Over 30 bishops of the United Methodist Church traveled from across the country to praise a deceased colleague who was a trailblazer and didn’t hesitate to speak out against and acted to change injustices.

Bishop Felton May was the first Black bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Courtesy photo)

Bishop Felton May was the first Black bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Courtesy photo)

On Feb. 27, Bishop Felton May, the first Black person to hold that position in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), died of an illness related to pancreatic cancer in Ellicott City, Md. A service was held at Asbury United Methodist Church in the District of Columbia on April 1, with Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, president of the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the present Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and Asbury’s senior pastor, the Rev. Ianther Mills, serving in presiding roles.

“Even though he was called bishop he did not ride on the tail of his title and authority,” Dr. Deborah May-Hoyles, who cited Scripture at the service. “He had a sense of humor. The truth he spoke challenged you to do something.”

May was a native of Chicago and received a bachelor’s degree from Judson College in 1961 and got a master’s of divinity from Crozer Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He built Maple Park Methodist Church in Chicago as his first pastoral assignment and he left there to service the church in the Penisula-Delaware Conference, where he become in 1975, the first Black district superintendent of the Easton District and in 1981, he was named the director of that conference’s Council on Ministries.

In July 1984, he was elected bishop by the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction and was assigned to the Harrisburg, Pa., area and was the first African American to hold that position. In 1989, May became the first bishop in the denomination’s history to receive a special assignment to come to the District of Columbia and in Prince George’s County, Md., to tackle the drug epidemic.

In 1991, May returned to Harrisburg to continue his work until he became the first Black bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. May also played a role in the development of Africa University, a UMC-related, independent institution located in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe and served as its vice president of the board of directors.

May retired as a bishop in 2004 but continued to pastor churches and serve in various capacities for the church until he retired in April 2016.

Retired Bishop F. Herbert Skeete spoke about May’s life and said that his longtime friend lived life intentionally.

“He came from Chicago and rose to the highest levels of leadership of the church,” Skeete said. “You knew where he stood and disliked distractions and personal agendas. He had a tough crust but a tender heart.”

Skeete said May didn’t like “cheap grace” and quoted such noted religious figures as anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in talking about him. Skeete said May sometimes was critical of the denomination.

“He didn’t like when there was talk about service and actions but the church enacted budgets that did otherwise,” he said.

The commendation of the life and work of May was recited by Steiner-Ball, who presides over the West Virginia Episcopal Area and Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Boston Episcopal Area.

Retired Bishop Marcus Matthews was one of May’s successors as the leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Matthews told the AFRO that May was a rare breed of man.

“He was a man that pushed the church to holy boldness,” he said. “He used the gospel for justice and compassion toward the poor.”