In her first visit to United Methodists in the Roanoke District, Bishop Sharma Lewis demonstrated the power which African-American clergy have so often used to bring about social change.
Formerly active among Atlanta area United Methodists, the past summer Lewis became the bishop of the Virginia Conference with headquarters in Richmond. When regional elections were held to choose the spiritual and administrative leaders, the trim, dynamic district superintendent from Georgia was the first African-American woman to be named a bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction covering the area from Virginia south.
Lewis is not the first woman bishop for the conference. That distinction belongs to Charlene Payne Kammerer, who served earlier in this century. She, in turn, was succeeded by a native of Korea, Young Jin Cho, who retired earlier this year after four in the office.
With the arrival of the bishop from Georgia, the African-American style of worship will become familiar to those in the pews if they haven’t already experienced it. The woman in her purple suit in her 25-minute message for the annual Roanoke District’s 149th Annual District Conference hammered home the view that “Jesus must go to the street.”
If the church is losing members through age and death – as are most familiar denominations – this is not a new problem, the bishop pointed out. It is countered, she asserted, by not being afraid to speak of one’s faith “on the golf course, in the board room, the fraternity house, the basketball court.”
She demonstrated her femininity with a small story.
“You know I love shoes. Well, I was in a new place and went to a store to get some more. I talked to the owner, told her who I was and invited her to a special program we were having…Well, true, she didn’t come, but I did what I could and the Holy Spirit does the rest.”
As Lewis made a point in her message, she had her listeners at the Cave Spring church repeat key phrases after her. As she neared the end of her talk she left the pulpit in the big contemporary-style worship area and moved about the pews. Soon we were applauding, as is customary among black worshipers.
To emphasize the African-American style of worship, a choir from the mostly-black Asbury United Methodist Church in Christiansburg offered a gospel anthem. Its pastor is the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel L. Bishop, known outside Methodism for his leadership as a medical educator.
Sitting in on the brief business meeting of the district, I was struck by the ordained female leadership. With Bishop Lewis on the Virginia Conference level, administration moves downward to that of the Roanoke District where the Rev. Kathleen Overby Webster is in her fourth year as administrator for the 70 congregations from her office near Tanglewood Mall.
The hostess pastor at Cave Spring is the Rev. Denise Bates, assigned there last year. And she has a female assistant, the Rev. Joanna Paysour. They are far from the only ordained United Methodist women in the Roanoke metro area, Botetourt and Eastern Montgomery County, the areas in the Virginia Conference.
Churches in Radford and others west of the New River are part of the Holston Conference.
Being a lover of contemporary church architecture – though hardly steel warehouse structures – I was awed by the beauty of Cave Spring’s worship area with the organ pipes fully exposed, the cold blue sky clear in windows near the ceiling and the ingenious way the architect designed the hillside building. Ample ramps and elevators allow the many older Methodists, who are still the backbone of churches despite the often-expressed need to do as Bishop Lewis demanded, “Get out of those walls! We gotta tell those sufferin’ people that Jesus loves them too!”
That’s hardly new to Methodists. Their 18th Century English founder, John Wesley, bucked the Anglican state church of his day and took the good news of Jesus’ understanding to the fields and mines. With several predominantly African-American parishes in the district, the races meet at times like the district conference.