'Trailblazing' Bishop Leontine Kelly Dies, Is Mourned Throughout The UMC

June 28, 2012

Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, the second woman elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church and the first African American woman to accede to the episcopacy, died this morning (June 28, 2012) at age 92.

She served the San Francisco Area (California-Nevada Conference) for four years.
"I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Bishop Leontine Kelly this morning," said Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., the Conference's resident bishop since 2008. "Over the years she has been a mentor, colleague, and friend. The California-Nevada Conference is especially proud of her years as our resident bishop. She was a prophetic voice for justice, peace, and the inclusion of all people."
Bishop Kelly's life was inspired by both parents. Her father, the Rev. David D. Turpeau, was a Methodist minister and member of the Ohio House of Representatives. Her mother, Ila Marshall Turpeau, was an outspoken advocate for women and people of color, who founded the Urban League of Cincinnati.
But it was the Rev. James David Kelly, Leontine's second husband, who launched her on her ministerial path by urging her to become a certified lay speaker in the Virginia Annual Conference. She went on to ordination as a deacon in 1972 and as an elder in 1977.
From 1975 to 1977, Leontine Kelly served on the Virginia Conference Council of Ministries staff, directing social ministries, and then served Asbury-Church Hill in Virginia for seven years before becoming Assistant General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship in charge of Evangelism. Though Kelly remained a member of the Virginia Annual Conference, it was the West that elected her to the episcopacy, in 1984.
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who served with Kelly on the College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction and succeeded her as California-Nevada resident bishop, recalls her election to bishop as groundbreaking.
"I remember some of my colleague bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction were adamantly opposed to her election," he said. However, he added, "I was gratified she was elected."
Bishop Judith Craig also was elected a bishop in 1984, just hours after Kelly.
"[Leontine Kelly] made a bold journey from the Southeastern Jurisdiction to the Western Jurisdiction. It was as audacious as her whole life," Craig said. "She never ran from challenge or controversy, and she also stood fast in her convictions."
She was a model, especially, for women in the Church.
"Bishop Leontine Kelly has been the spiritual mother of many clergywomen and especially the women bishops," said retired Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher. "She called us into futures we never anticipated for ourselves, would not let us capitulate to our insecurities and druthers, and coaxed us into new lives that gave new leadership to The United Methodist Church. Her feisty, God-centered spirit is embedded deeply in our souls and will continue to form and instruct us."
M. Garlinda Burton, top executive for the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, echoed Christopher's sentiments. "Bishop Kelly is one of the reasons I'm in leadership in the Church right now," she said. "She has been a standard-bearer for women of color in leadership, and there will be no one like her, ever."
And, "Bishop Kelly was beloved – especially by laypersons in her local churches who loved her commitment to strengthen and help local churches grow their membership, both in number and spiritually," reflected Raúl B. Alegría, treasurer of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, who served as treasurer for the Cal-Nevada Conference from 1987 to 1994. "When persons disagreed with Bishop Kelly, she found that moment as an opportunity to 'love people into goodness,' so that the issue at hand found common agreement on both sides."
Among Kelly's many contributions to the denomination was as a founding member of Africa University, the first United Methodist university on the continent of Africa. Kelly was the presiding bishop when the 1988 United Methodist General Conference approved the African Initiative, which later became Africa University. "She is one of those pillars, the foundation of Africa University," said James Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement for Africa University. Salley said she gave money to endow two scholarships at the university, which have provided education for many African women.
"She was a gift to the Church and a perfect example of what God can do when God has chosen an individual," he said.
Bishop Kelly's daughter, Angella Current Felder, followed her mother's example by giving leadership to Africa University and to women of color, Salley added. Current Felder retired as director of the United Methodist Office of Loans and Scholarships, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, in 2010.
Following retirement, Bishop Kelly lived in the Lake Park Retirement Residence in Oakland, California, not far from the San Francisco churches pastored by her son John David Current (Grace UMC), and daughter-in-law, Staci Current (Jones Memorial UMC). She had been in ill health for some time.
"I was blessed with opportunities to witness her faithful walk during these difficult days of illness," Bishop Brown said. "For her it was a triumphant walk, and I am confident she rests now in peace. I thank God for the privilege of having known Leontine Kelly, and join others in praying for her family and many, many friends."
In addition to Angella Current Felder and John and Staci Current, Bishop Kelly's survivors include another son, Gloster B. Current, Jr., and an adopted daughter, Pamela Lynne Kelly.
A service for Bishop Kelly will take place on Thursday, July 5 at 10 a.m. at Jones Memorial UMC in San Francisco, with Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. and the Rev. Staci Current officiating. In lieu of flowers, the family requests gifts to the Ila Marshall Turpeau Scholarship at Garrett Theological Seminary.
(Kathy L. Gilbert, UMNS, provided the basis for this story.)