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Bishop makes history by presiding at General Conference

In a scene more than 180 years in the making, The United Methodist Church’s first Native American bishop became the first Indigenous person to chair a session of the General Conference on Thursday morning.

Rousing cheers and a standing ovation greeted Bishop David Wilson of the Great Plains Conference when the spotlights directed on him as he called the session to order after the conclusion of the day’s opening worship time.

“Just to see him this morning in that position presiding as the first Native American bishop still brings tears to my eyes because our people brought Methodism to Indian territory,” Rev. Josephine Deere, retired from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, said late in the afternoon Thursday. She worked for more than a decade with the bishop prior to his election. “We were the very first ones to have an annual conference in 1844, and even my family was among those that brought Methodism to this part of the of the Indian territory at that time.”

Bishop Wilson, a member of the Choctaw Nation who also has Cherokee heritage, is the first Native American to be elected to the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church. He was part of a historic election at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in November 2022 in Houston. Bishop Dee Williamston, now serving in Louisiana, was elected as the first African-American woman to ascend to the episcopacy in the jurisdiction. Bishop Laura Merrill, now serving in Arkansas, joined bishops Williamston and Wilson as winners of election to fill all three episcopal vacancies on the first ballot.

Bishop Wilson said he felt the significance of being the first Native American to preside at a General Conference.

“I realized the ramifications of this historic moment, of me presiding and for me to be the first Native person in that chair,” Bishop Wilson said. “I thought about it even as I was driving to Charlotte last week for the Council of Bishops meeting. I was driving through the Cherokee area, a beautiful place where the Cherokee were removed from, and I thought about the irony of people being removed from this beautiful place, and I’m a part of this denomination, this church that had a role in that. I reflected on that a lot driving up and then just speaking to what few Native delegates we have here who supported me and coached me and were so proud of this moment.”

Two of those longtime supporters are Deere and Rev. Margaret Johnson, who also worked extensively with the bishop prior to his election.

“This morning was just beautiful to see him, and then I was laughing because he always pretty much asked Josephine and I, ‘well, what about this,’ or ‘what about that.’ So, he texted last night,” said Johnson, Mississippi Choctaw.

That text was to tell them that he would be presiding. The bishop asked their advice for his attire while serving as the chair of the General Conference: Should he wear a stole, or should he wear a traditional Choctaw shirt?

“We immediately said Choctaw shirt,” Johnson said. “And then this morning we asked, ‘How are you going to introduce yourself in your language.’  He said, ‘I’ll say a prayer,’ so he did.”
That prayer was given in Choctaw. Translated to English, the bishop prayed: “Creator God, may your Holy Spirit rest upon us for this session as we do your holy work. Amen.”

The sense of pride in seeing Bishop Wilson preside at General Conference stretches beyond his Native American family and friends. Sam Powell, a delegate from the Oklahoma Conference, served in ministry in several ways with the bishop prior to the 2022 election. Powell also felt joy as delegates in the plenary session stood to applaud Bishop Wilson.

“That is just a feeling of pride for us that that that he was there and doing such a good job,” Powell said.

The bishop’s work in Oklahoma included not only the superintendency of the OIMC, but also assistant to the bishop in the Oklahoma Conference.

“It was pretty impressive when he announced himself that the whole room stood up and applauded,” Powell said. “And I think all of us at the General Conference recognized the historic moment for him presiding at the chair today.”

That recognition also came from fellow bishops.

“What really touched me, too, was seeing all the bishops who stood and applauded him,” Deere said. “And that was what made it so awesome to see that these other bishops really supported him in this position. It was like when he was elected as bishop in Houston, to see those South Central jurisdiction bishops all just so happy for him and so happy for us that we finally have a Native American bishop — and he came from South Central Jurisdiction. That’s what makes it so, so heartwarming.”

Bishop Wilson said the opportunity to preside as the first Native American bishop was an “amazing moment” for Native people in the denomination.

“Thinking about a 180- or 190-year span of Native American people who’ve been faithful, who lost much — not just land, but culture or way of life, and so many things that still affect us today — there is a lot of work that the church still has to do on that,” Bishop Wilson said. “I’m hoping that not just in my role as bishop of the Great Plains but in other ways that I can help educate and help folk understand what the church has done for us — first of all for the joy of us being here, the faithfulness of a people, but also what we need to work on to recognize and understand who we are.”

Contact Todd Seifert, conference communications director, at tseifert@greatplainsumc.org. See original story here

Contact Information

Conference Headquarters
602 SW 35th
Oklahoma City, OK 73109
Office: 405-632-2006
Fax: 405-632-0209

 

Resident Bishop:

Bishop James “Jimmy” Nunn
1501 NW 24 Street
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73106
405-530-2000

 

Conference Superintendent:

Rev. Margaret Johnson

mjohnson@oimc.org

Director of Connectional Ministries: 

Rev. Donna Pewo

dpewo@oimc.org


Administrative Assistant:

Linda Draper

ldraper@oimc.org

 

Northern District Superintendent:

Rev. Mike Svitak

Msvitak@oimc.org

 

Southern District Superintendent:

Rev. Sharon Yeahquo

Syeahquo@oimc.org

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