In this special “Meet a bishop” episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” we talk with the Rev. Delores (Dee) Williamston, the first Black woman elected as bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction and hear how this grandmother to seven discovered her call to ministry at a skating rink while supervising a group of 50 kids from her local church.
Guest: Bishop Delores Williamston
- Bishop Williamston serves the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church.
- Howard Thurman's book, "Jesus and the Disinherited," helped shape the Civil Rights movement, as well as Bishop Williamston's ministry.
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This episode posted on February 17, 2023.
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In this special “Meet a bishop” episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” we talk with the first Black woman elected as bishop in the South Central jurisdiction, and hear how this grandmother to seven discovered her call a ministry at a skating rink while supervising a group of 50 kids from her local church.
Crystal Caviness, host: Welcome, Bishop Williamston, to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."
Bishop Williamston: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Crystal: I'm so glad you're here. Today's interview is part of our “Meet a Bishop series,” and that is a way for United Methodists across the connection just to get to know you a little bit, not as a bishop, but as a fellow United Methodist. And we're going to learn about your faith journey, including your call to ministry and your path to being elected bishop. So I'm, I'm happy for our conversation.
As I was learning more about you, I read that you said growing up in your home church at Asbury Mount Olive UMC in Topeka, Kansas, provided a powerful witness to how you would engage with the church and live out your faith in the community. I'd love to hear more about that, what you saw and experienced in your local church that impacted your future in that way?
Bishop Williamston: Yes,I grew up at Asbury Mount Olive United Methodist Church. You know, I'm a child of the seventies and the early eighties. And, growing up there, that church was in a community that was developed as part of a Tennessee Town. It was a place where the exodus came out of Tennessee and Kentucky. And the people there at that church, they were involved in that community. It used to be the south side of Topeka. They were involved in the community and the lives of the people. The pastors that we had were socially conscious, socially minded to help the African-American community be engaged in the broader community of Topeka, dealing with issues of justice and fairness and poverty and those types of things. And were very astute. And so they taught me how to be involved in the community, in the surrounding area and beyond.
And to do your, be your very best in community. Regardless of what was going on in the world, that we could still worship together and grow our faith together and be an even larger family outside of our own family units. And so they taught me well, the traditions of the church too. When we went to church, you felt the traditions of the church when the, when the choirs came in, and when the, the liturgist would get up and, and say, “the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silenced, be before them.” And when we sang the songs of faith, it was like the Spirit was running right through your soul. And the whole church swayed with hope and expectation and, and possibility. And so it was a powerful upbringing, and I never forgot it. Even when you become a teenager and you kind of do your own thing later as an adult, that's what drew me back, you know, from the Apostles Creed, learning that to the Lord's Prayer, those things that they really deeply instilled in me and have shaped me to this day. I will never forget the people that were there in my childhood and how they shaped me. Yeah.
Crystal: It sounds like tradition has really been important to you. How has that informed other places in your life? Outside of the church?
Bishop Williamston: Yeah. Well, it, it informed me and my family. We were farmers. My family came from farmland. And so the traditions of, you know, being around family around the holidays, that it's important to check on the family even outside the holidays, during birthdays and, and those types of things. And so it was deeply instilled that the tradition was to go, what we called down home, down home was to go from Topeka to the farm. And we called it down home because when you got to Grandpa's house, you went down a hill. And so it was down home, you know, and the great-grandparents who were gone by the time I come into the world, their farm too was kind of in a valley in a sense, you know? And then Aunt Evelyn, she was up on a hill, but it was always down home.
And so it, those, the tradition of going down home, the tradition of family and family values has really impacted my life throughout my whole life. Uh, the value of the tradition of honoring and respecting the, the old folk, which is a term of endearment, because they were the holders of the wisdom, the family wisdom, uh, the family stories, the family knowledge. And you respected your elders. So the, the tradition of respect to the elders, uh, regardless, uh, the traditions of not calling your parents by their first name, uh, was in my family. And that's, that's the tradition. You do not do that. And if you do, even in your adult years, uh, you are reminded that's not what we do. <laugh>. So
Crystal: I come from a family of farmers as well, so I have to ask what was the crop or what type of farming did your family do?
Bishop Williamston: So they planted corn and I think they had some wheat, they also cattle. Also in the late 1800s, they were a pig farmers. And so it was called the Heist Brothers Pig Farms. And so they did that from like the late 1800s to all the way, probably up to the 1900s, late sixties or so, because I remember going down home and it was slaughter time for the hogs. And so they did that for many years. And, uh, and then of course, you know, big gardens and those types of things, but mainly cattle, hogs, and then some wheat and some corn fields.
Crystal: Are you a gardener?
Bishop Williamston: Well, my mother was a wonderful gardener. She was that person that had that green thumb. You know, you say they got a green thumb. And so, uh, my mother was a tremendous gardener, could grow plants, you know, and I'd touch something and it would be like, well, nope, you're not the one <laugh>. So, but I, I learned to cultivate <laugh>, not gardening, but growing plants, uh, in the house and whatnot. And so, yeah. So we, we had gardens though. Um, my great aunt Evelyn lived to be 105 years old down home on the farm. And she would have a garden. And the tradition was to make chow chow, which is like a relish out of green tomatoes, you know? And so I remember that. And then she would invite the family down home to come eat chow chow and everything else. And that was fresh. So, yeah. But I'm,not a big gardener, but I love the products. I used to have to go down and hoe the garden, you know, and the weeds with grandma and, and everything. And it's great being out there in the dirt. And I think I was more interested in throwing dirt clods at my brother than I was actually gardening, to tell you the truth.
Crystal: Oh, it's hard work too, isn't it? Yeah. Yes. That gardening. Yes. Well, you are a second career pastor. You first served 22 years in the Kansas Army National Guard. Let's talk about those two decades of you in the Army National Guard. What did you learn there that's been beneficial for your second career in ministry?
Bishop Williamston: I learned dedication and commitment to doing a good job, doing the best job I could possibly do. I learned in that 22 years as an enlisted soldier, to be who I say I am. I say I am a soldier, then I will be that soldier, whether in uniform or out of uniform, whether I'm walking in the community or if I'm in the local church or serving in the local church as a layperson, and then eventually clergy and to know what I'm doing. You know, in the National Guard, you're constantly learning. You're constantly training. The schools that I had to attend, or we attended, as Weekend Warriors, we did a four-week school in a two-week time period, In a sense that they would have to take a four-week school, condense it down to a two-week school for the National Guard soldiers, because we had to get back to our regular employment, right?
And so you could only be gone for so long, you know. You have vacation time that you can take from your employer, but we'd go to our two-week training and learn battle skills. I went to battle skills for two weeks. I went to primary leadership development course for two weeks. And so I've taken those things that I've learned in the National Guard of these 22 years and have overlaid them in how I see myself as a disciple for Jesus Christ. So being who I say I am, as a disciple or as a soldier, knowing what I'm doing, constantly learning, constantly training, constantly reequipping, reshaping or sharpening, you know, my skillsets or, or strengthening skills that maybe need more strength. And then the third one is, do you have to do it? You know, you be who you say you are.
I know what you're doing, but then you gotta do it. So putting to action those things that you have learned, you know, so lifelong learning, you’ve got to put it into practice.
And so I learned to be a person of action and commitment not only on my National Guard work, but also in the local church, you know, to, well, let's do this. You know, let's say, what, what can we do? It's not about what, what we can't do, it's about what can we do? And how the scripture talks about if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable, not according to what you don't have, but what do you have? And so if we all have gifts and we can all put 'em together, then we can actually do something to move forward, you know, in our own discipleship and in the mission and ministry of the local church. So I've taken all of that that I've learned in the Army National Guard to say, Hey, I am a warrior for the Lord. And so that's how I see my discipleship, you know, that's how I see a leadership, you know, that if I can be who I say I am, know what I'm doing, which means learning, lifelong learning, and you're equipping and then doing it, then that's what God asks us to do, is to, to go out, therefore, and make, you know, you get the go part, you gotta get going.
Crystal: You know, so that word go is very active.
Bishop Williamston: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Crystal: And it sounds like those are things that you learned growing up in your local United Methodist Church as well. You, you saw the people in that church going out into the community and making a difference.
Bishop Williamston: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Our pastors, I grew up around pastors. I, well, I am not a P.K. I do not have that experience, but the house I grew up in was two doors down from the parsonage. So, and I would see the pastor involved in the community of Topeka, you know, in various segments. I mean, they were always gone out doing something. The associate, when we had an associate pastor in the late sixties, uh, early seventies, you know, I was always sitting on their porch. And the pastor wasn't home. The pastor was out doing community stuff. And I was sitting on the, on the porch because I was waiting for my mom, or, I was probably being a kid. But I remember they were very studious and very involved in the lives of the community and the lives of the people.
You know, not just church, but the community, you know? So representing, you know, the message of the gospel, the pastors I grew up around in those early years remind me a lot of Howard Thurman. And so his central message was, uh, in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, uh, what does the gospel of Jesus Christ say to those who stand with their backs against the wall? And those two particular pastors, reverend uh, black men and Reverend Logan, they were of his generation, and they too were trying to answer that central, central question that Howard Thurman had. What does the gospel say to those who stand with their backs against the wall? Because they knew that the congregation that they were in, that we were in, the people stood with their backs against the wall. And in the community of the people that looked like us, we had our backs against the wall. You know, my parents and, you know, the people you know, that came to the church and, and worked in, you know, service, jobs, trades, and, you know, there were some who were, uh, uh, white collar professionals as well, but you always had your back against the wall because of the state of, you know, the nation in a sense, kind of like even today. They were powerful, powerful leaders.
Crystal: At what point, Bishop Williamston, did you feel that call to get into ministry, to be a part of work in a different way, to be a part of the work of the church in a different way?
Bishop Williamston: Yeah, it was maybe toward the late nineties I began to work with a children's program at my home church again, was reaching out. We had this wonderful ministry called Friday Fun Night. And if you have 50 kids with at least 30 of the kids whose parents were incarcerated, the grandparents were taking care of them and others, you know, there was other children that, you know, didn't have that situation. And you usually had two or three adults, which wasn't a good idea. But we would take these kids skating. So we had this old rickety bus, I think it was even painted white. It was a big old rickety bus, school bus. And we would put 50 kids on this bus, 45 to 50, sometimes 30 kids on the bus with purple shirts on. So we could keep track of the kids at the skating ring, and we would take them skating every Friday night and we would feed them because we knew these kids didn't have places to go. They were challenged in their families. And it was doing that ministry at the church. And I began to really understand the call that God had been trying to call me to probably for years. A young girl had brought a friend of hers one night. And you know, I was the one that was trying to get everything organized for these children so we can get 'em on the bus, get their shirts on, get 'em fed, and get 'em going. And I was out in the parking lot and I remember one little girl brought a friend that night, and as I was walking past her, and I was probably eyeballing some kid to get in the building because we needed to get ready. And I heard her say to her friend, she kind of leaned into her on the, on her left side and said, Hey, you don't want to get her mad, she's next to the pastor.
And when she said that, it caused my spirit to pause and to stop and say, pastor, I hadn't even considered that. And, and it was like an echo, it was like pastor, pastor, pastor, pastor. And I was like, me a pastor? Oh my goodness. And it was like, from that moment on, I had to answer that call in some kind of way. So I began the exploration process, you know, it's like, what does this mean? And I talked to my pastor who was Reverend Dr. Jean Wilson at the time, and began to have a conversation to sort this thing out. And then I began to ask the Lord to help me understand, what are you talking about here? If you want me in ministry, you're going to have to give me a sign. Show me a sign. You've got to show me. Otherwise I'm not going to believe this.
And so while it'd be at work at the National Guard, someone would come up to me and say, Hey Dee, can you help me find this scripture? And I was like, oh God, you're pulling a fast one, aren't you? And then I was like, okay, I need more. I need more. And then something else would happen, you know, somebody else would come up to me and ask me a question about maybe some of the history of the Bible, or they'd ask a question about, doesn't it say this? You know? And, and so that just kept happening. And I was like, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. You know, I give up. And so that's kind of how I entered my call. And you know, of course there's a series of a lot of other events that I know we wouldn't have time for.
But yeah, that's how it began. And it had always been there in my spirit because I was one of those children that loved being around the old folks. They called me an old soul. And so I loved to hear their stories and there was this peace and calm that they would often bring. But then, you know, we would just be talking and they would be trying to tell me stuff. And I'm like, well, what do they know? You know? But I just enjoyed sitting there listening to them. And so it's always been there in me. And then when I would do things in church, you know, I would get affirmations about, you know, maybe you should consider you us like me. Yeah, yeah. So it was a, it was a long journey over those two decades to get there, you know, in the meanwhile doing National Guard work as well.
Crystal: And that journey has led to your appointment as Bishop being quite historical. Yes. You were elected first on the first and only ballot by the South Central Jurisdiction. And some of our listeners may not know that the election of bishops can take days and many ballots. But you were elected on the first vote. Yes. And your election made you the first Black woman elected as bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction.
Bishop Williamston: Yes.
Crystal: As that was unfolding in real time, how did that feel?
Bishop Williamston: Oh, it still feels incredibly humbling. Oh my goodness. I mean, it's still blows my mind. It was a long journey to get there. But the South Central jurisdiction, they were amazing. They did a powerful work when that happened. All I can liken it to is that was a spiritual mic drop from heaven, you know, it's like drop the mic. Yeah. It was a spiritual drop mic Heaven. It was powerful. It still is a powerful witness of what the South Central jurisdiction saw as the future of the United Methodist Church. And to open that door, because I was not the first to have tried, but to open that door and be in concert together for such a time as right now to bring a deep sense of diversity through not just myself.
And I am highly honored to be elected as a first Black woman in the South Central Jurisdiction, knowing that it was the qualifications that come first, but also to be elected alongside two other amazing bishops, Bishop Laura Romero and our first Native American bishop in the whole denomination that came out in South Central jurisdiction, Bishop David Wilson. And it still gives me chills to think about, even as I'm talking to you. I could see that all playing out again. But had I not like, kind of screamed, I think I probably would've passed out. You know, that was my first jurisdictional conference to attend. And, you know, I was really inspired to attend after watching the 2016 General Conference as well as the 2019, where I attended as a visitor. And I really wanted to make a difference in, had to step up in my own spirit and soul to say, all you can do is try, just try, just try.
And I can't say that I had put sights on becoming a bishop because I had not. But I was curious about how that happens and what's the worst that could happen? You could put your name in and see if, you know, see if you would be endorsed. And so, and the Great Plains Conference endorsed me and the South Central Jurisdiction Women's Leadership Team endorsed me, and then the South Central Jurisdiction, the Black Methodist for Church Renewal endorsed the three of us. And so I'm still just amazed at what God can do. You know, how God can transform a life that has gone through many different things, because that's who we are as a people. And that's who the church represents as people from all facets of life. And now, I believe, you know, we are looking more like that as a Council of Bishops, as well as the whole denomination in our jurisdictions. And so I am really excited and am honored to be assigned to the Louisiana Conference, and I'm learning so much and, and I want to do my very best while I have the time to do that because life is not promised. Tomorrow's not promised. And so I'm here to serve, here to serve the church as an Episcopal leader and to shepherd the flock.
Crystal: You’re exactly right. This recent Bishop elections, it was a really exciting time for the denomination. And you're now in Louisiana serving that conference. Yes. What are you most hopeful about? What are you most excited about that's happening in Louisiana?
Bishop Williamston: Yeah, I'm excited about number one, touring the conference. And so that's what I'm in the midst of right now, learning about the locations, learning that there are churches that are bringing in new members into The United Methodist Church. And I know we're in this world of disaffiliations and maybe some have come from there from disaffiliated churches or not. But I just recently heard a report of a little church that had 10 members and they just received another six members. And so now they're not just 10 members but 16 members or so. There were some baptisms happening in a lot of the United Methodist churches in the areas that I've toured so far. And then I'm excited about the children's ministry, I think it's called Fusion that happened at the Wesley Center. And it's a time for the kids to come together, kind of like Cursillo, I believe, kind of like the Walk to Emmaus for the youth that just happened this past weekend. And there were 60 youth there. And I'm like, this is amazing.
I'm excited that there are people still discerning the call for, to become candidates for ministry. I'm excited about that. I'm excited about the work the pastors are doing to help their churches, their United Methodist church members make disciples in a time such as right now. So I'm excited about a lot of things.
I'm excited about the food down here, which is really good and peppery. But, I'm excited, you know, in the midst of disaffiliation that I'm excited there are new possibilities, new hopes, you know, that we can become a movement again. We once were a movement. And so I'm excited about that aspect and to think about new possibilities, new hopes and new places for people and to use the gifts of the laity that are, who are 99% of our annual conferences.
Crystal: Our audience won't be able to see this, but Bishop Williamston, as you were talking, you just had all this, your body language was so excited and you had this big smile on your face and you are a doer. You are, you are a self-proclaimed doer. So I can't wait to see what's happening and going to happen in the Louisiana Conference. I want to go back. You were talking about children. And I would be remiss if I did not ask you about your grandchildren.
Bishop Williamston: They are awesome. All of our grandchildren are awesome. Yes. They live in Wisconsin with my son and his wife. there's seven children. His wife had two children, before they got married. And so they're the older girls. But I have grandsons that'll be four years old tomorrow. They are fraternal boy twins. And then I have three granddaughters that are five years old, six years old, and seven years old right now. And so they'll, this year they'll be eight, seven, and six. So you can do the Yeah, the, yeah, they're like stairsteps. So anyway, they are beautiful children. Very exciting children. When I do go to visit them, I stay in a hotel and they say, Hey grandma, can I come with you? And I was like, oh no baby, I'll see you in the morning around eight o'clock. I'll be back. Grandma needs to get some sleep. They are beautiful. My son is such a, a kind, soul, warm soul. And his wife, she's just wonderful. My son is a chef. He knows how to do all that chefy kind of stuff, but currently where they live, he's not doing that work. But he's a phenomenal cook. Just a great kind soul. He reminds me a lot of my mother, her disposition.
Crystal: Well, when I read that you had seven grandchildren, I knew I had to ask about what life with seven grandchildren is like and what life at grandma's house is like when the seven grandchildren come to visit. I'm sure it's very busy.
Bishop Williamston: Yeah. The beauty is, is going to them is the best thing right now because of the travel would be really hard for them to come this far from Wisconsin. So, but one day we'll be flying those little ones in.
Crystal: That's exciting. Thank you for sharing about that. Before we finish up, there is one question, Bishop Williamston that we ask all of our guests. And that is how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Bishop Williamston: Yes. Yeah, well I do a lot of prayer journaling. I read a scripture and then write it down and then write prayers out. I also have been listening to a lot of, again, Howard Thurman, so I'm listening to one of his books I just found out was on audio. And so I listen to his readings. I also crochet. I knit when I have time and crocheting goes a little faster for me now. And, I bike ride. I haven't had a chance to get out to bike ride quite yet because it's like just when I'm about to go, it's raining. So, and it's not good to ride in the rain, at least not for me, because I can't see very well and it's when raining. But I also, you know, like to, you know, walk, I have a little puppy. I play with him. You know, I kind of do those types of things. I love to do readings of other books and other authors. Alice Walker, I love her stuff and learning how to, you know, even read some of Octavia Butler, which is quite interesting. So, for sci-fi.
Crystal: That's awesome. Well, we just are so appreciative of you spending your time letting us get to know you a little bit better and we will certainly be praying for you and the ministry there in the Louisiana Annual Conference. So thanks again for being a guest on “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Bishop Williamston: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
That was Bishop Dee Williamston sharing her story of her call to ministry as a second career pastor and her historic journey to becoming bishop. To learn more about Bishop Williamston, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode, where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected].
If you enjoyed today’s episode, we invite you to share the link with others and to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.