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Pioneers in Methodism: Bishop Woodie W. White (UMCom)

January 13, 2023

Bishop Woodie W. White grew up in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1940s during a time of immense racial inequality and turmoil.

As a child during World War II, he experienced air raid drills and blackouts and recalls hearing comments about how wrong it was for Black soldiers to fight in a segregated army to preserve freedoms they did not enjoy. After graduating from seminary in 1961, he began serving an all-white congregation as an associate pastor, the first cross-racial appointment in Michigan. He was later appointed to that congregation as its first Black senior pastor. In 1967, he was appointed as the first urban missioner in Detroit, a position that put him at the center of the racial strife in the city of Detroit, which had just experienced a bloody and deadly race riot.

While appointed to that work, White was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and fined $1,000 for trespassing and $1,000 for “disturbing divine worship” for trying to worship at Saint Luke’s Methodist Church. Three decades later, he would be invited back to that church as a guest preacher.

In 1968, a joint General Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church affirmed a union agreement that created The United Methodist Church. As a condition of entering this union, the Evangelical United Brethren insisted that the Methodist Church abolish its segregated Central Jurisdiction and all segregated annual conferences as one step to face up to and overcome racism in the new denomination. Several quadrennia earlier, the General Conference of the Methodist church created a Commission on Interjurisdictional Relations to recommend to the General Conference how to abolish the Central Jurisdiction.

As a result of the General Conference’s previous work, the Central Jurisdiction put itself out of business by holding its final meeting in Nashville, Tennessee in August, 1967. The question to be resolved by the General Conference in 1968 became how to deal with the remaining segregated annual conferences.

In November 1967, Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) was born. A burning question for this gathering of Black Methodist leaders was how to ensure that Black constituencies had full voice and representation at every level in the new denomination. While aware of the proposal the Commission on Interjurisdictional Relations would bring, they believed that proposal was insufficient. BMCR assigned a working group consisting of James Lawson, Joseph Lowry, Minnie Stein, Woodie W. White and others to develop an amendment to the interjurisdictional commission’s proposal and find a delegate who could successfully bring it to the floor.

The amendment was substantial. It would continue the Commission on Interjurisdictional Relations as an agency of the new United Methodist Church, rename it the Commission on Religion and Race, fully fund it to provide staffing and travel, provide it with an executive secretary with a seat at the General Secretaries table and reconstitute its membership to be six persons from each of the jurisdictions (including the former Central Jurisdiction) with the majority being persons of color. Lowry, White, Lawson, Negail Riley and Minnie Stein recruited Roy Nichols, then pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in New York City to bring the amendment. Discussion about the original commission’s proposal and the amendment stretched over several days at the 1968 General Conference, with the amended version prevailing.

At its first meeting shortly after the General Conference, the Commission on Religion and Race began its work. White was elected the first executive secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race with the responsibility to oversee its work and to build its staff. White thus became the first Black person to head a United Methodist general agency, and so, for some time, the only Black person at the General Secretaries Table.

Says White, “The Commission on Religion and Race developed its own committee on merger to work with the merger committees of the annual conferences. The commission’s committee visited and consulted with these annual conference committees. Commission staff brought conference leadership together in workshops to become aware of the issues involved around race and racism. For the most part, leaders of the geographical annual conferences and former Central Jurisdiction annual conferences had never met each other, and some of their offices were in the same city.” White was the key staff person in designing and implementing these workshops.
White is quick to acknowledge the significant contribution of the Southeastern Jurisdictional United Methodist Women and the Central Jurisdictional United Methodist Women in making their mergers happen. “They were the most eager and ready to merge. I brought many of them together in workshops I led across the country. We met for weekend sessions. It was tough, because I was challenging them to look at themselves, and at their own attitudinal and behavioral racism.

“I felt like I was really doing something significant when I went in these little towns and churches and met with bishops,” he said. “It was a struggle, but we were doing something right, so I was encouraged.” 

It was out of the successful experience of these workshops that White built the platform for the work with annual conference and other general agency leaders.

“It was significant and extremely fulfilling work. Part of that was that we had some giants of the movement at the heart of it: James Lawson, Cecil Williams, Joseph Lowry and Gloster Current (deputy executive director of the NAACP) to name just four.”

The time the Commission on Religion and Race spent to integrate annual conferences and initial work with the Council of Bishops and general agencies convinced its members, and many other leaders in the denomination, that the scope of the work to eliminate racism in The United Methodist Church required a permanent general agency with a broader scope. It became evident this work needed to continue in all the jurisdictions, extend to the General Conference itself, and include United Methodist seminaries and other related institutions as well. The principle of non-discrimination had to be applied everywhere.

Thus, the 1972 General Conference made the General Commission on Religion and Race a permanent agency, and White would serve as its General Secretary until 1984, when he was elected to the episcopacy in the North Central Jurisdiction. He was assigned first to the Illinois Episcopal Area (1984-1992) and then to Indiana (1992-2004, when he retired).
Once again, White was a pioneer as the first — but not the only — Black bishop these two episcopal areas would have.

During his episcopacy, he also chaired the study committee on Strengthening the Black Church mandated by the 1992 General Conference and served as president of the Council of Bishops in 1996.

White held numerous positions outside of the church as well, including an appointment to the World Council of Churches’ Committee to Combat Racism.

And across all of his appointments throughout his carrer, White never had a predecessor who was Black. He was always the first.

In retirement, White became the Bishop-in-Residence at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, a role he continued until 2016. White would take students from his “Methodist Church and Race” class on an annual pilgrimage, with stops in Alabama cities where pivotal moments of the civil rights movement occurred. The trips culminated with a march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where a violent confrontation between police and peaceful marchers occurred March 8, 1965. The clash helped bring about passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

White said he wanted his students to gain insight on “how much people sacrificed and gave. However imperfect we are right now, I want them to see where we were and I want them to have from this a sense of responsibility that they now have a job to do.”

In 1976, White wrote the first of what would become an annual letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday, reflecting on the progress and current state of racial equality in the United States. His letters shared his joy in visible changes and progress as well as his discouragement at the institutional and systemic racism that continues to plague the country. His letters reflected his hope in Christ for a better tomorrow. He continued writing a “birthday letter” for more than 40 years.

In 2022, the state of Georgia honored White with the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery Civil Rights Award. The award recognizes White’s unwavering advocacy for leadership development in the fight for civil rights.

Bishop White’s lifelong legacy as a leader and advocate for racial equality and inclusion continues to call the church and society to strive for a better, more just world.

In his 2017 letter to King, he shared his hope:

“We strive for a beloved community that fulfills the will of God, a place where brothers and sisters not only hold common citizenry, but all claim a common creator. It is a place where we seek to make God’s will real in all we say and do, and how we live together in the place God has provided — the world.”