A bishop has been among us…Remebering Felton E. May

I was sitting in the bleaches at American University as a college student and for the very first time in my life I heard a black bishop speak to the annual conference.  He was tall in stature and when he opened his mouth he spoke with such an amazing fusion of conviction, power, oratory and passion.  I could hardly keep it together.  He electrified that annual conference session.  At that session, I learned that he was on a one year assignment to address the growing problem of drug addiction in the country especially in the city of Washington, DC where I’d just graduated from High School.

Little did I know on that hot June day in 1990, that thirteen years later, he’d be my bishop and would ordain me as an elder in the life of the church.  I remember him standing there, with his colleagues in the council, Bishops Forrest Stith and Herbert Skeete along with my uncle, Dr.  Alfonso J. Harrod and Dr. George DeFord and my superintendent at the time, now, Bishop Marcus Matthews.  It was, I thought a pretty hefty group.  All of them, laid their collective and heavy hands on me in such a way that my head was buried in my chest while Bishop May began…”Take thou the authority….”

It was what he did after that, however, that will stick with me forever.  He yanked my stole firmly around my neck and said these words…”Yoked in Christ and Christ eternal.”  I looked up at him as time stood still and those words slowly fell in my ears.  I arose from the prie dieu, yoked in Christ and Christ eternal.

When I lost my mother, in 2001, almost a year after my ordination, my phone rang and his name was on the caller ID.  When I heard his voice I immediately broke down and cried.  He rallied me up and asked me did I believe in the resurrection.  He recited for me the great kingdom plan when we will all be raised with Christ…Christ eternal.  He gave me his own examination outside of a Board of Ordained Ministry and insisted on knowing whether I believe in the power of the resurrection and whether I preached it or not.  I assured him that I did.

Bishop May was not the easiest for which to itinerate.  He’d often come my way and I’d find a way to turn to avoid him.  You never knew what he’d ask you or what he’d say.  If I was successful at such an avoidance, I’d wipe my forehead , gently smile and walked away.  Then, there were those times I couldn’t avoid him or his investigative inquiry to what I was up to…but, it was okay.  It was who he was.  It was him.  Then, in his retirement he’d often attend Queen’s Chapel UMC and my anxiety of preaching with a bishop in the congregation never seemed to diminish.  After service, he came up to me, pulled out his Bible, and showed me my signature on the opening pages, along with the signature of everyone else he ordained throughout his episcopacy.  He had such pride, no larger than mine however, to have such a kinship.

The episcopacy in the United Methodist Church is highly managerial.  But, in addition to that, he was more so pastoral.  He never forgot his love for the local church and from time to time, you’d hear him long for the days of pastoring a local congregation.  Of course, the local church is the strength of our church.  I tell you, I loved him.  He might have had a tough demeanor but he was compassionate, caring and looked out for those whom he led and those who were in need.

Our conference celebrated his retirement in 2004.  Walking back to the hotel after lunch a homeless person stopped me.  I was prepared to offer my remaining change from lunch but he didn’t ask for that.  He had a different question.  He asked, “is it true that Bishop May is leaving?”  I said, “yes, he is retiring.”  The man put his head down and quietly walked away.  This bishop was a bishop to those on the ground, literally.  What a great witness!

So, today, I mourn the first bishop I served under as an ordained clergyman.  He was bold, courageous and unapologetic about what the gospel demands of us.  Sometimes, I day dream about what ministry would have been like, if I hadn’t avoided him in the hallways as much. He saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself.  I would rather not encounter such a reminder and go the other way.

Though I tried to embrace myself for his departure, I wept when I hung up from the call that delivered the announcement.  I wept.

I pray for his wife, for his children and grandchildren.  I pray for his colleagues in the Council of Bishops who will no doubt miss such a powerful voice and large presence among them.

It was in March, less than a year ago, that I saw him.  He glared at me as he served me communion at the national meeting of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.  I wanted to be sure to get in his specific serving line.  He spoke to me without saying a word when he saw me.  I know what he was saying.  I could tell in his face that he knew I’d be heading to Michigan on a new assignment.

As he gave me the broken bread, he didn’t have to say it, I saw it on his smiling, beaming face.  “Yoked with Christ…and Christ Eternal.”

Thank you God, for we know, a bishop has been among us and “did not our hearts burn while he was talking to us on the road and opening the scriptures to us?”

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~ by bkevinsmalls on February 28, 2017.

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