Methodist bishop finds mission in city ministry

Church programs, revivals target addicts, social ills

July 30, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

At a Methodist tent revival on a sultry summer night in Northwest Baltimore, homeward-bound traffic rushes by on Liberty Heights Avenue at Garrison Boulevard as a preacher delivers an old-fashioned, Bible-thumping sermon, telling how he was delivered by Jesus from drugs and homelessness.

He invites others to be saved. A young man in white shirt and shorts steps up, saying he wants to give up the streets for his savior.

A group of ministers surrounds the man to lay hands on him and pray over him -- among them a tall African-American in a green and blue dashiki, with little hair on his head and a close-cropped silver beard.

Who would guess he is Felton Edwin May, the United Methodist bishop of Baltimore and Washington?

The revival is a ministry of May's invention called the "Saving Station," designed to reach out to addicts and alcoholics and bring them to Jesus and recovery.

The Saving Station, which has been set up in five city neighborhoods this summer, is part of a larger strategy May is implementing as he seeks to concentrate his energies on Baltimore's United Methodist churches in the years before his mandatory retirement in 2004. May, who usually works out of offices in Washington and Columbia, has opened a Baltimore office at Lovely Lane Church, where he spends several days each week.

It is only appropriate, May said, that American Methodists should raise their profile in Baltimore, the city where the denomination was formed in 1784 during a Christmas Eve conference at Lovely Lane Church. "It almost seems providential," May said, "that a revival of United Methodism, or our religious presence in this city, should take place at this time and in this location."

May candidly says he wants to shake things up in Charm City, home of an estimated 60,000 heroin addicts and 68 United Methodist churches, many of them more than half-empty.

He said he is trying to instill a new attitude he calls "holy boldness" among the people in the pews.

"I don't know how to say it diplomatically, but we have been caught in institutional maintenance," said May, who was appointed bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference in 1996.

"People have been lulled into a time when Christianity has become a spectator sport and participation is left to the professionals," he said. "Trying to turn that around, so we are proactive in doing justice and loving mercy, is quite a task."

May, 66, is the father of two grown children. His wife, Phyllis, is an educator. He is described by his pastors as a dynamic leader, whose forceful style can border on intimidating.

"Bishop May has a no-nonsense approach to the alibis and excuses we give for not doing what Scripture tells us to do, which is to go into the world and make disciples," said the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a city councilman and pastor of Unity United Methodist Church in Harlem Park. "He is confrontational, but it's a loving confrontation. He'll nail you to the wall, but then he'll scrape you off with a loving hand."

May's passion and conviction were forged by a strict upbringing by his mother and grandmother, who together raised three boys in a three-story walk-up in the South Side of Chicago called "Noah's Ark" by its residents.

"It was named Noah's Ark because everything under the sun lived there," May recalled. "When the relatives would come for the holidays and pictures were to be taken, we'd go next door to have the pictures taken in front of that house."

His older brother, the Rev. James C. May, a Baptist minister in Chicago, described his sibling as "a good, social, involved child. He was an obedient child."

It's no coincidence that the family produced two ministers, given the religious environment at home and at Chicago's Woodlawn Baptist Church, where the brothers were baptized and where James May is principal of the church-based school.

"We were trained in the faith from a very early age. We had daily Bible reading, daily prayer time," his older brother said. "My early days were not geared toward ministry per se, but Felton had the desire. He has a preacher's heart."

The musically inclined bishop studied piano and dreamed of becoming a doctor. To make ends meet in college, he did part-time office work at a Reform synagogue. That synagogue's rabbi, Louis Leopold Mann, is largely responsible for May -- baptized a Baptist -- becoming a Methodist. Mann, a liberal and early civil rights activist, recommended May in the mid-1950s to a nearby Methodist pastor who wanted to integrate his church.

That pastor soon had May leading Sunday school and services for a junior church for the congregation's children.

"And then I began to read Methodist literature and its social witness, and it made sense to me. I felt I was called by God to do that," he said.

Still, he was unsure whether he was destined to wear a collar. So the pastor devised a scheme, saying he had to go out of town and asked May to fill in one Sunday -- just talk a little bit about junior church, the pastor said.

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