By Fred Koenig
The Uniting Conference in 1968 had much more significant meaning for African-American pastors than the merger of the Methodists with the Evangelical United Brethren. It brought about the end of the segregated Central Jurisdiction, which was created in 1939 at a special session in Kansas City that brought about the unity of three Methodist denominations. The Methodists Episcopal Church South had required the creation of the segregated Central Jurisdiction as terms of the merger.
The change to end the segregated Central Jurisdiction was years in the making. It started building momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 ruled against segregation in public schools. In 1956 the Methodist General Conference established the policy of ending segregation with reasonable speed. The 1960 General Conference set the goal of ending their segregation by 1968.
In 1964, Methodist Conferences within the Central Jurisdiction began transferring into their geographic conferences through “voluntarism.” This happened in Missouri prior to the 1968 elimination of the Central Jurisdiction, but having the segregated jurisdiction finally taken out was significant across the denomination.
The integration of the Central Jurisdiction into the rest of the jurisdiction was a welcome change for African-American pastors who had been segregated in their own area. Rev. Aubry Jones in St. Louis recalls that African-American pastors in the Central Jurisdiction did not receive the same opportunities, salary or benefits as the white pastors in the South Central Jurisdiction. He worked for and welcomed the merger while recognizing it certainly did not absolve unequal practices within the church.
“It was another step,” he said. “We started getting a little more than we had but still not enough of what we were supposed to have.”
Jones said most African-American pastors had to take other jobs to support their families. He worked as a school teacher at times, and as an educational program coordinator, in positions where he could earn income on a schedule that wouldn’t be too disruptive to his ministry. He always served as a pastor, serving churches in Sikeston, Troy and St. Louis. He continued pastoring St. Louis-area churches for more than decade after he retired in 2002.
When Jones considers the struggle for equality that African-American Churches faced during the time of the segregated jurisdiction, he remembers the struggle to have a voice in the system. Striving for equality often came down to struggling to obtain some very basic amenities, like having a source of heat in church.
“We wanted to be able to come to church in the winter and worship as others were,” he said.
Jones supported organizations like Black Methodist for Church Renewal and fought for a full level of integration so that the when an African-American pastor earned a degree, that pastor would be valued equally as a white pastor with the same degree.
“We were always looking for the land of milk and honey. The merger in 1968 brought us one step closer, but we’re still not there,” Jones said. “After the merger things were still not as they should be, but they were better than they were.”
Rev. John Heyward was a district superintendent in South Carolina in 1968 and a General Conference delegate at the Uniting Conference.
South Carolina was one of the largest black conferences in the denomination and was still part of the Central Jurisdiction. The 1968 General Conference brought an end to the Central Jurisdiction, but much work had gone in to make it happen. Prior to the change, the Central Jurisdiction had met in 1967 to “close-out” the jurisdiction, and elected their last bishop, Rev. Scott Allen.
“Since then it’s been said that Bishop Allen was the last Methodist Bishop to be elected because all after that point were United Methodist,” Heyward said.
Heyward noted that the merger documents with the EUB church did not even mention the Central Jurisdiction because people were confident in the course of the jurisdictional segregation coming to an end. He worked within his own conference to help usher in the end of the segregation and was happy to see it brought about in 1968. “It was a great Conference and a great time,” he said.
Heyward can trace his Methodist roots back to his grandmother, who was born into slavery in 1855. She was introduced to the Methodist family circle meetings and circuit riders while she was still living in slavery. Heyward remembers his grandmother well. He followed his call to ministry right out of high school, going to college and then Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
After the 1968 Uniting Conference Heyward continued serving as a District Superintendent. Then he moved to Washington D.C. in 1971, where he worked with chaplains for the General Board of Higher Education Ministry. Because they were stationed all over the world, it involved extensive travel.
“I would come home and sit down one suitcase and pick up the next one,” Heyward said. Living out of a suitcase likely made Heyward receptive to call from Bishop Robert Goodrich in 1976. Bishop Goodrich wanted Rev. John Doggett to serve as a district superintendent on the Missouri Cabinet, but he wanted to be sure Doggett’s current appointment, Union Memorial UMC, was in very good pastoral hands before that move was made. He asked Heyward, who was at General Conference in Dallas in 1976, to swing by Missouri on his way home to DC and see what he thought of the city and Union Memorial. He did, liked what he saw and was appointed to Union Memorial that year.
Heyward later put his DS experience to use in Missouri, serving on the cabinet in the late 1980s. He was then appointed to St. Johns in St. Louis, the first African-American pastor to serve the church.
“I preached every Sunday, visited the sick, buried the dead, married the lovers – everything went alright,” he said.
From St. John’s he was appointed to University UMC, where he again served as the first African-American pastor of that church.
“It went fine. If anyone left because of my race I wasn’t aware of it,” Heyward said.
Like his brothers with history in the Evangelical or United Brethren Churches, Heyward can also say he has been part of three denominations without changing churches. He was born into the Methodist Episcopal Church, served as a pastor in the Methodist Church, and served and retired from the United Methodist Church after 40 years in ministry.
Although, like with Jones, the term retired was used loosely with Heyward. After he retired, Bishop Ann Sherer-Simpson asked him to served Unity UMC in Webster Groves just until she could find someone else. He was there eight years. He’s back there now, preaching every Sunday even though he’s coming up on his 89th birthday. He still enjoys serving the church.
“I always said the main thing is to just love the people,” Heyward said.