Bishop Alfred Johnson Sherri Martha and Paul

How Past Connections Gave to the Present

I’d like to share stories about how Bishop J was already connected to my family in two ways before we met!

When I was a child in the 1970’s, Bishop J served on a Religion and Race Committee worked with my parents, Ardis Vetesk Chapman and Clarke Chapman, in Philadelphia, PA. My parents went to a series of meetings with Bishop J and a group of folks who were working together to better race relations.  This was not long after the Methodist Episcopal churches (predominantly White­Caucasian) voted to eliminate the institutionally structured and racially segregated Central Jurisdiction of Methodist Episcopal Church (1964 and 1968) to create the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the 1968. This General Conference vote also merged with The Evangelical United Brethern Church. Good for Bishop J and my parents for being part of mending rifts and building awareness.

During that time my godmother and author, Lucia Ann McSpadden was involved in work on cross-cultural, immigration and race issues in the church. Her book, “Cross-Cultural Relations in Pastoral Appointments” includes an interview with Bishop J about his appointment to a church in a relatively rural area with a membership that was completely white or Euro-American, to use the terminology in the book. For Bishop J, an African-American raised in a large city, this was cross-cultural appointment for sure! The book uncovers expectations – often unconscious – about social patterns, communication style and worship style.

Bishop J has worked during his career at joining things together and he brought so much of that work to Church of the Village. As a Bishop in the NJ Conference, he helped to join two Annual Conferences, which is a lot like merging two neighborhoods into one town. As the Sr. Pastor at Church of the Village, it was more personal – like merging factions of ‘family’ into one household. Messy. Difficult. Rewarding. Transforming.

I met Bishop J when he was appointed to lead the merger of the three Greenwich Village Methodist churches who joined to create The Church of the Village in 2006. The three churches were Washington Square UMC, where I was a member and whose building and parsonage were sold (these funds are now COTV’s endowment), Metropolitan-Duane UMC (itself a result of earlier mergers as is obvious in its name!) in which building we now minister at 201 W. 13th St., and The Church of All Nations, a Spanish-speaking community based on St. Marks Place in a building owned by the New York Annual Conference and now returned to their use.

Church of the Village is a diverse community and we deal with many cultural expectations. What did each of us grow up with? Should we have long worship services or short worship services? Is it ok to clap after music? Do we listen with sacred silence during sermons or call out with “Amen!” or “Preach it!” What about standing and dancing, kneeling and praying? Do we focus on meetings that are task-based where effectiveness is measured by how much we ‘get done’, or work for meetings that are relation-building-based where effectiveness is measured by how much we learn about each other or how much we honor the community members of note… Elders. Leaders. Children. Saints.

Bishop J had a hard job coming into this ‘marriage’. There were lots of hurt feelings and grief, but there was also hope and possibility. With dwindling numbers and escalating bills, all three congregations understood that remaining independent would be a certain path to eventual dissolution. Thanks to Bishop J, COTV is well on the way to being a self-sustaining, integral part of the community it serves.

It was wonderful for me to know that adults whom I love and honor already knew and valued Bishop J. It helped me to trust him when we first met and when I – and all the community members coming into a new, joined and uncertain reality – were full of fear as well as hope. Thank you, Bishop J.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of what we hope are many of stories from parishioners and others about about Bishop Alfred Johnson or Bishop J as we affectionately call him. You are invited to share stories of the first time you met him, or perhaps something that Bishop J did or said that was important, life-changing, or hilarious to you. Whether you express your story in a few sentences, a haiku, or a page (No more than a page, please!), we want to read it! Between now and June 7, we are collecting stories honoring Bishop J’s ministry among us. To submit, please send your story to our Bishop J Story Editor, Selby Ewing.