Blessings of Our Beloved Bishop J

Blessings of Our Beloved Bishop J

The idea of writing about Bishop J seemed like the easiest “assignment” in the world, but the reality (as I actually start the process) is much more challenging. Emotions overwhelm, as I think of how I met him, how he’s changed my life, what he means to me as pastor and friend, and what it will be like when he leaves the Church of the Village.

Background:  Soon after I came out as a lesbian in 1987, with frustration and anger and heart-aching tears, I left the United Methodist Church, feeling that I could not support a church who would not have ordained me into ministry if I continued my education. I had some seminary background, was a very active certified conference and local church lay speaker in NJ, had completed a year of clinical pastoral education (CPE) in hospital chaplaincy, and had been the wife of a United Methodist minister. After I moved to NYC, I occasionally would try to get involved in church again, but my bitterness held me back. Many years passed. During that time, my life shifted away from church and I lost much of my spiritual connection. In 1996, I wisely came into a 12-step recovery program, and with gratitude came back to a relationship with my loving God.

Church of the Village: In November, 2007, my daughter Melissa and granddaughter Cassie invited my fiancée, Katie Sawyer, and me to come to their church with them…the Church of the Village.  They told me about their dynamic, inspiring, justice-based, LGBTQI-supportive minister… Bishop Alfred Johnson! As we sat there enjoying the service, enthralled by Bishop J’s spoken words and warm smiles that let us know how welcome we were, how totally inclusive this church was, I recognized how much I had lost by denying my church connection. When Katie (whose background had been very intense Roman Catholicism) leaned over and said, “Now this is a church I could get involved in,” I was astounded and thrilled. “Really?! Let’s do it!” And we did.

Within weeks, Bishop J took Katie and me out to lunch, where we shared our stories. Again, we were so impressed by his personal style that made each of us feel so special. We mattered to him! When I talked of my previous activity in the church, saying I would want to again serve in worship, he said he was sure there was a niche for me.  When Katie spoke of her Roman Catholic education and her family (including her priest uncle and nun cousin), Bishop J showed interest and understood why she was seeking a more inclusive church family.

Anyone who knows Bishop J knows that, if he decides he wants something to happen, he’s not shy about making it happen. A month after our lunch with him, during a worship service in early January, several people were joining as new members. Bishop J, in his spontaneous way, looked over at Katie and me and asked if we were ready to join as well. We looked at each other and laughed, as we walked up to the altar to join the others. (Obviously, that was before the Exploring Faith classes!)

Bishop J immediately invited us into service and has never stopped encouraging us to stretch and grow. Katie started ushering at that point, and I worked on the Worship Committee and Leadership. Within a year, she was Head Usher and training ushers and welcomers and I was chairing Worship, training worship leaders, and serving in other ways. I eventually shifted focus from worship to the Ministers of Care.  With Bishop J’s support, I began a two year course at the Pastoral Care Institute and, as of last year, I am now a certified Pastoral Care Specialist.

In his own way, Bishop J comes through, no matter what. Four months after we joined the church, prior to NYS’s ruling on equality in marriage, Katie and I had a big beach wedding where we lived in Rockaway.  Due to the UMC clergy ban on officiating, we knew we could not ask Bishop J, so a good friend who is an Episcopal priest performed the service. However, immediately after “the wedding kiss,” Bishop J walked us down to the ocean’s edge (along with our Assistant Pastor, Rev. Hector Laporta) for a special blessing. The ocean then gave us a friendly blessing of its own, as a wave surprisingly came up and “re-baptized” the four of us! Three years later, on 11/11/11, after New York laws changed, Katie and I had our official legal wedding in a much different venue, ten of us in a small back garden restaurant on Cornelia Street, in a sweet intimate ceremony. Bishop J came through again, as he and his dear wife Sherrie served Communion, as Pastor Vicki honored us in her blessing of conscience, Cassie and Althea did readings, and Melissa and Katie’s sister Maryanne were witnesses. Adding to these many blessings of our Church of the Village presence, we were so pleased to have our COTV Liberian wooden cross on our wedding altar.

Will we miss Bishop J when he moves away? Of course! Will we always feel his presence with us, with all of his influence everywhere in our lives? That’s for sure! Thank you so much, Bishop J. You’ve made so much a difference in our lives, and we love you.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of stories from parishioners and others about Bishop Alfred Johnson or Bishop J as we affectionately call him. Parishioner were invited to submit stories honoring Bishop J’s ministry at Church of the Village.  They shared stories of the first time they met him, or perhaps something that Bishop J did or said that was important, life-changing, or hilarious to them. Please join us this Sunday, June 21  for Bishop J’s final worship service at Church of the Village after serving as its founding pastor of ten years.