Leontine Turpeau Current Kelly is being remembered as a trailblazer, a spiritual mother, a bearer for women of color in leadership and a gift to The United Methodist Church. She died at age 92 on June 28.
Being elected as the first African-American woman bishop was just part of her “audacious life,” said Bishop Judith Craig, who also was elected a bishop in 1984 just hours after Kelly.
“She made a bold journey from the Southeastern Jurisdiction to the Western Jurisdiction. It was as audacious as her whole life,” Craig said. “She never ran from challenge or controversy, and she also stood fast in her convictions.”
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, Nashville, Tenn., who served with Kelly on the College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction, also remembers her election to bishop as groundbreaking.
“I remember some of my colleague bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction were adamantly opposed to her election,” he said. Kelly was a member of the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference at the time.
“I was gratified she was elected,” he said.
Craig said she and Kelly would seek each other out in those early days. There were only three women on the Council of Bishops at that time. Marjorie Matthews was the first woman elected bishop in 1980. After Matthews’ death, there were “just the two of us,” Craig said. “I was very grateful for her presence. It made me realize how lonely Marjorie must have been.”
"Bishop Leontine Kelly has been the spiritual mother of many clergywomen and especially the women bishops,” said retired Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, Nashville, Tenn. “She called us into futures we never anticipated for ourselves, would not let us capitulate to our insecurities and druthers, and coaxed us into new lives that gave new leadership to The United Methodist Church. Her feisty, God-centered spirit is embedded deeply in our souls and will continue to form and instruct us," she said.
Among Kelly’s many contributions to the denomination was as a founding member of Africa University, the first United Methodist university on the continent of Africa. Kelly was the presiding bishop when the 1988 United Methodist General Conference approved the African Initiative, which later became Africa University.
“She is one of those pillars, the foundation of Africa University,” said James Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement for Africa University. She gave money to endow two scholarships at the university. Those scholarships have provided education for many African women, Salley said.
Kelly’s daughter, Angella Current Felder, followed her mother’s example by giving leadership to Africa University and women of color, Salley said. Current Felder retired as director of the United Methodist Office of Loans and Scholarships, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, in 2010.