Bishop Leonard Fairley remembers his roots. Born into poverty on “the wrong side of town,” he found a place in the church. “There were times when I didn’t have food,” he remembers. “There were tables that I knew I was not invited to. But there was always room at God’s table... I always knew that at this table there was always enough, that I was always welcome.”
In this conversation, Bishop Fairley — a pastor, poet, and man of deep, quiet faith — shares the story of first receiving that welcome and the joy he finds in telling others that they too have a place at God’s table. Meet Bishop Leonard Fairley.
Bishop Fairley serves the Kentucky Annual Conference and the Redbird Missionary Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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Bishop Leonard Fairley
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- Who Shall Hear My Voice? by Bishop Fairley on Amazon.com
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This episode originally posted on June 21, 2018.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is Bishop Leonard Fairley of the Louisville Episcopal Area consisting of the Kentucky Annual Conference and the Red Bird Missionary Conference. Bishop Fairley is a poet, a pastor, and a basketball fan who grew up in what he calls “abject poverty” in the small town of Laurinburg, North Carolina. It was there that he first heard the hope of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Leonard Fairley: In spite of what side of the tracks I came from, in spite of what was going on in my life, they never failed to remind me that life could be different, and that faith in Jesus Christ was part of that difference.
Joe: Those memories inform his faith and work today, including his love and appreciation for the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Bishop Fairley: At this table, there was always enough, and I was always welcome.
Joe: Bishop Fairley tells a story about how his mom’s generosity expanded that lesson.
Bishop Fairley: She made room at a table where she was struggling to feed her 9 children for one other.
Joe: Meet Bishop Leonard Fairley.
On the phone
Joe: I’m on the phone today with Bishop Leonard Fairley of the Kentucky Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Fairley, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Fairley: Thank you.
Joe: I noted that you are a poet who has published a book of poems called Who Shall Hear My Voice? Can you tell me about that book?
Bishop Fairley: You may know by reading my bio, too, that I lost my wife Priscilla about 5 years ago to a disease called sarcoidosis. One of the things that she was, is she was a great encourager. I’d always written poetry but I didn’t show it to anybody until one day I left one out and she picked it up, and she goes, “What are you gonna do with this?” And I go, “Well, what do you mean?” And she says, “You need to do something with it.” So in 2009 I had a collection of them. I sent them to Wade in the Water Press in Raleigh, and they published them.
I’ve always written ever since I was in about 10th grade, I guess. It was my way to share things that were inside of me. So a lot of them are poems that are autobiographical in nature.
I can remember one that I wrote about my father. My father was an alcoholic who drank himself to death at a very young age. And I remember his funeral. He died when I was around 10. And I remembered his funeral. And so I went back…when I got appointed as the Rockingham District Superintendent, I actually went back to the church where his funeral was held. And I stood on the steps of that church and retraced the way that they took his casket when they buried him. And I walked right back to the spot, and on the spot where he’s buried I wrote the poem “My Father’s Eyes.”
Joe: Oh, wow.
Bishop Fairley: And so I normally write and I normally carry a little pad or something with me when I’m walking, like at a lake. Then if I come across a word or a thought, I’ll jot it down, and then I’ll come back to it and I’ll finish it.
Joe: Do you remember what initially drew you to poetry rather than writing prose?
Bishop Fairley: When I was young I had this tree—I call it the vision tree. It had these gnarly roots in it, and I’d sit in the roots of that tree and just think and write. The quickest thing I could write was poetry. I do prose, but poetry is the quickest for me. It comes to me the quickest.
Joe: Yeah, it sounds it. Tell me about your life growing up in North Carolina.
Bishop Fairley: Well, I am the third of 9 children. And the interesting story about that is that I have a brother Curtis who was born in September, and I was born in March. So I was very premature.
My grandmother Gladys, basically took over the raising of me. I actually never spent a night in the hospital until I was a grown man. I was actually pastoring at Saint Peter in Hamlet, the first time I ever went to the hospital.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Bishop Fairley: So my grandma Gladys, who I talk about a lot, kept me, raised me, kept me alive.
I actually didn’t know that story until I was about…I guess I must have been about 15. I was getting ready to take driver’s ed. and went to the courthouse to get my birth certificate. They told me they didn’t have one. She said, “Well, are you sure you was born in this county?” “Yes, ma’am. I was born in this county.” She said, “Next time bring your parent.” I went home and told my mom about it. She says, “Well, let me tell you this story.” So she shares with me this story.
Actually my Grandma Gladys was the first really key spiritual person in my life, who would always teach me stories of the Bible, sit and talk to me about it, share with me stories about… my first stories I ever heard of Moses or anybody, my Grandma Gladys taught me those stories.
Joe: She must have been pretty influential in your faith formation.
Bishop Fairley: She was. It’s interesting that most of the people early on in my faith formation were women. Of course, there’ve been men, but the early influences were women.
The way that I got involved in church was these two teenage girls walked in our neighborhood—I share this story a lot—they walked in our neighborhood. And they had pitched a tent on the corner of Caledonia and McGirts Bridge Road there in Laurinburg. They actually walked in my neighborhood and invited us to this summer-long vacation Bible school, and we went.
After they left, they did an interesting thing which I think is important to remember as we do this work, is they didn’t leave us alone. They actually paired us with a lady in our neighborhood. We would go to her house for Bible study. I remember that every Friday evening we’d go to her house. Her name was Miss Alameda Blackmon. Before I ever went to church, that was the church for me, was her apartment.
Joe: Oh, wow. About how old were you when you went to that vacation Bible school?
Bishop Fairley: I must have been about 11 because I remember getting baptized the next year at the age of 12.
Joe: Did you immediately connect with church life?
Bishop Fairley: I did. I could not explain everything about baptism at the time, but I knew something different, something special was happening. I understood that. It sort of connected me with the church, drew me farther along this path, as far as my faith journey is concerned.
Joe: When did you first sense that you were being called to ordained ministry?
Bishop Fairley: I’ll take a step back and go not just to ordained ministry, but to ministry period.
Bishop Fairley: My grandmother Gladys always would tell me…. It’s funny; I’m laughing because I’d always say that my grandma was not wrapped too tight. I thought she’d lost her mind sometimes she’d tell me stuff, and I wouldn’t tell this out loud, but I’d think it to myself, “Grandma, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just an old lady.”
She was the one who first began to tell me that. And then there were affirmations along the way from people who God placed in my life, who were always reminding me of who I was. But more importantly, of whose I was. So there were people in my life who constantly reminded me of that.
That was very helpful for me. I think that God does that often with us, is that he puts people in our journey, in our path, that remind us more than we can. They see something in us that we can’t see in ourselves. So there were people along the path, like Mr. Leander Insular, Miss Lavonne and people like that. And they modeled it not only in what they said, but in their actions.
Because another thing I think that people need to know about my particular story is that I actually grew up in abject poverty. Just real bad poverty. So even trusting people was a big deal for me. But there were people who God would send who, in spite of what side of the tracks I came from, in spite of what was going on in my life, they never failed to remind me that life could be different, and that faith in Jesus Christ was a part of that difference.
Joe: It sounds like your growing up was a bit difficult.
Bishop Fairley: It was. Of course like I said, I have 9 siblings. There’s 5 boys and 4 girls. And as I said before, my father was an alcoholic. We all left and went with him to New York at one point, but we caught the train and moved back to North Carolina, moved in with my Grandma Gladys. I know she was keeping some of our other aunts and children. So all of us were there together until the welfare actually made us get out. And so we moved to this place called Evans Quarters, to this 3-room shotgun little place that used to be a funeral home garage. And we moved out of her house and moved into that.
My mom did…for a while did domestic work. Of course she took care of other people’s children, so we were mostly at home by ourselves a lot. Of course my older brother was always in charge. I didn’t always like it, but he was in charge of us while she worked. And we moved a lot. I must have been to about every school in Scotland County, because we moved a lot. Never had like a home place. Of course I have one now, but then I didn’t have a home place.
Most of my brothers and sisters are still alive. Everybody still lives right around Laurinburg, except for me and my sister Diane who lives in Charlotte. But everybody else lives right there by my mom.
Joe: And mom’s still around?
Bishop Fairley: Yes, she’s still around.
Maybe this is why I was introspective. I was quiet because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. But I always thought that things could be different. I never settled. That how I was living, was right. I never accepted the way I lived. I always thought that things could and that they should be different.
Which was another thing that I guess has sort of drew me to the church, is because I found in the church, particularly in the stories of the gospel, and particularly in some of the Old Testament text, you know, about this God who was bent on making sure that I understood that I was beloved, that I had a sense of worth, that I was somebody. So I sort of latched onto those kind of stories from Scripture.
Communion is important to me now. There were times when I didn’t have food. There were tables that I knew I was not invited to. But there was always room at God’s table. Communion has always been important to me in that way that I always knew that at this table there was always enough, that I was always welcome, and that there were others around that table who had either gone through similar or worse things than I had.
So when I hear that invitation to communion, when it says, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all those who love him and seek to live in peace and love with their neighbor.” It sort of draws…. When I think about it I always think about the times on Sunday when I …. That was our biggest meal, and just watching my mom trying to feed all 9 of us.
I remember one incident where my mother had cooked this big tray of biscuits. And, of course, she cooked a lot for 9 kids. Sunday was a big deal. And I never will forget. We had a friend of ours who was a part of my friendship as I was growing up. And when we ate in the summertime my mom always left the back door open, or the screen door. So this friend of mine would always make his way to the back door on Friday…on Sunday, I mean, when the biggest meal was. I never will forget, my brother Calvin reaching one day into that mountain of bread and giving him a biscuit. And one of my sisters…. I guess everybody has one of these in their family. She always told on everybody else and always liked it. So she was gonna get my brother in trouble for giving away bread.
So my mom comes through the house hearing all this commotion and she’s wondering what’s going on. And my sister begins to tell her. And she says, “Well, where…” and the person’s name was Fred. And she said, “Well, where is Fred?” And he had run out the back door, was underneath the porch. So he came out and he’s standing there. And he’s got these bread crumbs around his mouth. And my mom says, “Is that right? Did Calvin give you some bread?” And of course you could see the crumbs around his mouth so it’s everything she could do to keep from laughing. And when he opens his mouth the rest of the bread falls out. She simply said to him, “Come on in, boy, and sit down and eat with us.” And she made room at a table where she was struggling to feed her 9 children for one other. And that story has always stuck with me as well. For one other.
Joe: Yeah, I just love that image of the table at communion, and the table that Jesus invites us to where there is always enough and there is always room. What a beautiful image. That must play into your ministry today in some sense.
Bishop Fairley: I prayed about this when I got elected a bishop. Well, every place I’ve been in the church I’ve always prayed about it. When I was a district superintendent I kept telling myself, “If this job means that I’ve got to manage, I’m already in trouble.” Because it’s not who I am. Even in growing up the way I did I’ve always been a very relational person. I’ve always tried to make sure that people understood that they were valued. I guess that comes from what I went through.
When I became a district superintendent and moved…. Actually I …first time I was on the cabinet I moved back home, a place where I said I’d never go back to. And both my wife and I were from there. And so when I was named superintendent there I began to pray, “Now, Lord, why is this happening? Why would you send me back to a place where there could be so many bad memories?”
My wife is from Laurinburg, too, and both of us had said the same thing. But when we went back she said, “Well, honey, I guess we’ll be like Abraham and Sarah. We’ll move back, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to see the possibilities and we’re going to live the promise.”
So we went back and there we started the Partners in Ministry that’s in East Laurinburg—and we started that ministry there.
So even as a bishop I liked to be out among the people. Of course I have eastern Kentucky here with central Appalachian people. And I just love being out among the people and hearing their story, talking about ways that God shows up in their lives, and seeing them just come alive when they realize how important they are to God.
So they’ll tell you around here, I don’t sit in the office a lot.
Joe: That’s probably a good thing…get to be out with the people and learning what’s happening.
What do you do when you’re not working? What do you do just fun of it? Or what do you do just because?
Bishop Fairley: Well, again, I like to read. I’m an avid reader. I swim. I’m pretty good at basketball. I’ve still got a set shot I can’t dunk anymore, but…
Joe: Well, that implies that you used to be able to. Huh? You could dunk?
Bishop Fairley: Oh, yeah. I did.
I like movies. Of course I like to write. Actually, you asked me about prose, and I have a manuscript that’s called “Silver Linings,” that talks about mostly what I’ve been talking to you about. I’m trying to figure out what to do with it.
Joe: Are you much of a basketball fan? Do you watch a lot of basketball? Or would you rather be playing?
Bishop Fairley: That’s interesting. People ask me, since I’ve been here, of course, with the Duke/Kentucky thing. I’m not a fanatic. I like a good game. I’m not a fanatic. But I can play. And I like to watch.
The other thing that I like to do…. I know one of the questions is about how I maintain my spiritual life. And one of the things I like to do, is I like to take a solid weekend at a monastery. In North Carolina I would go to the monastery called Avila, and it would be a solid weekend. Here in Kentucky I’ve gone to Gethsemani and a couple of other places, and it would be… I would just do a whole weekend of silence. In those places I would write as well, too. So I guess I would say that I can be very introspective.
Joe: Yeah, it sounds it. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and getting a chance to meet you and to learn more about you.
Bishop Fairley: I hope it’s been helpful.
Joe: Oh, it’s been great. Thank you so much for doing this.
Joe: That was Bishop Leonard Fairly of the Kentucky Annual Conference and Redbird Missionary Conference. Learn more about his work in the church and find links to his book of poetry at UMC.org/podcasts. Look for our episode titled Meet Bishop Leonard Fairley.
There you will also find more conversations like this one with our United Methodist Bishops, along with more episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape and other United Methodist podcasts. There’s also a link to my email address on the page—I love hearing from you.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.