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Bishop Talbert, advocate for justice, dies (UM News)

August 7, 2023

From humble beginnings as one of seven children born to sharecropper parents in rural Louisiana, retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert took his ministry of justice and love for all people around the globe. He died Aug. 3 at the age of 89.

Talbert was elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church by the Western Jurisdiction. He served as episcopal leader for the Pacific Northwest Conference from 1980 to 1988 and then was assigned to the California-Nevada Conference, where he retired in 2000.

Talbert focused much of his ministry on fighting racism and discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“I am so grateful for the life and ministry of Bishop Mel Talbert, who has passed into glory. I give thanks for his commitment to a fully inclusive church that was expressed by his pastoral acts and prophetic voice,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.

Oliveto was consecrated as the first openly lesbian bishop in the denomination in 2016.

“Our church and my life and ministry are richer because of his presence. I am so very grateful I had the opportunity to serve under his leadership,” she said.

At the time of Oliveto’s election, Talbert said he wasn’t sure he would ever live to see the day when the church would elect an openly gay bishop.

“This means our church — at least part of our church — has finally come to the realization that there is no longer any place for exclusion. We are all children of God regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or abilities. We would be blessed to invite all God’s people to their rightful place at the table,” he said.

Jan Lawrence, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist advocacy group that seeks full equality of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, said Talbert was always available.

“He was the first United Methodist bishop I met and I remember the hope he gave me. In more recent years, he was a friend, a co-good troublemaker, and a great pastor and advisor who showed up every time RMN asked him to do so. My heart goes out to United Methodists from across the connection and to his family.”

Paul Jeffrey, retired clergy from the Pacific Northwest who served for 35 years as a missionary, said Talbert “was a pastor who troubling times turned into a prophet.”

Jeffrey said Talbert commissioned him and his wife, the Rev. Lyda Pierce, as missionaries and sent them to Central America with his blessing.

“Whenever our paths crossed, he made sure we knew that despite the miles between us, he was still our bishop and proud of us. He eventually moved on from the Northwest, his acts of radical inclusion making him a target for the radically exclusive right. We thank God for his life and witness. Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Talbert served as secretary for the Council of Bishops from 1988 to 1996 and later as the council’s chief ecumenical officer from 2000 to 2004.

Retired Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky said Talbert “was a huge character in many aspects of my life. Mel was an amazingly gracious, approachable, powerful church leader and mentor for emerging leaders in the church.”

Stanovsky said during the anti-apartheid movement in the early ’80s, there were regular protests of civil disobedience outside of the South African consulate in Seattle. She was at a conference meeting with Talbert the day before a protest was to take place.

“He sat me down and gave me a tutorial on the necessity and power of using personal acts of conscience as a teaching tool,” she said. That conversation, “was really important and has served me well for many years.”

Talbert was a trailblazer in the fight for antiracism, said the Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

“We are reminded of the transformative impact he had on the lives of countless individuals, his community and the church. His fearless spirit and unwavering commitment to justice were a guiding light for those who sought to build a more equitable society,” he said.

Talbert was president of the Commission on Religion and Race from 1983 to 1988.

“He showcased his passion for fostering inclusivity and understanding among diverse communities,” Arroyo said. “Let us honor his memory by strengthening our work towards equity and antiracism by continuing to champion the values he held dear.”

Talbert seemed destined for leadership roles. At age 12, he was elected superintendent of the Sunday school of Union Chapel, his home church in Clinton, Louisiana.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1959 and a Master of Divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center/Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta in 1962. While at Southern University, he was elected president for the Methodist Student Fellowship; he was president of the student body from 1960 to ’61 at Interdenominational Theological Center.

One pivotal moment in Talbert’s life was meeting and spending three days and three nights in a jail cell with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 when Talbert was a seminary student at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

Talbert had joined with other students in protesting Jim Crow segregation laws with a sit-in demonstration at lunch counters. They were arrested and put in the same cell with King who was also arrested for leading protests.

In an interview with United Methodist News in 2003, Talbert said he was very radical at the time, but King showed him there was another way through nonviolent revolution. It was a life-changing meeting for him.

Talbert became a candidate for ordained ministry in 1958 and was ordained as a deacon in 1960 in the Louisiana Conference. He transferred to the Southern California-Arizona Conference and was ordained elder in full connection in 1963.

After serving churches in Los Angeles, St. John’s (Watts), Wesley and Hamilton, Talbert became associate council director for the Southern California-Arizona Conference. One year later, he was appointed district superintendent for the Long Beach District.

In 1973, Talbert was elected top executive of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, where he served until he was elected to the episcopacy in 1980. 

Talbert served as president of the National Council of Churches in 1996-97. He also was a member of the World Methodist Council executive committee and the World Council of Churches central committee.

He participated in launching the World Council of Churches International Ecumenical Monitoring Program in South Africa, an effor to monitor violence. In 1985, he was one of a group of religious leaders arrested for an Ash Wednesday demonstration against apartheid. Those charges were later dropped.

At the time, he said dismissal of the charges “suggests that our efforts are for a just cause.”

Talbert traveled to the Middle East as part of a peace mission in 1990. He was chair of the committee that produced the Persian Gulf resolution sent to President George H.W. Bush and Congress asking them to pursue every peaceful means for a solution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

As one of 40 presidential guests, Talbert accompanied U.S. President Bill Clinton on his peace pilgrimage to Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1995.

He visited the White House on several occasions representing the National Council of Churches and the Council of Bishops. He was one of the founders of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

“BMCR joins the church in mourning the loss of this justice drum major. With his whole being, Bishop Talbert sought to advance God’s Kindom and to create the beloved community,” said the Rev. Antoine C. Love, chairperson for Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, said Talbert was a committed advocate for inclusion.

“For as long as I can remember, Bishop Melvin Talbert of The United Methodist Church has fought for and has been synonymous with everything good, just, inclusive and honorable. He represented the best of the denomination of my youth, and never-ever gave in or gave up for inclusion,” he said.

Talbert advocated for the rights of LGBTQ people to serve in all roles in the church and said the church’s stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching was “wrong and evil.” His advocacy extended beyond his retirement.

In 2012, more than 70 U.S. clergy and lay people sent a letter to the Council of Bishops asking for Talbert to be “publicly” censured after he called for “biblical obedience” and called on more than 1,100 clergy who signed pledges to officiate at same-sex unions to “stand firm.”

After his retirement, he became the first United Methodist bishop to officiate at a same-sex wedding, which was held in Alabama in 2013.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops requested a complaint be filed against him. A resolution was reached two years later and Talbert did not face a church trial or loss of his clergy credentials.

In 2013, Scarritt Bennett Center awarded Talbert the Ann L. Reskovach Courage Award along with co-honoree Sister Helen Prejean. Scarritt Bennett, owned by United Women in Faith, is a nonprofit conference, retreat and education center in Nashville.

“We are eternally grateful for the earthly courageous radical witness of Bishop Talbert against racism and discrimination,” said the Rev. Sondrea L. Tolbert, executive director of Scarritt Bennett, and Andrea Hatcher, board chair.

Talbert is survived by his wife, Marilyn W. Magee. He was married to Ethelou Douglas for 38 years prior to her death in 1999 and they had one daughter, Evangeline Violet (James H. Sifford Sr), and three grandchildren: Kaetlin, James Jr. and Melvin Douglas.

Funeral arrangements are pending.