By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com magazine
ANN ARBOR, MI, DECEMBER 12, 2015—Nearly 200 men and women gathered from Michigan and across the U.S. to celebrate the century-spanning ministry of United Methodist Bishop Jesse DeWitt. Throughout his life, Jesse often stepped into the heart of headline news—from labor negotiations to social-justice causes around the world—but this 90-minute memorial focused on the underlying value that shaped his remarkable life: His faith.
“God grabbed Jesse’s heart early on—and neither God nor Jesse ever let go,” said the Rev. Doug Paterson, the host pastor at Ann Arbor’s First United Methodist Church, the congregation Jesse and his wife Annamary (who died in 2010) attended every week over many years.
Their presence in the congregation was so deeply felt that Jesse’s vestments were laid out in the corner of a pew a half dozen rows from the altar—where he “always sat with Annamary and where they cared for all those who sat around them every week,” Paterson said. “If you missed church, you might very well get a call from Jesse checking to see if you were OK.”
The irony was: Most members of the Ann Arbor church had never seen DeWitt wear anything other than a basic suit, or sometimes a sweater or shirt sleeves as he and Annamary took part in classes and work projects. However, as the congregation heard from several speakers, Jesse took his role as a bishop very seriously—and the peaceful, persuasive force of his faith often moved his colleagues in the episcopacy.
Among the many clergy attending the memorial were eight bishops: Michigan Area Bishop Deborah Kiesey, who welcomed her colleagues; retired Bishop Donald Ott, who worked extensively with Jesse and gave the main message at the service; retired Bishop Melvin Talbert; retired Bishop Joseph Yaekel; Iowa Bishop Julius Trimble; Illinois Bishop Jonathan Keaton; retired Bishop Woodie White; and retired Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader.
“Jesse’s influence was broad and long and is evidenced in this gathering,” Kiesey said as she welcomed her colleagues by name.
Various speakers recalled how Jesse felt his call to the ministry while working in a Detroit factory assembling auto parts in the 1930s. His experience with workers struggling to provide for their families and organize for better, safer working conditions fueled his understanding of the life-and-death issues in Christian community. Even as he completed seminary in 1948 and eventually was elected to serve as a bishop in 1972, Jesse never gave up his daily concern for the most vulnerable men, women and children in the U.S. and around the world, speaker after speaker reminded the congregation.
The retired Rev. Al Bamsey, who once was Jesse’s and Annamary’s pastor at Ann Arbor First United Methodist, recalled riding with Jesse on a bus during a particularly challenging protest. Bamsey said he suddenly realized how confrontational this demonstration was becoming.
“Jesse, we could be arrested!” Bamsey told the bishop anxiously.
Calmly, Jesse replied with two words: “I know.”
In the main message for the service, Ott began with the story of Jesus finding a rich man named Zacheus perched in a tree, watching him walk along with his followers. Jesus stops, calls Zacheus down and declares that he is going to Zacheus’s home. Overwhelmed, Zacheus declares that he will now give generously to the poor—and he will reconcile with all of those who he had cheated in his business.
Ott said Jesus’s actions that day always remind him of Jesse DeWitt’s ministry: “I doubt this text has ever been read at a memorial service, but I see Jesse in what Jesus did that day. … Jesus was curious about the man up the tree. He was alert to opportunities to get a rich man to do something good for others. He modeled these actions for others. He invited himself into Zacheus’s home. He was not timid. He put people on the spot. He got people to do unexpectedly good things. And in all those ways he blessed people.”
Two speakers represented nonprofit groups where Jesse and Annamary donated both money and lots of time.
Eileen Spring, CEO of Food Gatherers, talked about Jesse’s tireless work to help feed needy families. In fact, she said, she had gotten to know him as a top volunteer before she ever discovered that he was a bishop.
“It was years before I ever knew of his impressive resume or even that he was a bishop. He never flashed that card with us,” Spring said, drawing laughter from the congregation—because Jesse was known for his humble assistance, preferring not to present himself as a religious leader.
He earned the respect of friends and colleagues, Spring said. And, eventually, she tapped the considerable leadership and organizational skills of both Jesse and Annamary to help her organization with a major campaign. “Their embrace of Food Gatherers mission that no one should ever go hungry was a joyous one.”
Kim Bobo, founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, said Jesse was one of the first religious leaders, when he was a United Methodist bishop based in Chicago, who agreed to help her organize this nonprofit that eventually evolved into a national network.
Bobo recalled how Jesse was, indeed, a lot like Jesus confronting Zacheus that day. He not only would walk along picket lines with striking workers—he also would confront business leaders in such a compelling way that, often, he was able to meet with them and change their minds, she said.
“Jesse was smart and skilled, but he lived simply and frugally. He was such a humble Christian leader—and, after working with a lot of bishops, I can tell you: ‘Humble’ is not the first word that comes to mind in describing a bishop,’ ” Bobo said, drawing laughter.
She laughed herself and turned to the assembled bishops: “Sorry guys! But, in fact, Jesse didn’t like a lot of the trappings of religious leadership.”
Bishop Ott recalled the perfect way to close such a memorial service—words often used by Jesse DeWitt himself to end gatherings: “Thank you for coming today. Now, it’s time to go out and change the world.”