(Updated 7/16/2016) Four African-American women were recently elected as bishops at quadrennial meetings of the United Methodist Church, further removing the glass ceiling for Black women in the denomination.
Rev. Sharma Lewis
In a historic election, the Rev. Sharma Lewis was elected bishop by the Southeastern Jurisdiction on July 13, becoming the first African-American women to be elected as prelate in that jurisdiction.
“I was called by God and I made myself available, not just to a position, but to follow God’s will,” said the lifelong Methodist in a statement. “I am excited, and I am really humbled. At 52 years old, I am excited that my next phase of life will be as an episcopal leader. I am humbled to the fact that this is historic.”
A native of Statesboro, Ga., Lewis is a woman of several “firsts.” She was the first female senior pastor and first African-American pastor of Powers Ferry United Methodist Church. She was the first woman to serve as senior minister of Wesley Chapel UMC, and the first woman to serve as district superintendent in the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District, her current position.
Lewis came to the ministry after a long career as a biologist. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mercer University and the University of West Georgia under her belt, she went on to study at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, where she earned her master’s of divinity with honors. Since then she has served at various churches and in numerous capacities at the jurisdictional and general conferences.
Rev. Tracy Smith Malone
Also joining the Council of Bishops was the Rev. Tracy Smith Malone, who hails from the Northern Illinois Conference in the North Central Jurisdiction. Malone was elected on the sixth ballot with 120 votes, becoming Northern Illinois’ first female prelate and the first bishop elected from that conference since 1996.
“To God be the glory. Friends, I stand before you as one who feels very blessed. Blessed for the journey, by your prayers and confidence in my leadership. I am a child of a church. You raised me and formed me. I consider it a privilege and an honor to serve the church,” said Smith Malone after being introduced as a bishop of The United Methodist Church, according to a statement.
Daughter of the late Rev. Willie Smith, Smith Malone received her call to ministry at age 13.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from United Methodist-related North Central College, her master’s of divinity at United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her doctorate at United Theological Seminary.
The former senior pastor of Gary United Methodist Church in Wheaton, Ill., has served as the Chicago Southern district superintendent since 2011. She was a delegate to General Conference 2016, where she was chair of the Agenda and Calendar Committee and is a member of the board of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. She serves on the Board of Trustees of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and is a member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi
Closer to home, the Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, superintendent of the Baltimore-Metropolitan District, was elected bishop on the 11th ballot of the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
Moore-Koikoi’s husband, the Rev. Rafael Koikoi Jr. pastors the historic Sharp Street Memorial UMC in Baltimore.
A preacher’s kid, Moore-Koikoi grew up in the church but officially began her ministry when she was ordained as an elder in 2010. She has served as a student pastor at St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Highlandtown, Md., an associate pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis, Md., and in several other capacities at the district and conference level.
The minister was a key voice in the April 2015 unrest that exploded in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. She said she sees herself as a “as a bridge-builder,” which is sorely needed in an often discriminatory and divided church and society.
“As a woman of color, I have learned the gift of perseverance,” she said in a statement, “being able to hold onto hope in the midst of oppression. Our denomination needs that. As our pews become more empty, as we experience more financial difficulties, we have to hold out hope.”
LaTrelle Miller Easterling (Photo Courtesy of www.neumc.org)
The Northeastern Jurisdiction elected a second Black woman as bishop. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, an elder in the New England Conference and most-recent superintendent of the Metro Boston Hope District, was elected on July 14 with 119 votes.
The 51-year-old Indianapolis native earned her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, and her law degree from the university’s School of Law. She worked as a mediator and human resources manager and director before entering full-time ministry.
Easterling was ordained as a deacon in 1995 and an elder in 1997. She earned a divinity degree from the Boston University School of Theology in 2004.
The new bishop has served as a delegate to General Conference in 2012 and 2016, and served on the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Multi-Ethnic Center Board. She also served on the conference board of ordained ministry.
Easterling was praised as someone who has a “passion for the marginalized.”
“I always, always, always stand on the side of justice,” she said, “but I draw the circle wide enough for all of us to be there – and when I say all, I mean all.”
The ministers are the first African-American women to be elected as bishops in the United Methodist Church since 2000. The first ever African-American female bishop in the denomination, Bishop Leontine Kelly of Virginia, was elected in 1984.