June 18, 2012
Pastorgraphs: “Bishop Swenson”
Mary Ann Swenson and I grew up about 40 miles apart in Mississippi. Little did we know then the youth minister from Jackson and the kudzu farmer from Yazoo City would cross paths later in life in California.
Because we are about the same age, we had front row seats to the civil rights movement with its turbulent and frightening scenes, often too close for comfort. The fabric of the society we were born into was rent asunder before our eyes. That included the role of the church in social justice. Not only did we not see black and white on Sunday mornings, we did not see female pastors, and certainly not female bishops. Mary Ann has been at the forefront of every major battle for social justice the Methodist church has faced in our lifetimes. Often, it has been a most uncomfortable and unpopular place to be. Her moral compass demanded that she do no other. Her life story is a testimony she chose right over comfort or personal ambition.
Sunday’s service at the California-Pacific Annual Conference in Redlands was Mary Ann Swenson’s last as Bishop. She officially retires in August. There is only one Bishop per Annual Conference. Most serve four or eight year terms. We in the Los Angeles area have been blessed to have Bishop Swenson for 12 years. So, for all but the first two years of my ministry in Southern California, she has been “my Bishop”.
Bishop Swenson hosted a cruise in Hawaii a few years ago and invited the clergy along to see the beauty of the islands while connecting with the Methodist churches in our “western district”. Anita and I signed up. I said it was our delayed honeymoon. And since Anita is from Hawaii, she was able to show me places and tell me events from her early life. On that trip (see photo) I had a few brief opportunities to speak with my Bishop. I gave her an old post card from my collection with a beautiful drawing of her home church, Capital Street United Methodist Church in Jackson, MS. She seemed deeply touched by this simple gesture. And from that moment, we shared our Mississippi connection and deep South roots. (Bishop Swenson knows where Yazoo City is located, and can pronounce “Yazoo” correctly!)
We share another connection. We are both cancer survivors!
Like literally thousands of Methodists from Southern California to Hawaii to American Samoa and Guam, I felt she was more than our Bishop. She has that special gift of knowing our names, our ministry settings, our successes and our challenges. We all felt she was (and is) our friend. I have never been one to seek “face time” with the Bishop. They are far too busy with important work. But on those special times I was privileged to spend a few moments with her, I always felt she remembered me, and more importantly, knew me! An extraordinary gift for one who has almost a thousand ordained and lay clergy under her care, not counting the many thousands of lay leaders in our local churches and districts.
During the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Bishop Swenson was a major supporter of the only Haitian congregation in the California-Pacific Conference at Christ Church, San Diego.
Last year, when I entered the retired status, Bishop Swenson gave me a hug, and whispered in my ear, “You are too young to retire. Please continue to serve the church!” I took that as a direct order, and will serve as long as I am able.
I know she will take her own advice. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
Thank you for being our leader, and our friend.
Bless you, Brother Bill
From the Quote Garden
“Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five I still had pimples.”
~ George Burns
Christ United Methodist Ministry Center
“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205