Photo: Wabash Conference Superintendent John Lane introduces the new bishops at Welcome Home.
The new Free Methodist Church – USA bishops chose a seemingly unlikely place for their first public appearance together since General Conference 2019 — Clay City, Indiana (population 861).
Bishops Linda Adams, Keith Cowart and Matt Whitehead were not the only notable Free Methodists who traveled in early August to the rural community where cell phone service remains elusive. They were joined by African immigrants from across the United States who gathered at the Wabash Park Camp & Retreat Center at the edge of Clay City for the second annual Welcome Home Conference sponsored by the denomination’s African Immigrant Ministries (AIM).
“As [Wabash Conference] Superintendent John [Lane] mentioned, there has been a lot of dialogue about the election of bishops, and for those of us who were nominees, we were in the position of just simply saying, ‘God, we only desire your will. Above all else, that’s what we want,’” Whitehead told Welcome Home participants. “We greet you with that sense of still only deeply desiring to follow God’s leading and God’s will, and we’re so thankful for what God is doing among you, and we are privileged to be with you.”
After the bishops arrived and began listening to the worship team, Cowart turned and asked Adams, the director of International Child Care Ministries since 2008, about the background of the worship team members. When Adams said she believed some were Congolese immigrants, “I suddenly remembered that the first Free Methodist I ever knew was a Congolese Free Methodist who was a student at Asbury Seminary. His name was Emedi Mwenebenga,” Cowart said during his remarks to the conference.
“Emedi and I became very close friends long before I was a Free Methodist. After we graduated and he returned to Africa and I returned to Georgia, we reconnected five or six years later. I got a letter from him. He was living in a refugee camp. He told me he was coming to the U.S. for asylum,” Cowart said. “So Emedi and his wife, Nyassa, and their son, Benjamin, came and lived in our home for three months. Emedi and Nyassa are no longer with us, but I looked at this Scripture that is on the wall, and I gave thanks that the day will come when we will stand together before the King of Kings, and we will truly worship Him in one tribe.”
The camp pavilion’s mural includes these words from Revelation 5:9–10, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Adams attended last year’s conference and had the second conference on her calendar, but she wasn’t sure if her schedule would allow her to return if elected bishop.
“As the Lord would have it, we had our meetings in Indianapolis, and Bishop Matt Whitehead suggested, ‘You know on Friday night, we could go to that Welcome Home thing,’” Adams said.
Adams reflected on her interactions with African Free Methodists as a pastor and through ICCM. “By working with International Child Care Ministries, I have had the privilege of visiting nine countries in Africa and 31 other countries in the world. And you know what I experience in the presence of God? When we worship and we reach up and we say, ‘Daddy, Papa, pick me up,’ we are children with one Father,” said Adams, who told the immigrants, “We are so glad you are here.”
While Adams served as the lead pastor of New Hope Free Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, immigrant members from the Democratic Republic of Congo asked New Hope to help put windows and doors in a church to keep rain from turning the dirt floors into mud that attracted animals. She emailed Superintendent Rusingizwa Ildephonse Bitebetebe and requested a photo of the Congolese church to put on the screen to help raise the money. She received this reply from Bitebetebe: “I have dispatched a man with a camera. It will take him six days walking.” She told the conference that she thought, “Oh, no! I took a week of a man’s life.”
The bishops heard a sermon from Bitebetebe, whom Bishop Emeritus Gerald Bates — a former missionary to Africa and rector of Hope Africa University — introduced as a man known for helping to achieve tribal peace in his area.
“In difficult times, he’s stayed strong. He’s loyal to his people, and he’s open to all who come to him for comfort,” Bates said. “His part of the world has experienced some very severe trouble in the last few months.”
Bitebetebe noted his longtime friendship with Adams and his reaction to hearing of the recent bishops’ election, which he described as God’s choice. He said that he wrote to one of his pastors, “The pastor who helped us back then, now she’s a bishop!” The pastor replied, “Praise the Lord!”
Bitebetebe also cited the mural’s Revelation 5 passage along with other scriptures including 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” He told the gathering, “Under the cross, all tribes are equal.”
Other Welcome Home speakers included Lane, John Wesley Free Methodist Church Lead Pastor Kenneth Martin (a recent bishop nominee), River Conference Superintendents Michael and Amelia Traylor, Harvest Conference Superintendent Doug Rabe, Gateway Conference Superintendent Ben Tolly, AIM Coordinator Isaac Bujambi, Bishop Lubunga Venance W’Ehusha of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Free Methodist World Missions Director of Global Church Advocacy Gerald Coates and Pastor Deana Hayes (the camp’s director of programming).