Driven by Hope

At first glance, the Rev. Mark Johnston, C’72, T’80, does not look like a traditional statesman or even a “man of the cloth.” He’s tall and trim but there’s no seersucker in his closet.  You are more likely to find overalls worn buttoned up over a t-shirt and a pair of hiking boots.  This preacher man, now turned promising 2018 candidate for Governor of Alabama, lives down a winding dirt road that leads to a house he built.  He and his wife, Maggie, are living the good life—heating their home with wood he split himself and cooled with the energy produced by solar panels.  They have a garden and chickens and Johnston supplements that by fishing and hunting to keep protein on the table.  It’s your basic rural Winston County, Alabama, scene but with the addition of solar panels.

Johnston does not, in fact, own a suit but he intends to do so when he gets his name on the ballot as an independent candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Alabama.  “It’s time for a change, government is not working anymore,” states the Rev. Mark Johnston. “We need work collaboratively with both parties; we need to work together and quit grand standing on the same old platforms.”  It’s a good thing Johnston has a thick unruly mass of gray hair or he might have pulled it all out by now.  He’s frustrated with state politics, determined to make a change, and is driven by hope.  

For the past 26+ years Johnston has had “the best job in the whole world.”  Under his leadership as executive director and vicar of Camp McDowell, the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in the Diocese of Alabama; it has grown from a small Diocesan summer camp into a model of “what the world could be.” With a campus that spreads over 1,140-acres of “fields and forests with miles of trails through beautiful sandstone canyons with waterfalls,” it is now the largest Episcopal camp and conference center in the nation.

“This place changed my life and formed me.  I did not come here full of ideas, I came with great humility,” and a desire to work hard.  Much of the camp’s property was originally clear cut, but many recall Johnston walking the clay soil planting tree after tree after tree.   With hat in hand as they say, Johnston has asked every Episcopalian and then some to share a little extra or give what they can. His dedication to the camp’s stewardship has created an environment of steady and responsible growth over the years. 

The camp, known for its summer scholarships to its environmental and farm school programs, provides the opportunity for every camper to take part in an educational experience regardless of the ability to pay.  “When I was younger I realized one of the unintended consequences of becoming a more wealthy nation is that we have lost our connection with creation and the environment. A typical teenager can recognize 1,400 logos but can’t tell the difference between two different tree species.”

Johnston’s stewardship of the McDowell Environmental Center has impacted the lives of more than 160,000 teachers and students throughout the south. HIs vision is to get teachers and students excited about the biodiversity found in Alabama. Tending the landscape of such a large piece of land has required many fulltime employees and summers full of  “work boys and girls.” Nicknamed “God’s back yard,” this living model is what Johnston desires for all his Alabamians—clean soil, air and water and plenty of work to go around.  Sounds like a solid platform for an Alabama governor.

This past June, Johnston handed over his stole of responsibility to the next director of Camp McDowell and has turned his sights toward public service. “I want to redefine the executive branch in Alabama.”  Johnston passionately voices his concerns with the current governance in Alabama.  He’s tired of his home state making headlines in all the bad categories and only being first in the alphabet. He wants the opportunity to take his lifetime of learning and leadership skills to make the executive branch a “solution oriented place.”     If you look at Johnston’s history, he’s been bringing people together since the beginning, whether it was in the Birmingham Youth Corp right out of college or his campaign for clean air through GASP.  

Johnston believes in a governing system where collaboration is primary and pushing a party platform is at the bottom of the list. “Government has failed to come up with solutions for the common good. I want to build a team of republicans, democrats, and independents—a cross-section of Alabama that joins together to provide solutions.”  With Alabama ranked 46th in education and under federal mandate to improve its  “horrendously inadequate” prisons, there is plenty of collaboration needed and hard work ahead. Obesity, infant mortality, and contaminated drinking water continue to plague Alabamians.  “We don’t have to be last. We need to be the change.”

“I was going to run as a democrat because I have always been one, but then one day I had this ‘aha’ moment,” he remembers. “Running as an independent may not be the best way to win an election but it is the best way to govern.” Johnston sees his mission as being a mediator, moving toward a solution instead of being a baggage boy for any particular party platform. He enters this candidacy prepared to walk door to door, just like he planted tree after tree, to make Alabama the way the world could be.