Sitting in his central Toledo barber shop, the steady traffic on Detroit Avenue rattling at the window, Johnny Hobbs, Jr., is as comfortable with a pair of scissors in his hand as he is with a Bible.
Hobbs Barber Shop is well stocked with both, as befits a longtime owner who sees the space as an extension of his office at a church he’s been leading for four decades.
“I have a pulpit in the barber shop, folks say,” he said with a laugh. “An invisible pulpit.”
Mr. Hobbs has been presiding over Hobbs Barber Shop, 636 N. Detroit Ave., since he opened the shop in 1975. He’s been leading a congregation at Greater St. John Church of God in Christ for nearly as long, recently celebrating his 40th pastoral anniversary, and his 70th birthday, at a banquet whose attendees notably included Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson.
Ms. Hicks-Hudson honored the pastor with a proclamation at the banquet, recognizing him as “a man of great faith who is kind, unselfish, and encouraging.”
His two chosen professions, master barber and pastor, act as easy complements to each other, Pastor Hobbs said, describing his barber shop as a place where he can share a message of love and acceptance with community members who might never walk into his church. Elder Louis Davis, who is his assistant pastor at Greater St. John, said the conversations in the barber shop are often the same sort that take place in the church.
But that’s not something the pastor had planned out when, as a high school senior, he decided to enroll in the former Andrew Barber College. Then, he recalled recently, he had no way of knowing what plans God would hold for his license.
“When I look back, I just have to laugh and cry at the same time,” he said. “God was always giving me an opportunity to do what he needed me to do.”
Faith has always been important to Pastor Hobbs, who credits his parents with setting an example he continues to strive to follow. (A verse he repeats often, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he recalls learning from his father as a child.) The family, into which Pastor Hobbs fit as the sixth of 10 children, moved from Mississippi to Ohio in 1956.
Pastor Hobbs attended First Baptist Church in Swanton with his family before moving to United Church of God in Christ in Toledo. There, under the guidance of the late Rev. Robert Cunningham, Sr., whom Pastor Hobbs names as his spiritual father, he took on an active ministerial role and enrolled in the former Toledo Bible School.
Ordination followed in 1971. Pastor Hobbs continued to serve under the Pastor Cunningham as an assistant pastor until, with the elder pastor’s blessing, he started his own congregation in 1977 as a means of expanding their ministry. The first services of what would become Greater St. John, he recalled, were led by himself and his wife, Eleanore, in their living room.
Today the congregation meets at 2127 W. Sylvania Ave. Sunday services are at 11 a.m.
Those were busy years for Pastor Hobbs, who with his wife was simultaneously raising three young boys. He had only left Clark’s Barber and Beauty Shop to start his own business two years earlier and, within a few years, in 1985, he would add in the responsibilities of a superintendent within his denomination.
That meant he was acting as a mentor to other churches in his district; he continues to work as a superintendent now as well as a mentor to churches outside his denomination.
“I can’t believe that I had that much energy,” he said recently, thinking back with a smile on his early years at the church and in the barber shop. “I look at my son now, and see what he does, and sometimes I want to say, ‘Slow down.’ Then I think about my life and I say, ‘Go ahead.’”
Although he considers himself semi-retired from the barber shop today, Pastor Hobbs maintains reduced hours there to continue serving his longtime customers. Years of experience with a razor or a pair of scissors in his hand have shown him that people feel comfortable speaking from under a barber’s cape.
“Barbers and beauticians get stories that nobody else gets,” he said.
“I’ve had tremendous access to people that you wouldn’t normally come in contact with at a church,” he continued. “People feel freer coming into a barber salon, and I thank God for that.”
He’s talked through marital problems, neighborhood issues, drug addictions, job interview jitters, and more from inside the shop. Although he keeps a small shelf stocked with Bibles and religious study materials in the shop, beside a desk in front of the window where he peruses them on slow days, he said not all his conversations at the barber shop are overtly religious.
When the conversation comes around to the Golden Rule, for example, that favorite verse from his father, a Biblical citation isn’t necessary. He sees it more simply about “respecting your fellow man.”
In some cases, someone he’s counseled at the barber shop has shown up in his pews on a Sunday. He’s happy to see that. In others cases, he’ll connect those who come into the barber shop with a pastor from whichever faith tradition they affiliate.
“I’m not trying to recruit people for this ministry,” he said of his own church. “I’m trying to recruit people to let them know that Jesus is a God of love.”
Elder Davis praised Pastor Hobbs for an ability to connect with individuals “from all walks of life,” a characteristic he said is reflected in the parishioners who come to hear him preach on Sundays. The pastor strives to maintain a personal relationship with each of them.
Elder Davis, too, sees the barber salon as an extension of the church and an avenue of ministry just like the pulpit.
He would know — he’s a longtime customer.
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