Bishop offers worldview
By Holly McCray
As an episcopal leader of the Church, Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. ministers both within and far beyond this state’s borders. Oklahoma congregations properly receive most of his devotion but, as specified in the UM Book of Discipline, he also is "to travel through the connection at large as the Council of Bishops."
That expanded role has engaged him most recently in mission with Methodists in Liberia, Israel, and Mexico. In an interview, he spoke of how such journeys impact his faith.
Q: Where did you sense God?
A: In every place I have been, I have observed God’s presence. I go to places where I run into unbelievable poverty and deprivation; even though we consider these people lacking, they don’t seem as affected by it as we are. I sense God in their spirit.
Liberia is one of the most impoverished nations. With 85 percent unemployment, most folks are hustling to eke out a meal for that day, let alone tomorrow. But when you start talking about Christ and the Church, their eyes light up. People are overcome with joy. They have an intense passion for what you are talking about.
In the midst of poverty, here is a person who is on fire for Christ, and that has to be God, because there’s nothing else but God in that person’s life. The Scriptures say a lot about the poor; Jesus’ ministry was among the poor; the Old Testament tells us God aligns with the poor, the downcast.
You’ve never seen people so connected to God and Christ as people who are in poverty, because that’s all they have. Everything we long for in this country, in terms of a deep, abiding relationship with God, they have. We have all the necessities of life and are impoverished in spirit. They have none of the necessities and are rich in spirit.
Q: Bishop Hayes, how can they be so joyful amid unrelenting poverty?
A: I will try to describe this with the words "redemptive suffering." People suffering the consequences of natural disasters, the brutality of dictatorships and political systems, can identify so closely with the biblical stories, the narrative of God’s promises being fulfilled and God’s attention being given to persons who are down and out.
They understand there is a Savior who will one day make it right. It may not be right in this life, but it’s not always going to be this way. God’s promises never go unfulfilled. They are certain of that.
That’s why they can celebrate.
Q: How does seeing them affect you?
A: What they know in the midst of such suffering is redemptive to me. That’s why I go to these places. It restores my faith.
You can’t be around these people and not be positively affected by their zeal for Christ. You look at your own faith commitment, and you come up woefully short of where they are. The beauty of mission is that it’s a two-way street. We, who are supposed to be bringing help or addressing need, are in the midst of folks with nothing and yet, as the Scriptures say, with everything. We end up being helped and enabled.
Q: Have you worried about safety on journeys outside the United States?
A: There is misguided hatred even now in the land where Jesus walked. That’s sad. They have prepared. We had to go through checkpoints to get into Bethlehem. Even school students on field trips were accompanied by armed guards. In Liberia there was a heavy U.N. presence.
These people know what war is. They know upheaval. They still praise God.
Q: Have your experiences changed you?
A: Every time I come home, I want to divest myself of things I have put so much trust in that don’t really mean a hill of beans. What I need now is a lot less. Stuff gets in the way of a natural, pure relationship with Christ.
I don’t need to eat that much. Why do I need to load up my icebox? What I want a lot more of is closeness to my faith and to Christ.
It has always impressed me that I went to make a difference, and the difference was made in me.
And I bring back with me the need for us to get more people involved in missions. If I had the opportunity to take every person in this Conference to even glimpse what I have seen, I have no doubt it would move people. I particularly appreciate young people getting involved in mission. Their lives will be changed forever.
Q: Are there similarities between us and Methodists in other countries?
A: Communion is a high, holy moment everywhere you go—not what ritual and words you use, just the expression of thanksgiving and gladness that we are able to do this. In Liberia, the women are dressed in white and bring the elements into the service with such a sense of reverence. It is a love feast around the Lord’s Supper, with singing and praise every time. I grew up like that.
Ordination was a high moment at the Annual Conference for the Liberian Methodist Church. The candidates stood in the sun for an hour or more before entering the service. For stoles, they brought whatever they could afford that had red in it. One guy came with a piece of fabric printed with Washington Redskins football logos. It was red!
Church choirs had sewn matching outfits for themselves. The auditorium probably holds 300, but at least 600 people were in there for the hours-long service. There was no air conditioning.
In Liberia, we had electricity for maybe two or three hours a day. It was common for us to eat in the dark, with a lantern, because of the outages. In Mexico, we had electricity. There were better living standards in Israel, but people are suffering there, too.
In Israel, Communion was taken in a garden by a tomb; we were 50 feet from where we believe Jesus was laid. At the tomb … I came out of there weeping and had to sit down and just take it all in.
Q: In July 2011, you will lead an educational tour, especially for recently ordained clergy, to the Holy Land. What else would you have Oklahomans do?
A: Let me be practical: You don’t have to go halfway around the world. People in our own communities are impoverished; there are possibilities for mission right here in our state.
You don’t have to offer things to people. Just offer them the gifts of friendship and hospitality. Identify with them as human beings. There’s dignity in that. That’s how the Church needs to reach out.
I know systems are hard to change. Rules and regulations are things you can struggle against for the rest of your life. When you offer people Christ, you know the kind of change that can bring. You can’t go wrong with that. Christ is the change agent.