New bishop praised for compassion, connection

David Burke

12/14/2022

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Those who have known and worked with Bishop David Wilson describe him with various combinations of three C’s: Caring, compassion and connection. 

Bishop Wilson, who will begin as episcopal leader of the Great Plains Conference on Jan. 1, has been assistant to the bishop of the Oklahoma Conference since 2021, and before that served 19 years as conference superintendent for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, or OIMC. The OIMC is 81 Native American churches, mostly in Oklahoma, as well as three in Kansas and one in Texas. 

Bishop David Wilson, center, organized a Rock the Native Vote drive this year for young Indigenous people in Oklahoma. Photo courtesy OIMC

“He has amazing networking,” said the Rev. Donna Pewo, director of connectional ministries for the OIMC. “He has an amazing ability to connect with people, communities, people of color, different ethnicities. He’s just an all-around person who thinks about others, who puts others first.” 

Pewo was among one of about 150 who gathered at an Oklahoma City church for a farewell service for Bishop Wilson on Dec. 4.  

“He’s been a good leader for many years,” said the Rev. Dr. David Severe, retired Oklahoma Conference council director and retired South Central Jurisdiction director, as well as Bishop Wilson’s mentor. “He’ll bring that gift of his compassion, his wisdom, to the greater church.” 

Severe said Bishop Wilson has a deep caring for Indigenous people and letting others know of their accomplishments and concerns. 

“I saw him with a gift to sort out between the obvious things that happen to Native American people and the desire to connect and educate and teach us about their gifts,” Severe said. “I think he has that richness in his life and in his spirit.” 

Pewo said that included educating those in the conference on the Tulsa Massacre – the 1921 race riot that destroyed more than 35 square blocks and caused as many as 300 deaths – and the Native American connection to the tragedy. 

“He has been able to take us there to Tulsa to engage us in discussions and conversations among the Oklahoma Conference and the OIMC to see how we can connect with our communities -- how can we connect outside our Native communities and engage with one another to bring harmony and to bring respect and love toward one another,” Pewo said. “It’s important to know the past, so we are not going to be able to make sure. We will make sure that doesn’t happen again, the atrocities that took place. He reminds us of that, how we have so much work to do and that we can do better.” 

Pewo said Bishop Wilson is skilled at reaching across the lines of race and denomination for the better good of all. 

Severe agreed and said that the new bishop can find common ground with those who have differing opinions. 

“He brings a lot of gifts,” Severe said. “His skills at working with people with differing positions and differing understandings has been honed into positions he’s held.” 

Another common thread in Bishop Wilson’s ministry is his involvement with youth and young people, beginning with his days at his home church, Fife Indian United Methodist Church in Muskogee, where Vinnie Cooper said he worked as an unpaid youth director before it became a position in the church. 

Bishop David Wilson speaks at a candidate forum the night before the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Houston. File photo

“He would travel miles to pick up youth for a youth rally at 5,” she said. “He’d take them there and take them home. He was always doing stuff like that.” 

He would take youth groups to an Arkansas amusement park, Cooper added, and would pay for those who couldn’t afford the trip out of his own pocket. 

Pewo added, “He’s always been supportive of children and youth in that community, and he continues to support it and he just brings a sense of joy and peace and he’s fun with the kids.”   

Courtney Blacksten, youth director for the Oklahoma Conference, said she admires the way Bishop Wilson reaches out to young people. 

“I’ve seen him, through the OIMC, cultivate leadership of kids who wouldn’t typically be involved in the church,” she said. “But because of him reaching out and bringing them alongside him, have become leaders in the OIMC and in their own work lives as they’ve grown up to adulthood too.” 

Pewo added that Bishop Wilson keeps track of alumni from Oklahoma City University, a United Methodist College, and invites them to activities and social justice missions. 

“He has great leader qualities and skills and I know he’ll do well in the Great Plains Conference,” she said. 

Cooper said she has known Bishop Wilson since 1985 and could see him as a leader even then. 

“I’ve always thought that. … I’ve always known he’s had an inkling for leadership. He’s always been a driving force in our church,” Cooper said, adding he would deliver sermons on top of other jobs in the church. “Before youth director, in the pulpit. Every committee we had, he was sitting on. He knew the insides and the outsides of the church and beyond, because he would look for resources.” 

Cooper said Bishop Wilson’s faith drives him. 

“He’s driven by the Lord’s work,” she said, “that’s what he wants to do and that’s what he does.” 

She said she was happy – as well as scared and sad – when she heard he was elected as bishop. 

“It’s all these mixture of emotions for OIMC, because we don’t know what’s going to happen to our conference and then we wondered what we were going to do with him gone,” she said. 

Oklahoma Bishop Jimmy Nunn, who has been the episcopal leader since 2016, said he had no doubt about Bishop Wilson’s ability to be a quality leader. 

“Bishop Wilson has been active in nearly every aspect of the church,” Bishop Nunn said following his new colleague’s farewell service. “He’s been active as an administrative leader, but more than that he’s been in the mission field and helped serve.  

“He’s been all over the world serving Indigenous people and serving in mission. That really is his legacy, his depth of service,” he added. 

Bishop Wilson speaks at a Native church. Photo courtesy OIMC

Bishop Nunn said he was proud of the way Bishop Wilson advocated for Native Americans in the OIMC and beyond, but still connects to all ethnicities. 

“He has the love for brothers and sisters wherever they might be. The Indigenous people have been overlooked for so long that it takes a special effort. He’s been the one called to carry that banner,” he said. “He loves everybody.” 

Many of Bishop Wilson’s ideas have come to fruition through hard work and humility, Bishop Nunn said. 

“He’s been in the middle of most every initiative, getting things rolling, working behind the scenes, working in ways that many times people don’t say, ‘Look who did this,’” he said. “He shares leadership. He makes sure things move from one place to the next without getting stymied. He makes sure things stay on track and on focus and that people do what needs to get done to get the initiative across the finish line.” 

Blacksten said she was amazed at Bishop Wilson’s work ethic. 

“He’s so involved with so many things,” she said. “He’s one of those people where you think, ‘How do you have time to do all the things you do?’” 

The 2022 jurisdictional conference, where Bishop Wilson was one of three episcopal leaders elected on the first ballot, was his third attempt at being bishop, after falling short in 2012 and 2016. 

“I said almost jokingly that I wanted David to be a bishop almost as long as he has,” Severe said. 

Severe added that Bishop Wilson is a great fit for the Great Plains. 

“Everybody’ll love him,” he said. 

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.


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