouge's rapping, youngest Catholic priest who 'never liked' church as a kid

A young Catholic priest who enjoys rap music had a few confessions about his faith and his music: He didn’t like the Catholic Church as a youth, and he doesn’t want to simply be known today as the “Rapping Priest.”

At 27, the Rev. Joshua Johnson, of Christ the King Catholic Church at LSU, is the youngest priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Johnson is in his first year as a priest after trying for years to run from his calling to minister in the Catholic Church.

“I was raised Catholic, but I just never liked the Catholic Church growing up. I thought it was boring, and I didn’t understand it,” said Johnson, a native of Baton Rouge who recently garnered a measure of renown on YouTube and social media for his rapping talent. He hosts the hip-hop show “Tell the World” on Catholic radio.

Johnson’s biggest difficulty with the church dealt with the Eucharist.

“I never believed that it was the body and blood of Jesus Christ that the Catholic Church teaches,” he said.

But it was an experience in the Eucharist that changed Johnson’s mind and heart about the church, made him fall in love with Christ and started his journey to the priesthood.

It happened on a summer night before his senior year at Lee High School when he was invited to a retreat in Alexandria.

“That night in adoration, when the bishop exposed Jesus Christ with the Eucharist, all I could say was it was God’s grace that overcame me,” he said. “And looking at the Eucharistic prayer, I knew it was God, that it was Jesus Christ. It was if I fell in love in an instant. I started crying. I was on my knees worshipping God.”

The long ache in his heart was lifted, he said.

“The first thing I heard him say was ‘I love you,’ and it pierced my heart then and it continues to pierce my heart today, because I was living in pretty serious sin, but he told me he loved me.”

That wasn’t all. Johnson said he was told to become a priest. But he wasn’t ready for that step.

So he enrolled in Southern University, he said, “because I didn’t want to be a priest, and I was trying to run away from it.”

His time at Southern lasted 1½ semesters.

“I could not stop thinking about the priesthood,” he said. “The whole time I was at Southern, I knew I was supposed to be (in seminary).”

After a stint with the post office and endless days attending a 24-hour adoration chapel, Johnson started St. Joseph’s Seminary College in Covington in 2006. He went on to earn his master’s in theology from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

“Those were some of the best years of my life,” he said. “It was a time of deep intimacy with Jesus because you had a lot of time to pray and a lot of time to study.”

And a bit of time to hone his rapping skills, to the enjoyment of some fellow seminarians.

“I grew up rapping just for fun,” he said. “Whenever I got to seminary, I continued to do it for fun and people started hearing me, and the next thing you know I’m doing it at festivals and youth conferences.”

Rapping is one of the God-given gifts he uses outside of Mass to witness for Christ, Johnson said.

“When kids hear me rap, it definitely gets their attention because I always rap about Jesus Christ and what he’s brought me through and to … I’ve had people come to me only after seeing my music on YouTube or Facebook and say, ‘I’m coming to you because I’ve seen this video and I want to give to my life to Christ now.’ ”

Johnson’s rapping hasn’t come without its critics.

“Some people don’t like it and they’ve expressed that to me, but I’m pretty sure all the apostles didn’t appreciate all the other apostles’ gifts,” he said. “I know I got to keep my eyes fixed on God and what God has called me to do. As long as he tells me what he wants me to do as far as sanctification of the people that I’m ministering to, I’m going to do it.”

Johnson said he’s trying use to his gift to please God, not man.

“Rap in and of itself is not evil; it’s not a sin. It’s part of the culture,” he said. “We can use that. We’re not called to reject the culture; we’re called to go into the culture and promote what’s good. And there’s a lot of good that can come from this kind of music.”

Johnson is also familiar with the black culture. And he’s more than happy to represent his race in the priesthood.

“I’m a visible witness to the fact that God calls black men to be priests, too,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t see too many black priests … The thought never crossed my mind because I wouldn’t have even thought that we were priests because I had never even seen one. So the fact that young kids are seeing a black priest I think is opening their eyes.”

In May, Johnson will be a keynote speaker for a conference dealing with issues of race. The St. Martin De Porres Conference, named after an African-American saint, is set for May 8-9 at the Catholic Life Center, 1800 S. Acadian Thruway, Baton Rouge.

De Porres, who was born in Peru to a Spanish nobleman and former black slave in the 16th century, is the patron saint of interracial harmony.

“The idea is to bring whites and blacks together from the area to experience the healing power of Christ together,” Johnson said.

Johnson has worked with all kinds of people and cultures all over the world, including in Calcutta, Mexico, Nicaragua and even Houston and New Orleans.

He especially enjoys working with students at LSU, which has 14,000 Catholics.

“It’s been a gift to be at LSU with young adults,” he said. “I love working with young adults because they have a real fire and a desire to be saints. I enjoy working with people on their way to encountering Jesus for the first time and those people who have already encountered him.”

Johnson said he relates well with the students and is honest with them about the struggle for holiness.

“I can’t stand when people make it seem like all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ in your life and everything is going to be easier and holiness is going to a piece of cake,” Johnson said. “The reality is it’s so hard to be holy and to be virtuous.”

Everything that means a lot should come with a struggle, he said.

“Heaven meant a lot so Jesus Christ had to struggle; he had to suffer,” Johnson said. “So if it means a lot to us, we’re going to have to struggle, too. We’re going to fall down at times. God’s grace is going to be there to welcome us.”

‘Made to Pray’

Discover a fresh prospective on prayer in the new book “Made to Pray” (Westbow Press).

Author Chris Heinz discusses the 12 prayer types and how readers can identity the best type for them.

“God wants your prayer life to enjoyable, effective and enduring,” Heinz writes. “He doesn’t want you to dread prayer like you’re walking to your death. He wants you to run to it and receive the life that prayer offers. When prayer is God loving you, all at once prayer is better than you can imagine.”

The prayer types include prayer of praise, petition prayer and praying the Bible.

“Praying the Bible is praying the words of the Bible as your prayer,” the author writes. “God’s words become the content of your conversation with him. You say his words back to him, and as you do, you tap into the ancient words that are alive. And when you do that, you connect with the generation before you who prayed God’s word.”

The 201-page book includes a chapter devoted to each of the prayer types along with a biblical character who prayed that type, a description of each type, a key Bible verse and an explanation of how Jesus relates. The book also has a handy prayer type chart and prayer assessment.

Heinz, of Pennsylvania, is a prayer leader and former company chaplain and house church pastor.

Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Terry Robinson can be reached at (225) 388-0238 or email trobinson@theadvocate.com