In loving memory of Yielbonzie Charles Johnson (1952-2023)

The Ministries and Faith Development staff offer our condolences to the family and colleagues of the Rev. Yielbonzie Charles Johnson, who died on June 2, 2023, at the age of 70.

Yielbonzie was born Charles Edward Johnson on August 26, 1952, in Tulsa, OK to Claude W. Johnson and Sallie M. Johnson. He was the fifth of six children, raised in the all-Black Greenwood community, which was razed during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. He attended the city’s segregated schools, including Dunbar Elementary School, Carver Junior High School, and Booker T. Washington High School, from which he graduated in 1970. He excelled in school politics. 

Yielbonzie worked as a coordinator, case manager, and director before following his call to ministry. He came to Unitarian Universalism through his mentor in dreamwork, Dr. Jeremy Taylor, who was then a professor at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. Yielbonzie felt that he could serve both UU values and those of the Black religious experience as a Unitarian Universalist minister. In 1986, he received his Master of Divinity from Starr King School. His artistic abilities and creative interests continually nurtured his career.

Rev. Johnson was ordained by All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK on June 28, 1987. He founded and pastored the Church of the Restoration UU in Tulsa, OK (1987-1996). His nine-year involvement with the Church of the Restoration allowed him to use his gifts for establishing and developing systems. From 1996 to 2001, he was an Assistant Professor of Ministry at Starr King School. He very much enjoyed his work with his students which included teaching, mentoring,  presenting, and consulting. After Starr King, Rev. Johnson served as an Interim Executive Director for the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Universalist Churches – also known as Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, in Boston, MA (2001-2002). In 2005, he was hired as minister of the First UU Church of Essex County, NJ, and served until 2007. Thereafter, from 2009 to 2014, he was consulting minister for the UU Community Church, in Park Forest, IL where congregants remember him for creating lively and affirming worship services. 

He expressed his devotion to his ancestors through traditional West African religious practices, expressive arts and music, and a passionate commitment to connecting cultures and communities in the US and abroad. 

For 30 years, he worked in a variety of contexts organizing and teaching worship arts and promoting art as an essential component of healthy, liberating communities. In 2015, he organized Black Artist Collaborating-Tulsa. Two years later, the group was awarded a grant from the Greenwood Arts Project/Bloomberg Philanthropies for their “Lives on the Line” initiative. In his final years, he continued integrating his love of the arts into the teaching, counseling, and healing of people of African descent.

Yielbonzie is survived by his brother: Claude Johnson Jr. (Danielle); sister, Mary Outland; nieces: RoShona Anderson, Stephanie Johnson, and Shelly Johnson; nephews: Claude Johnson III (Christelle), Sterling Johnson (Liz), and Eric Henderson; his very dear friends: Carlton E. Smith and Francine Campbell (Yusuf); grandnieces and nephews; as well as his relatives, friends, colleagues, and students.

A celebration of Yielbonzie’s life was held on June 10, 2023, at All Souls Unitarian Church, 2952 S. Peoria Ave., Tulsa, OK 74114. 

Memorial donations may be made to the Unitarian Universalist Society for Ministerial Relief, c/o Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown, 80 Mill Glen Road, Winchendon, MA 01475.

Notes of condolence can be written here.