Until meeting Mike Johnson, youth minister at Antioch Baptist Church in Taylorsville, you just thought you liked Star Wars.
You might recognize Darth Vader as one of the most iconic bad guys in the history of film, but Johnson is Darth Vader. Really.
A member of the Carolina Garrison of the 501st Legion, a world-wide Star Wars costuming group, Johnson has made at least 50 public appearances in full Vader regalia.
He dons the famous mask and helmet, and the cape, armor and light saber. Johnson has also rigged his iPod to loop Vader’s infamous raspy breathing sound effect. It’s an outfit meticulously researched from head to toe.
It’s also an outfit that has helped him connect with the kids in his church, as well as those he visits during appearances with the Carolina Garrison.
“We make hospital visitations, and I get to see kids’ faces light up as Darth Vader comes into the room,” Johnson says. “It seems as though they’re not sick any more, in a way. They get to see their favorite Star Wars character come in and call them by name.
“For me to be Darth Vader for a child who has cancer or who is terminally ill in the hospital, in a way, that’s me leaving God’s fingerprints on the world because I’m able to bring joy to somebody’s life for a moment in time.”
Johnson is also a big fan of Tranformers, the toys that change from various types of vehicles into robots through a series of moves only a kid — or a kid at heart — could manage. He also likes comic books and anything else, he says, that’s “geeky.”
Parades, hospital visits and Halloween events keep Mike Johnson, a.k.a. Darth Vader, busy. The youth minister said the Star Wars character can offer some biblical lessons.
And don’t think for a second that the young people at Antioch don’t notice.
“A lot of the time, I consider myself being a big kid who just went to school to be a youth minister,” Johnson says with a laugh.
“With the children, I don’t so much use the symbolism within Star Wars because it’s harder for them to grasp. But with the youth, I can use that kind of thing. They can grasp those concepts a little easier.”
Reaction from fellow staff and members at Antioch has been very positive. Then again, who’s going to mess with Darth Vader?
“I’ve had a lot of closet Star Wars fans come out,” Johnson says, again with an infectious chuckle. “Until they were able to see me as Darth Vader at one of our trunk-or-treats, that’s when they began talking to me about Star Wars.”
More than once, Johnson has used illustrations from the Star Wars universe in lessons.
Remember the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke fails to lift his X-Wing fighter out of the swamp, and Yoda responds that it’s because he doesn’t believe? The 27-year-old Johnson says it’s a perfect metaphor for Philippians 4:13, where Paul writes, “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Holman CSB).
Then there was the time he used a Transformer in a lesson. He went through all the steps, changing the toy from a vehicle to a robot. It looked complicated, sure, but with practice, it becomes easier.
His point was this: To some, living as a Christian may seem difficult. But with practice … sure enough … it becomes easier.
“It has become a strong tool for me to use within ministry, to connect with kids,” says Johnson, who made his first Vader public appearance in May 2005.
“I think a lot of times that’s kind of where youth ministry lacks. We can teach God’s word and relate that to them, but sometimes we forget that we need to connect with our kids, too.
“I always think it’s cool to be able to connect with kids, and be able to get on their level. I think that’s when true ministry starts, whenever we begin to show kids that we love them and care enough about them (to become) involved in their world … that we can get down on their level and be personal with them. And being personal with them, we’re able to show them a God who is personal, too.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Houston is a writer in Yadkinville.)