Remembering Bishop Leontine Kelly’s historic journey of nonviolent change

Photo by Mike DuBose / United Methodist News Service.

Things were proceeding as planned. The annual Good Friday service held across the street from the top-secret nuclear weapons lab had just concluded. Now, as they had for several years in a row, waves of congregants flooded into the intersection to engage in civil disobedience, protesting Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s design of 50 percent of the United States’ atomic arsenal.

Then I saw something that wasn’t expected: the preacher at our anti-nuclear service that morning, Bishop Leontine Kelly of the United Methodist Church, was wading out into the street with the others. A Methodist minister sidled up to a few of us and explained that the bishop had suddenly decided to risk arrest. I now saw a troupe of church officials — who had come out to this Northern California nuclear weapons facility simply to be with their bishop — scrambling into the street to join her. A few minutes later, she and her ad hoc affinity group of ecclesiastical bureaucrats were whisked away by the local sheriffs.

It was the first time that a bishop had been arrested at the lab.

Bishop Leontine Turpeau Current Kelly was used to “firsts”— in 1984 she became the first African-American women to be elected bishop by any major Christian denomination. She had begun her career as a high school history teacher and then went on to make history herself.

Bishop Kelly died this past week at the age of 92; her life and work will be celebrated today at her funeral in San Francisco.

In 2000 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which succinctly declared, “As a spiritual and moral leader, Bishop Kelly advanced the cause of justice in the United States and throughout the world.”  In addition to working for a world free of the nuclear threat, she tackled issues of violence, poverty, racism, sexuality and illiteracy. She tirelessly advocated for nonviolent change on many fronts, both within her church and throughout society, including opening up the church to gay and lesbian people and in supporting HIV/AIDS ministries. This commitment was rooted in her own experience of her nation’s sin of racism and of a church that for much of her life was institutionally segregated — something that her father, also a Methodist minister, had struggled against. As Kelly explained in Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter by Traci C. West:

It is very clear why you have to do battle in relation to a church that is going to take measures to cut anybody out and still call itself church. … I think that for us as black people, to be drawn into that kind of complete hatred — and that is what it is, hatred — violates our own history and the way God has worked with us.

I have to go back to the context of our home when I was growing up, and to issues of race, when talking about gay rights issues… I remember when my father came back from the Uniting Conference [in 1939]. Now that meeting was about the last real schism over slavery, when the Methodist Church North and the Methodist Church South had split over slavery. … My father went to that conference when the Central Jurisdiction was established as a compromise [institutionally segregating the Methodist Church]. For the white southern church to come back and be united with the north, they would not accept the inclusion of blacks. … I remember when he came back and we were having dinner and I asked my father, “Papa, why do you stay in this segregated church? You can be Christian without being Methodist.”

My father’s answer was, “You don’t win a battle by leaving the battlefield. You’ve got to stay there. We have more battling to do because if the Central Jurisdiction is going to ever be dissolved it is going to have to come from within. … If I am going to be a Christian, I am going to be where I can battle. The church cannot be Christian without us.”

The Central Jurisdiction was dissolved in 1968, but only after numerous nonviolent battles. Leontine Kelly rooted her support for a radically inclusive church and society in her experience of the long-term struggle for justice, something that was vividly brought home to her as she grew up in Cincinnati where her mother founded a chapter of the Urban League and the parsonage where her family lived had been a station on the Underground Railroad.

These foundations for a ministry dedicated to advocating justice and peace were reinforced at different points in her life, including the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in Richmond, Virginia, when she was still a public school teacher. A dozen years ago at a King holiday celebration in Oakland Kelly shared her memory of this encounter:

She recalled watching at a lunch counter sit-in a few days after King came to Richmond, when an angry young man flicked his cigarette down the blouse of a protester planted at the counter. Kelly said the victimized woman “had been taught how to take it in the name of God by Martin Luther King Jr. when he was there. Tears ran down her face but I had the sense that they were more for the young man who flicked the cigarette than for any pain she had.”

Then, as her own vocation as church reformer often prompted her to do, she followed this recollection with an application to the faith community: “[King’s] lesson… was that every religious institution ‘that takes up space in a community’ should be used to improve the lives of those who live there.”

For Leontine Kelly, this community extended globally. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bishop Kelly joined hundreds of peace advocates at the Nevada Test Site to renew the call for an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As one of those who joined her in that August heat, I continue to be moved by the way she carried on her nonviolent battles for the well-being of all.

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