The air in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood smelled like smoke and tear gas. The ground was littered with broken glass. Cars were on fire. People were shouting over music from a nearby boom box.
The Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, then-superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan district of the United Methodist Church, knelt with a group of pastors in front of a burned-out CVS.
“Hush up, y’all! The pastors are praying,” she heard someone yell. And they did pray.
This was April 27, 2015. Freddie Gray’s body was not even in the ground when “all hell broke loose,” said the Rev. Michael Parker II, a colleague of Moore-Koikoi and a friend of Gray’s. Chaos raged in reaction to the 25-year-old Black man suffering fatal injuries while in police custody.
Over the next few weeks, Moore-Koikoi would help churches provide people with food, water and toilet paper and would de-escalate tension between protestors and police.
But first, more than 40 clergy members walked arm-in-arm through the unrest, calling for peace. They were wordlessly flanked by members of rival gangs, who had reached a temporary truce to help restore order to the city.
At the end of their route, one of the gang members turned to a pastor at Moore-Koikoi’s side. You used to be my pastor, he said, but I needed a family and I found that on the streets.
Moore-Koikoi said the exchange has shaped her work in the church ever since. “We were the ones that had turned our backs,” she said. As a church, “we’ve got to figure out what barriers we’re putting up.”
Today that work is based in the Pittsburgh area: elected in 2016, she is now the first female bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church may seem an unlikely place for Moore-Koikoi (pronounced kuh-KOY, a popular West African name) to fulfill her spiritual calling. The denomination is 94% white and has unevenly reckoned with its complicity in racist systems.
Yet Moore-Koikoi, a fourth-generation Methodist, sees in the Methodist Church a legacy of social actions evolving to meet underserved people’s needs.
She thinks of her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ home church, Sharp Street Memorial, the roots of Black Methodism in Baltimore. The church created housing for unwed mothers. They hosted dances for young people in an era when some Methodists still saw dancing as a sin. They were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
Moore-Koikoi, 55, senses the Methodist Church today has lost some of that responsiveness. It has preserved its institutions but lost sight of its founding principle: that members of a church are responsible for one another, that “salvation happens in community.”
“You don’t have a relationship with God just so you can feel good,” she said. “You have that relationship so that you can be energized … to bring about the transformation of the world.”
In the last several years, the most divisive social issue among United Methodists has been the rights of the LGBTQ community. Debates over whether to ordain LGBTQ pastors and let clergy preside over same-sex unions have paralyzed international conferences and torn apart local congregations.
At this point, a schism in the United Methodist Church — currently the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States — seems a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’
Amid all the fighting and heartbreak, some Christians have wondered whether the best strategy is just to keep churches out of politically charged topics altogether.
Moore-Koikoi doesn’t think it’s possible for faith and politics to be separate. If churches are going to continue to attract young people, she said, they’ll have to be socially engaged.
Moore-Koikoi could imagine future churches having fewer members but larger networks: people who see the church’s social and environmental concerns and say, ‘That’s important work. I’ll join in.’ Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist — that part wouldn’t matter.
“It’s still God’s work,” she said, “whether you label it as God’s work or not.”
Doing something new
The Rev. Raphael Koikoi was sitting in his truck on a roadside in Texas. Blinding rain hit his windshield, and he was crying so hard he’d had to pull over. Moments earlier, he’d heard a voice.
“Why are you just sitting there?” the voice challenged him. Born into the Roman Catholic Church in Liberia, he had felt God calling him to the ministry since high school. Now he sensed it was time to respond. He started seminary in Maryland soon after.
Around that time, in 2010, he also reconnected with Cynthia Moore, who he had met decades earlier when he was a student in Baltimore. By 2010, she was in the process of being ordained an elder, a leadership role in the United Methodist Church, and soon after began working on the Baltimore conference staff. They married in 2013.
Three years later, she was considering becoming a bishop. They knew that, if elected, she could be sent to any conference in the Northeast. They talked through the possibilities. Maybe the New England Conference? It would be cold, but they had friends there. Baltimore? That’s where their families were, although the Church usually doesn’t assign bishops to places where they’ve been pastors.
Western Pennsylvania, though — they didn’t see that coming.
“I was surprised,” the Rev. Dawn Hand said of Moore-Koikoi’s assignment. Hand had worked with Moore-Koikoi in the Baltimore-Washington area. When Moore-Koikoi got the call to Western Pennsylvania, she asked Hand to come, too. (“You want me to come where?” Hand recalled responding.) But she agreed, serving alongside Moore-Koikoi from 2018 until earlier this year.
The Western Pennsylvania Conference had a reputation for leaning white and conservative. Moore-Koikoi was neither of those things.
“I almost felt like she was coming into a hostile environment,” said the Rev. Tracy Cox, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh. “I still pray for her and her husband every day.”
Yet United Methodism in Western Pennsylvania wasn’t, nor had it ever been, homogenous. Congregations such as First United Methodist Church were eager for the future to look different from the past. They were working to become anti-racist communities. They wanted to see women and LGBTQ church members have fair chances at leadership roles.
The chance to receive a new bishop gave pastors like Cox hope. If the conference was going to become more inclusive — more open to “the transforming work of the Holy Spirit,” as Moore-Koikoi would say — some of the changes would have to be top-down. The conference was at a key juncture, a moment to choose between vying visions of what the church could be.
Perhaps the regional leaders sensed this when they assigned Moore-Koikoi to Western Pennsylvania. Or perhaps, as Raphael Koikoi trusts, it was God who had a plan in mind.
“God was beginning to do something new,” he said. “I believe that God saw it fit to bring us both here at this time.”
Moore-Koikoi and her spouse have confronted hostility. They have withstood microaggressions, racial slurs and death threats that required law enforcement involvement.
But, in their understanding, her appointment to Western Pennsylvania was a calling, and that’s not something you ignore.
As to how Moore-Koikoi navigates racism when she encounters it, that’s a balancing act, she said. She must weigh multiple interests: How do I push people without paralyzing them? How do I find my voice, so I don’t subject myself to abuse?
For her, accountability is rooted in relationships, not shame. She seeks to create the kind of community where she can say to someone, ‘You’ve hurt me,’ and actually be heard.
“Yeah, you’re gonna feel a little uncomfortable for this moment or two,” she recounted of those conversations. “But I’ve felt uncomfortable in this denomination my entire life.”
Moore-Koikoi is also shaping United Methodists’ approach to racism at a structural level. She’s a leader in the national group Black Methodists for Church Renewal and the president of the Church’s General Commission on Race and Religion.
She has led anti-racism initiatives both locally and nationally, including helping to launch the Council of Bishops’ “Dismantling Racism” campaign in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“I will not lead or participate in another effort ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’” she said as part of an announcement video on Juneteenth 2020. “The same uprising that has engulfed our communities must be unleashed in the church, interrupting business as usual.” Of the 38 active United Methodist bishops in the United States today, 12 are women and 18 are people of color, said Jackie Campbell, communications director for the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
She’s also built networks with clergy from other faith traditions, pushing for collective action.
And she also recognizes that, in the end, anti-racist work is not her work to do. This is labor that white church members and faith leaders are responsible for undertaking.
“I would gladly be your consultant if you’re going to pay me,” she said. “But it’s not my job to figure out how you’re going to fix it.”
Anticipating God’s kingdom
The year Moore-Koikoi’s father was born, 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church became a segregated denomination.
Black Americans were a minority in this tradition. Most Black Methodists belonged to either the African Methodist Episcopal Church or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, branches of the denomination Black Methodists created after facing racial discrimination in the late 1700s.
Those Black Americans who did stay in the Methodist Episcopal Church (later the United Methodist Church) were often unofficially segregated into their own churches or districts.
In 1939, that segregation became codified. The formerly separate Northern and Southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church merged. As a condition, the North agreed to group Black churches into their own jurisdiction, a way of preventing white churches from being appointed Black pastors.
Yet Moore-Koikoi’s grandparents still chose to baptize their son into that tradition. Later, when he was pursuing a call in the ministry, he chose to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, too.
Moore-Koikoi recalls friends questioning her father’s decision. Why stay in a denomination that made it clear Black members weren’t fully valued?
But Moore-Koikoi’s family had their reasons, rooted in a vision of the kingdom of God.
“My family believes you anticipate the kingdom of God based on where you are now,” Moore-Koikoi said. If that kingdom would be integrated — and her family fully trusted it would be — then their institutions should be, too.
“We’ve got to remove as many human barriers as possible, so God can do God’s work,” she said.
Moore-Koikoi was standing before a high pulpit. She felt an invisible force, pulling her toward it.
“That’s my dad’s pulpit,” she tried to tell the force. “It’s not fit for me.”
But the force spoke back. “No, this is your pulpit. I made this one for you.”
When Moore-Koikoi had her pulpit dream, she was working as a school psychologist. She wasn’t sure she had the personality for a pastoral role. Her pastor father struck her as so full of grace, she said. She saw herself as more of a straight-shooter.
“If somebody says somethin’ stupid,” she laughed, “I’m gonna say: ‘You said somethin’ stupid.’”
She also didn’t see many women, and especially women of color, being ordained. In the United Methodist Church, pastors are moved between congregations every few years. For a man to move with his wife for her job, it just wasn’t a cultural norm.
She also knew people — and still meets some pastors in the Western Pennsylvania Conference — who believe the Bible doesn’t give women the authority to preach.
In one particularly painful conversation, she told a friend she was pursuing a call to the ministry. “You need to shake that because that’s from the devil,” she recalled him responding.
When she arrived in Western Pennsylvania, she saw a need and an opportunity to help elevate women’s voices.
The Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church has operated largely on a “good ol’ boys” system, Cox of First United Methodist Church said. She’d been appointed to churches who were disappointed to receive a woman. Some churches refuse to take women pastors altogether.
The Rev. Cyndi Bloise, pastor of Ingomar United Methodist Church in Franklin Park, was praying for a female bishop. “I knew we needed that,” she said. “I needed that.”
What struck her about Moore-Koikoi wasn’t just her strong leadership — her calm confidence and smart preaching — but also her leadership as a woman. “So many times, we women have had to pretend to be like men to … get by in the church,” she said.
But here was a leader being her whole self — someone who sews and sings and wears fancy shoes, including the Wonder Woman stilettos Bloise once bought her as a thank-you gift.
“That was what women like me needed to see,” Bloise said. Moore-Koikoi didn’t back down when people challenged her as a woman or a person of color. She accepted that she couldn’t make everyone happy. “That has empowered me in my ministry,” Bloise said.
Moore-Koikoi credits her psychology background for her inclusive leadership style. As a school psychologist, she was always trying to shift the focus from students’ deficits to their strengths. She’d ask, ‘How can I help this person reach their God-given potential?’
Now she finds herself asking the same question of the ministers she supervises.
“She sees people, not just as blocks of wood, but as individuals struggling to be better than they are,” said Bishop Forrest C. Stith, who is retired from serving in New York and East Africa and who helped develop the African American Methodist Heritage Center in Madison, New Jersey. Before he became a bishop, he served for a time as a pastor at Sharp Street Memorial Church in Baltimore, where he met Moore-Koikoi’s family. He has known her since she was a child.
She empowers each person to find their strengths and be leaders in their own spaces, he said. “All of us try to do that, but I think Cynthia does it as well or better than anyone.”
A more inclusive future
Moore-Koikoi leans forward as she prays. Her eyes are closed, and she’s smiling — not with charisma, a smile meant to win over other people, but with conviction. It’s as if she’s listening to her words as she speaks them.
“What a mighty God we serve,” she said. “What a mighty God we serve.”
It’s the kind of smile that transforms a Tuesday evening Zoom meeting into a sacred space.
In September 2021, Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball of West Virginia became co-bishops of the Susquehanna Conference, taking over for a bishop who retired and couldn’t be replaced due to COVID-19.
Since then, they’ve collaborated to cover three conferences between the two of them — a “tremendous amount of responsibility,” said the Rev. Alyce Weaver Dunn, director of connectional ministries at the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
The purpose of this particular Tuesday evening meeting is administrative: electing a new chancellor, approving a funding plan. But, for Moore-Koikoi, the spiritual and administrative are never too far apart.
Spiritual care is a necessity for faith leaders, Moore-Koikoi said. There will always be some administrative task that feels pressing.
If they don’t invest in their spiritual health, though, they’ll only create more problems to solve down the road. Time spent in prayer and reflection is well-spent, in her experience.
As the last few years have shown her, the bigger the decision, the more important listening — both to others and to God — becomes.
“Right now, there’s a lot of tension,” said Weaver Dunn, referring to the denomination’s debates over whether to grant full inclusion to the LGBTQ community.
In 2019, the General Conference, an international body of clergy and lay members, voted to uphold the Church’s traditional bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination, 53% to 47%. One significant factor was the church’s globalization: most U.S. delegates voted against the bans, whereas most delegates from Africa, roughly 30% of the total voting body, voted for them.
United Methodists from Western Pennsylvania generally leaned more conservative than the General Conference. In a 2018 survey of 1,350 area Methodists, 65.5% said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that they would support the Church’s traditional plan, compared to 24.2% that said they would support a plan to let each church choose its own course.
Immediately, some progressive church leaders, including members of the LGBTQ community, denounced the ban. Meanwhile, some conservative congregations began planning to form their own denomination.
Plans for this new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, were unveiled in March 2021. Now conservative leaders are waiting for the next General Conference — scheduled for late summer 2022 after being delayed twice for COVID-19 — so the divorce can be finalized.
That faction includes some churches in Western Pennsylvania.
“There’s some churches that have just shut down,” Weaver Dunn said. “They don’t want to do anything on the conference level.”
For Stith, the dynamic is not all new.
“History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme,” he said.
He sees the history of the Methodist Church as an ongoing struggle with inclusion. During slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement, and again with debates over women’s ordination, leaders had to make choices: Who are ‘we’ and who gets included in the church?
David Grinnell, archivist for the Western Pennsylvania conference, points out that pluralism has historically been a defining trait of Methodism. One person could hold a more radical doctrine of the Trinity, and another not, and that was OK. Those views weren’t deemed essential to Methodism, even if they were important in their own right. Grinnell, who is a gay member of the church, wonders if the same couldn’t happen now.
Moore-Koikoi hopes conservative churches in the Western Pennsylvania Conference don’t leave.
The United Methodist Church has always been a “big tent church,” she said, outstretching her hands as if to illustrate. “I see the benefit of us being a family together, even though we disagree.”
Behind her as she speaks hangs a tapestry. A gift from a clergy member’s spouse, it features crosses in all shades of black, red, yellow, orange and brown, a celebration of her commitment to diversity.
For her, the value of diversity extends into all realms — the political, too. It’s a matter of humility. “I believe each one of us has a little bit of the truth, a little bit of the wisdom of God,” she said. She trusts she can expand her worldview and deepen her commitments to social justice by talking with people who see the world differently.
She believes that’s true even when the conversations are challenging. She’s not “wishy washy,” Bloise said.
That collaborative leadership style means sometimes allowing people to make mistakes. It means sometimes watching people act destructively — the most “heartbreaking” part of her job, she said.
But her faith lets her grant people those freedoms.
“God’s got this,” she said. She is a bishop in a tradition that was segregated when she was born. As she sees it, her own story is a testament that God makes change possible.
And, for that reason, she is going to keep pushing for a more just future, even in an era rife with conflict.
“I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where it says we’re called to do easy work.”
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.
This story was fact-checked by Linden Markley.
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