Editor's note: This is the first in a series of reflections on their own faith journeys written by members of the staff of the General Board of Church & Society. The photo is a compilation of items each person brought to a day-long retreat with the agency’s new general secretary last fall. Each item is a personal icon representing a staff member’s faith journey.
I come from a family that supported a young woman, my Aunt Della Wright, who in 1905 in her 20s was the second principal of the Colegio Metodista Americano in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Aunt Della lived her life in Brazil, Texas and on the margins of life.
The best Sunday School teacher in the whole world was a middle-aged, white businessman who inspired my love of thinking theologically. Mr. Buchanan had us as high-school students read Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and form critical methods of reading Scripture. He led us in wonderful ethical and theological discussions that were relevant and engaging every Sunday morning.
Our sub-District and District Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) worked together. Our church and our District’s youths worked across economic and cultural lines in the Anderson Rd. Mission of our denomination. We tutored, played basketball and were very present to children and young adults we would never have known otherwise.
Olene Civils, our church’s Director of Education, was a deaconess. She guided our MYF study for over a year on the Middle East. The summer of 1967, at the time of the Six Day War, 45 MYFers from our church were at our denomination’s Church Center at the United Nations in New York City watching King Hussein of Jordan enter the U.N. headquarters across the street.
Church helped see larger world
Some years later, I articulated that it was the Church that helped me glimpse a world where as a Christian I would never be completely at home in Greenville, S.C. And I never was. I would need a larger world to satisfy my curiosity, my longing to understand Christian life from the eyes of those in textile communities, rural communities, John's Island, S.C., Jerusalem, Palestine, countries of Europe and Africa.
I went to my first high-school prom with a young gay man. My church cared for him and all of its youths. The culture may have stigmatized him, but my church did not.
The summer I graduated from high school, I participated in a Migrant Ministry program on Johns Island with other Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic young people. I worked with women and children. We met in the camps each night with families who lived in extremely crowded, hot, spartan, unsanitary conditions. I helped a young woman give birth to her baby when the hospital would not admit her. I got hepatitis.
In college at the Wesley Foundation, there were Bible studies, theological reflections, retreats and several times a week outreach to a girls’ home. We went to Columbia, S.C., to civil-rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. We also went on retreats, sat around campfires singing, and undertook basic Christian formation.
Early wave of women into ordained ministry
I was ordained with the early wave of women into the ministry of The United Methodist Church. Bishop James Thomas’ and Bishop Edward Tullis’ names are on my ordination credentials. I think they were as proud of me as I was to belong among them.
I served three pastoral appointments in rural and textile communities in South Carolina. I loved the people of those communities.
I served a parish in conservative Strom Thurmond territory. I loved the people of that community. I have many stories of how they journeyed in having a young woman pastor, and how I journeyed into lands I never knew.
I served on the South Carolina Conference Council on Ministries, holding almost every portfolio of the UMC. Serving with Bishop Roy Clark and Joseph Bethea, the ground was laid for five cross-racial appointments in South Carolina in 1989. It was hard and painful and joyful work.
I served for 22 joy-filled years as Dean of the Chapel & Religious Life at Emory University, serving the needs of the university in eight schools and 30 religious communities. Multi-faith work in a large university grounded in the ecumenical spirit of Methodism was a great joy.
The Church’s gift
I am sharing this because it is this Church that gave me and continues to give millions of young people this gift: crossing boundaries, reflecting critically, praying earnestly, thinking globally, living in communities I, nor they, would ever have known or come to understand. The Church put me in places as a 12-year-old, a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old, at 21 to 25 … I learned firsthand that there are greater and lesser resources, vision, and people and communities that are not homogenous.
The Church gave me a way to see Christ in the world not just from the eyes of privilege, but from the eyes of migrant workers, of textile workers, of Strom Thurmond conservatives — all whom I loved. I knew nothing about textile workers: The Church gave me that gift. I knew nothing about the Middle East: The Church gave me that. I did not know many Strom Thurmond conservatives, and I loved them.
Christian formation, education, outreach and justice, love of God and love of God's world are the gifts given to and illuminated for me.
Treasure ‘the Connection’
I treasure what we historically, pragmatically and legally call "the Connection." But that word does not fully indicate what it is. The Connection is Christian life together, of prayer, of sacraments, of teaching, of living, of bearing witness, of doing good, of visiting those in prison, standing with migrants, working alongside immigrants, to holding the broken hearted, of hallowing to the Joy of the Gospel of the Risen Christ throughout the whole inhabited earth.
We must move organically from fear, suspicion and brokenness to respect and trust. The Church must be inclusive of all. Fully and completely. A Church divided can never fully heal. We know divisions of the Church throughout the centuries break the heart of God and violate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The world needs this Methodist family, as broken and wounded as we are.
I am United Methodist because of the gifts given me and to which I hold, believe, teach, preach, treasure, and am in love with: one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one Order, one worldwide United Methodist Church.