TOPEKA — The first Native American bishop in the history of The United Methodist Church was formally installed in the Great Plains Conference with a blend of Indian culture and denominational ceremony.
Bishop David Wilson’s installation service, Feb. 11 at Topeka Countryside UMC, included performances by the Cherokee Adult Choir from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the bishop’s first appointment as a pastor. It also included a native sign language interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer by Freda Gipp, a member of Lawrence Indian UMC.
The bishop, elected by the South Central Jurisdiction on the first ballot in November, previously spent 20 years as superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, part of the Oklahoma Conference, as well as two years as assistant to the bishop of the Oklahoma Conference.
Songs by the choir included “One Drop of Blood,” which Bishop Wilson said was written following the Trail of Tears — when five tribes of approximately 60,000 people were displaced in ethnic cleansing between 1830 and 1850 — and included lyrics that translate to “What can we do for you, Jesus?”
“This is a part of where my family legacy comes from, both sides of my family,” the bishop, a member of the Choctaw Nation with Cherokee heritage as well, told the congregation of nearly 400.
Indigenous arts were core to Bishop Wilson’s sermon as well, based on Jeremiah 18:1-6. He told those gathered about his aunt, Anna Belle Mitchell, a self-taught potter who revived the art of southeastern pottery and was declared one of the first Cherokee National Treasures by the tribe.
“I was amazed at her beautiful work,” he said of his aunt, who died in 2012. She told him “A potter, over a long period of time, has good control of the clay. But it still has a mind of its own.”
She also said words that sunk into him: “God is the great potter and molds us in the way God wants us to be.”
“I recognize that, as I think about my aunt’s pottery, she reshapes it and starts it over,” he said. “Today as a bishop God continues to do that, to rework me, to remind me who I am and to reshape me over and over and over again in this new role.”
Viewing a flea market in Albuquerque last year, the bishop said, he noticed bags of broken pottery that the artist told him were popular for people to frame and display.
“They have so much beauty and bring joy to so many peoples’ lives,” Bishop Wilson said. “We’re often broken, sometimes in large ways and small ways. Each of us with our different experiences and patterns of life, and yet our remnants, our shells still remain beautiful.”
He commended some of the large and small churches in the Great Plains Conference for overcoming brokenness and creating something new, including the former Kenesaw UMC in Nebraska, which has become a needed town-wide day care; Maize UMC in Kansas, which gathered items for families of Afghan refugees; Papillion St. Paul UMC, which paid off the school lunch debts for 600 families through its Christmas Eve offering; and Church of the Resurrection, which raised more than $2.5 million from its Dec. 24 offering for hunger- and poverty-fighting organizations in the Kansas City area.
“Great examples of how churches are transforming lives in their communities,” he said.
“This conference has a great reputation for doing what’s right, for living out the mandate of Jesus Christ,” the bishop said, “And I appreciate that very much.”
During the service, Bishop Wilson received a blanket from Erika Washee Stanley and Joel Hernandez, co-chairs of the Great Plains Committee on Native American Ministries.
Adhering to United Methodist tradition, symbols of the episcopal office were presented to Bishop Wilson, including a pastoral staff, Bible, pitcher of water, bread and cup, towel and basin, stole, Book of Discipline and gavel.
The Rev. Maria Campbell, chair of the episcopacy committee, said the 90-minute ceremony “cemented our understanding of who God sent to us.”
“Many, many people came from all over to celebrate him, and his heritage was celebrated about his tradition,” said Campbell, who said the signing of the Lord’s Prayer brought her to tears. “It was (everything I had hoped for) and more.”
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