I still remember the lead I wrote after spending two steamy hot days in July 1991 with Bishop Felton May exploring the first experiments of what would become The United Methodist Church's "Communities of Shalom." I wrote:
"We were under the 'saving station' tent, praising the Lord on a Friday night, when the drug deal went down."
I've never forgotten the juxtaposition of those two events – a crowd of Christians worshiping in a church parking lot, while a drug deal was clearly visible between two men in cars on a street in Anacostia, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood rife with drugs and crime. I'm not embarrassed to say I was scared, for lots of reasons. I was scared a lot on that particular trip, a young white reporter traveling with a black bishop into predominantly black neighborhoods known for drug-fueled violence.
If Bishop May was scared, he never showed it. There was a kind of invincible conviction about his demeanor; he knew that he was going about the Lord's work, and that gave him the kind of "holy boldness" he preached and practiced for as long as I knew him.
Ours wasn't the kind of "huggy" relationship I've had with other church leaders, where the first thing you do is give one another a big "Christian fellowship" hug. In fact, Bishop May at times was like a burr prickling under a saddle, always prodding me toward deeper understandings of people's experiences far outside my own, especially those of black Methodists. He wasn't mean-spirited about it, but he was disciplined. His was the kind of discipline that he exhorted and encouraged others to follow, in a manner very like the writings of John Wesley.
For all that discipline, and as much as loved the church, Bishop May sometimes chafed at the institutional rules and traditions that he saw as barriers to God's work. He often referred to himself as a "catalytic servant," meaning that he saw his calling to be the spark that sets off a reaction which results in a innovative ministry to meet a specific need. He fought hard with the Council of Bishops to get his special assignment combatting drugs in the Washington, D.C. area. His "holy boldness" initiative during his last active episcopal assignment in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference was that same kind of effort, encouraging pastors and churches under his administration to seek out the hurting, even dangerous, places where God's love needed to be shown. If you found such a need and prayerfully proposed a viable ministry for it, Bishop May had your back.
Underneath that bold discipline there beat a heart filled with empathy for those who were oppressed and downtrodden by life, and those innocents whose lives might be stunted by oppression. When we were together on our "saving station" tour, he radiated joy when he sat down with children in the churches' child care programs. Another time, when we were touring United Methodist churches around Chicago for Communities of Shalom, he confided to me that he was shocked at the deterioration of Chicago's Southside, where he grew up. "I couldn't believe it," he said as we rode a bus through a rainstorm. "We used to get dressed up and go to the movie theater on Friday nights. We did our shopping on the boulevard. Now it looks like a war zone."
Once he caught me in a typo about his middle initial – I typed a "C" when it should have been "E" for Edwin. Bishop May couldn't resist tweaking me about it in a telephone call. "Astle," he said in mock-severity, "what have you done to me?"
Years later he invited me to visit him at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. He was serving as dean at the Harry R. Kendall Science and Health Mission Center, and he wanted to show me its new model of fostering wellness rather than merely treating illness. I was making plans to drive up to Arkansas from Dallas when the Great Recession of 2007-2008 hit, and my personal and professional resources crashed overnight. I truly regret now that I didn't make the trip anyway.
Other compendia list Bishop May's many achievements during his ministry, especially his biography in the Council of Bishops' section on the official United Methodist website, and Sam Hodges' excellent obituary of Bishop May for United Methodist News Service. I marvel at the realization that, even though I never worked as closely with Bishop May as did many others, his presence – and now his absence – touches me so deeply. It seems to me that such an affect marks a truly great leader, one whose influence will be felt for a long time.
I'm grateful to have known Felton May, to be have been prodded and encouraged by him, and to feel sadness at his passing. I hope we United Methodists will continue Bishop May's legacy of holy boldness. Of all the tributes we may give him, I think he'd like that one best.
Cynthia B. Astle serves as Editor and Founder of United Methodist Insight.