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Bishop Devadhar, who led with kindness, dies (UM News)

July 20, 2023

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar’s last name means “follower of God.” Through his faithful discipleship and humble leadership, fellow United Methodists say the aptly named bishop helped them to more closely follow God, too.

His sudden passing on July 18 at the age of 72 has led to an outpouring of grief from people across the United Methodist connection. He is survived by his wife, Prema, and their daughter, Trina, son-in-law Gage and his three granddaughters, Nyla, Laili and Miana.

The denomination’s first Indian American bishop, whom friends called Suda, had just retired on Jan. 1 after nearly 20 years as an active bishop — first in the Greater New Jersey Conference in 2004-2012 and then in the New England Conference until this year. He had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to be near his grandchildren.

But he was still serving as chair of the denomination’s Asian American Language Ministry Plan, which works to develop new United Methodist ministries and strengthen existing ones among more than a dozen language groups.

“He was a servant leader who possessed a gentle heart, a deep and abiding faith and rigorous intellect,” said Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling in a statement from the Council of Bishops. She and other members of the bishops’ executive committee were in Chicago when they received the news.

Easterling, who leads the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, served on Devadhar’s cabinet before being elected bishop. She is also the current president of the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

“He led ecumenically, understanding that we all benefit from God’s divine design of unity,” Easterling said.

Fellow bishops in the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction who served alongside Devadhar also discussed the impact of his ministry, including Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton.

“Suda’s heart was as genuine and pure as any person I have ever met,” said Bickerton, who also leads the New York Conference. “His favorite phrases were, ‘By the grace of God’ and ‘In the spirit of the Covenant.’ They were true descriptors of his incredible life.”

Devadhar was a pioneer in serving in cross-racial appointments and a champion of ethnic diversity and inclusion across the denomination.

The Rev. Scort Christy, president of the New Federation of Asian American United Methodists and co-chair of the Asian American Ministry Language Plan, said Devadhar was a faithful and transformative episcopal leader in the Asian American United Methodist community as well as the global church.

“We as a community have known Bishop Suda for his compassionate leadership and caring presence in times of need,” said Christy, senior pastor of multi-ethnic Emmanuel Evanston United Methodist Church near Chicago.

Throughout his ministry, he also supported the denomination’s work for Christian unity and interreligious dialogue. He was part of the United Methodist delegation at the World Council of Churches General Assembly last year.

“From annually taking young people to the Taizé community in France, to leading an interreligious study trip to India, to facilitating the bishops’ Leadership Team for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relationships, he was a true leader,” said the Rev. Jean Hawxhurst, ecumenical staff officer for the Council of Bishops.

“Thinking of the many times we worked together to promote Christian unity makes me smile,” she said.

Bishop Sally Dyck, the Council of Bishops ecumenical officer, said Bishop Devadhar “represented an ecumenical and interreligious heart, prioritizing ecumenism and interreligious spirit in his ministry. He also had an ecumenical and interreligious mind; theologically grounding his faith with unity at the center.”  

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who currently leads the New England Conference, said Devadhar opened the world to the conferences with the pilgrimages he led.

“He was a man of rich interfaith understanding and connection,” she said. “His character was always one of love, collegiality and grace.”

The Rev. Larry Pickens worked with Devadhar on ecumenical and interreligious matters even before he was elected bishop. “I always found him to be a very open and curious soul who was willing to engage in ecumenical and interfaith encounters,” Pickens said.

Devadhar’s curiosity and willingness to listen and learn was key to that work, he added.

Friends say Devadhar’s ability to connect with other faiths and denominations was likely shaped by his upbringing in a family of clergy members of the Church of South India — itself a union of various Protestants including Methodists. But he grew up in a country where Christians were far outnumbered by Hindus. He maintained Christian-Hindu dialogues throughout his life.

He received degrees from Vijaya College, University of Mysore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka and United Theological College in Bangalore, India. He began his ministry as a deacon in the Church of South India before continuing his education at United Methodist theological schools in the U.S.

He earned a Master of Theology degree from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, and Master of Philosophy and a Ph.D. from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

The Rev. Jacob Dharmaraj, a retired clergy member from the New York Conference and author of multiple books on mission, became friends with Devadhar when they were both students at Drew. Dharmaraj later co-wrote “Many Faces, One Church: A Manual for Cross-Racial and Cross-Cultural Ministry,” and one of the people he turned to for advice was Devadhar.

Devadhar served for eight years as the district superintendent in what was then the North Central New York Annual Conference, now Upper New York, before his election as bishop.

“He and I would talk about his earliest experience as a pastor from another culture, another background,” Dharmaraj said. “He was committed to the church’s future, and he would not dwell on negative experiences. … He was able to distinguish between obnoxiousness and racism.”

Dharmaraj said the bishop also worked to bring out the best in people.

Devadhar previously had told his fellow bishops that he envisioned to be where the Holy Spirit is empowering God’s children of all ages, backgrounds, colors and personalities. “Such a church does not merely serve the poor, the left out, the different, but welcomes them warmly into its hearts, homes and worship,” he said.

Many people reached by United Methodist News emotionally described how much the bishop — whose guiding principle was “love everybody” — meant to them, their ministry and The United Methodist Church as a whole.

“He was a beautiful human being who saw the divinity in everyone,” said the Rev. Wanda Santos-Pérez, whom Devadhar appointed as Seacoast District superintendent in the New England Conference.

“You knew you were seen when this man looked at you. He was the incarnation of humility, grace and generosity.”

Her husband, the Rev. René Pérez, previously served as a district superintendent and dean of Devadhar’s cabinet, helping the bishop in the challenging task of appointing pastors. “When we had to make decisions, he always called us to take the high road,” said Pérez, now pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

“He always, always took things very prayerfully not only when we made decisions as cabinet, but outside our meetings. Whenever anyone was going through something, somehow he would find out and he would call to offer prayer.”

In tense times, he made time for prayer. After a particularly emotional Council of Bishops meeting, he spent a quiet moment praying with LGBTQ activists who had unexpectedly shown up. He also paid for the activists’ lunch.

In the denomination’s debate over the status of LGBTQ people, he made clear he stood for full inclusion but he was always willing to extend a hand to people across the theological spectrum.

Bishop John Schol, who now leads the Greater New Jersey as well as the Eastern Pennsylvania conferences, said Devadhar had a deep faith in Christ and in people.

“Many have heard the expression, walk softly and carry a big stick, but for Bishop Devadhar it was walk softly and carry a big heart,” Schol said.

Clare J. Chapman said he was not just pastoral but was one of the kindest people she has ever known. Chapman worked with Devadhar when he was a board member and she was on staff with the denomination’s former ecumenical agency, the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

But as much as he led with his heart, he also had a mind for numbers, and made sure the conferences he led paid their full apportionments — the share of giving that supports ministry beyond the local church.

The Rev. Jeff Campbell, the top executive of Discipleship Ministries, said Devadhar was always a strong supporter of the denomination’s general agencies. Devadhar served on  the Discipleship Ministries board in 2009-2012.

Campbell has a deeper personal connection Devadhar, who as bishop of the Greater New Jersey Conference ordained the future agency executive. 

M. Garlinda Burton, who formerly was top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women and now works with the Commission on Religion and Race, said that whenever she worked with him on church business, he started with prayer and ended by asking about her family and life.

“He walked his talk as a follower of Christ and a friend,” she said.

The Rev. Moses Kumar, the top executive of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, said Devadhar’s favorite hymn was “Marching to Zion,” which starts with “Come we that love the Lord.”

“That for me embodies who the bishop was,” Kumar said. “He loved the Lord, and he loved sharing that passion and energy with those around him. While we will feel his loss here on Earth, I find comfort that Bishop Devadhar is with Jesus in Zion, the beautiful city of God.”

The funeral of Bishop Devadhar is scheduled at 11 a.m. U.S. Eastern time July 27 held at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church, 1345 Grace Avenue in Cincinnati. A viewing will immediately precede the service at 9 a.m. at the church. Plans are in the works to livestream the service.