The United Methodist Church (UMC) has been widely recognized in the religious community for its progressive movements in diversity. With church establishments around the world and in culturally diverse communities around the United States, the UMC is also one of the few Protestant denominations to allow women into high-level spiritual positions.
In 1984, the UMC was the first major denomination in the world to elect an African American female bishop–Leontine Turpeau Current Kelly served the California-Nevada Annual Conference from 1984-1988 and traveled to Japan and Europe on preaching missions.
Kelly was born March 5, 1920 in Washington, D.C., into a lineage of Methodist ministers; she was also one of 10 siblings of David D. Turpeau and Ila Marshall Turpeau.
According to research and interviews conducted by Larry Hygh, director of communications for the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the UMC, Kelly grew up admiring the work, poise and determination of Mary McLeod Bethune.
“Bethune was in Cincinnati to meet with James N. Gamble, manufacturer and philanthropist, when she stopped by the parsonage to visit with Bishop Kelly’s mother and father. Bishop Kelly answered the front door and Bethune asked her, ‘Well, young lady, what do you plan to do with your life?’” Hygh’s dissertation reads.
After the death of her husband in 1969, the bishop bound woman figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life–preach. That led Kelly to earn a Master in Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and then to begin pursuing a career as a spiritual leader.
Before being elected bishop, Kelly was serving in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the denomination, which still has never elected an African American woman to this high-ranking post. She was eventually elected bishop by the Western Jurisdiction in 1984, and assigned to the San Francisco area.
Bishop Beverly J. Shamana also served the California-Nevada Annual Conference from 2000 to 2008. Born November 4, 1939 in Los Angeles, Shamana is the oldest of four children born to Sylvester and Charlene Martin.
She pursued her bachelor’s degree in choral music at Occidental College and later taught music in public schools for 10 years.
It was not until 1975 that Shamana began her career in theology, earning her Master of Divinity. She was ordained a deacon in the Pacific Southwest Annual Conference in 1979.
Shamana also served as pastor of Faith UMC in L.A. as well as in a congregation in Inglewood throughout the 1980s. She is also an accomplished author, who wrote the book “Seeing in the Dark: A Vision of Creativity and Spirituality. “
“Bishop Shamana is an artist,” Hygh said. “She is a painter, poet and pianist. She wants to be most remembered as an artist; one who is by her very nature and very character, creative.”
Bishop Violet Lucinda Fisher served as leader of the North Central New York Annual Conference from 2000-2008. She was born in Maryland on Aug. 28, 1939.
Raised in a Methodist family, she began to preach at the young age of 16. She traveled the world, preaching as a national evangelist in the King’s Apostle Holiness Church of God.
After graduating from Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia, Fisher was ordained a deacon in the UMC.
As an active spiritual woman with a heart for people, Fisher’s concern for women and justice reflects heavily in her involvement with various organizations including the NAACP, Lions Club of America, and Interdenominational World Wide Women Ministers Alliance, which she founded.
Bishop Linda Lee is currently serving in the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. She was born on July 9, 1949 in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the miracle child gifted to her parents by God.
“She says that her mother was barren for seven years before she was born,” Hygh wrote. “In the seventh year, (her mother) went to a revival where the preacher told the people in the congregation that, if they would come to the altar and pray that night God would give them whatever they asked for.”
Lee’s mother prayed to bear a child and within the same month, learned she was pregnant. The bishop’s mother dedicated her miracle child back to God and raised her with a consciousness of spiritual and social justice.
Lee earned her Masters of Divinity in 1984 from United Theological Seminary. As a clergywoman, the bishop served in different positions within the UMC, but believes her role as a woman in leadership is a platform to institute change.
“She wants to be known as a change agent,” Hygh said. “One who is used by God to transform lives and the community for the better . . . (to) build up Black women and men and others who have been marginalized by the status quo.”
Elected to head the Detroit Annual Conference in 2000 and now serving in Wisconsin, Lee is currently the only active African American woman bishop in the church; the others are retired.
In his research, Hygh found that these monumental women served their religious community righteously and efficiently, but not without challenges.
Although the UMC is a racially diverse community, leadership continues to be predominantly White and male.
“When I asked them about racism and sexism, all of them (the women) said racism and sexism affected them,” Hygh said. “One of them called sexism a double bind, meaning it’s not really one or the other, but both.”
Some of the ladies felt their peers tested them during leadership conferences or other meeting because of their race or sex.
“It takes time to change hearts and minds. There are still denominations that don’t accept women, and that’s amazing.” Hygh said. “Jesus gave women the first sermon. It was the women who he had go tell the story of the resurrection.”