View from the Pew
Methodist bishop seeks isle ‘connection’
Hawaii Methodists have had a chance to meet their top spiritual leader in recent weeks, and so have some of Hawaii's poor whose welfare is a focus of church ministries.
Instead of typically quick stops in a territory that includes Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, missions in Korea and all of California, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson moved her office to Hawaii for a three-month stay.
The United Methodist Church's California Pacific Conference headquarters is in Pasadena, but Swenson decided it was time to recognize the second word in that geographical designation.
"It is so much a part of our identity," said Swenson. "The reality here is people from all over living together, united in the Body of Christ. It is the first time a bishop is spending focused time in the Pacific."
It hasn't been a leisurely vacation. Swenson has preached at a different church each Sunday, and will have visited almost all 30-plus churches, ministries and missions before she returns to Pasadena in mid-March. Thursday night, she and her husband, Jeff, were guests at a dinner at the First Tongan United Methodist Church in Waimanalo. Tomorrow she will preach at the Kona United Methodist Church and will visit the Honokaa Methodist church damaged in the October earthquakes.
"While here, I've tried to share the life and Christian witness of local members," said the bishop. "Methodists are connectional; we connect with what others are doing in the church and society, in peace and justice issues."
That brought her to the state's Kakaako homeless shelter, where Utu Langi, a Methodist, is manager. Swenson was joined by superintendents from seven California districts and Woong-Min Kim, head of the Hawaii district, to serve dinner one night last month to the families staying there.
Swenson said, "As bishop my vision is to see an abundant life for all God's children, the abundant life that Jesus promised. In the circumstances of homeless people, the abundant life is not yet visible. We have some work to do to make that possible."
"Connecting" with local issues brought her to federal court in January in support of the Kukui Gardens Residents Association, which sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in their struggle against sale of the low-rent housing complex in downtown Honolulu.
"She's been to residents meetings to help them get ready for court," said Drew Astolfi, lead organizer of Faith Action for Community Equity, an interfaith advocacy organization that proposes buying part of Kukui Gardens with state backing. The president of FACE is the Rev. Alan Mark, a Methodist pastor.
Astolfi said, "She moved into the Kukui Gardens issue and supported Catholic Bishop Larry Silva," who urged that the housing complex be kept for low-income renters. "She plays a pretty serious leadership role. A lot of Methodist clergy felt freer to take risks with her backing." Astolfi said Swenson backed local clergy in their support of the Unite Here Local 5 hotel workers union efforts to reach fair contracts with local resort owners.
"I think she's an extraordinary woman," Astolfi said.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson is head of the Methodist Church's California Pacific Conference. She is spending three months at the Harris United Methodist Church.
The petite, vivacious clergywoman is the spiritual and temporal leader of 100,000 Methodists in the conference, a geographical designation comparable to the diocese of the Episcopal and Catholic churches. There are about 7,000 members in the Hawaii District.
She tended to administrative tasks from an office next to Harris United Methodist Church in downtown Honolulu. Her informal style was evident during a Thursday interview when the office door stood open, and passers-by stopped in. Forgoing the purple clerical collar identifying a bishop, she wore strands of Niihau shells, a treasured gift from retired Hawaii pastor Frank Butterworth.
"As a child in Mississippi, I didn't know girls could be preachers," she recalled. By the time she reached college and pursued a church career, "I knew a woman could be a local pastor if she prepared herself and would take an assignment if no man wanted it. Now I'm the one who makes the assignments," said the woman elected bishop by the Council of Bishops in 1992 at the age of 45.
A basic belief of the Methodist faith is "inclusivity," which was originally defined as being open to "all races, cultures and ages." Last year, women in the church celebrated the 50th anniversary of a new dimension of inclusivity, the ordination of women.
Swenson is one of a group within the church who want to expand the border of inclusivity to permit the ordination of homosexuals. As in other denominations, the Methodist General Conference has struggled with that issue. The language in the Book of Discipline, the code of church laws that the lawmaking body can adjust at meetings every four years, states that "homosexual activity is incompatible with Christian teaching."
She was one of 15 United Methodist bishops who, at the 1996 General Conference, tried to moderate the language. "We said we should be open to people who know the love of God in their heart and are called to ministry," said Swenson. "That was not the position that prevailed. It will be debated again at the 2008 General Conference."