There is nothing quite like an early summer storm. We thought the rain would never end. My wife and I talked late into the night with the rain pounding against our bedroom window.
For some reason our late-night conversation turned to the recent General Conference. The conference has become a quadrennial rhythm of our married life. I was a delegate to five, and for the first time since 1964, I did not attend the recent one. So we talked about the future of our church.
Our roots are deep in Methodism; she is a fourth generation New England Methodist, and my family (maternal and paternal) are Eastern Shore Maryland Methodists dating back to before the founding of our home church in 1865. A faithful remnant still worships on the original site.
The rain stopped. The storm ended, and sleep came. So did morning.
I prepared for my early morning walk with my dog, Buddy, and was stunned at how green and lush everything looked following the rain. As I walked along the familiar wooded paths, it seemed trees had grown taller overnight.
I have a favorite spot where I sometimes sit, overlooking a tiny creek. However, even it seemed larger with streams of water cascading over familiar rocks. Soon a friendly stranger joined me. He looked at me curiously. But quickly we began a conversation and I learned he was United Methodist.
When I told him I was a retired United Methodist bishop, I was unprepared for his response.
“Well you’re certainly rare,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him to explain. “We don’t have many African Americans in the United Methodist Church anymore, and I am not sure if we have any who are bishops.”
I quickly corrected him, citing the names of more than six active bishops, before he stopped me, and gave me a sudden jolt.
“What are you talking about mister? That was a long time ago.”
Now confused, I began to fear that some form of dementia had set in, so I asked him what was the date.
His response, “Why it’s Saturday, June 23, 2062.”
How could that be, Kim and I were just discussing the 2012 General Conference last night. It was Friday, June 22, 2012. There was a late storm. All these thoughts were racing through my mind. What was happening to me? How could 50 years have passed overnight? Was I having a vision? Was I delusional?
Yet, everything seemed so ordinary, so natural. The man seemed so real.
I began to question my fellow Methodist, “What do you mean, Methodism has few African Americans?”
“Well frankly it’s closer to none,” was his response. He went on, “Actually, though our population is very racially and ethnically diverse here in Georgia and the nation. The United Methodist Church is just about all white. It is a bit baffling—in a country where white people are now in the minority—for us to have so few persons of color in the church.”
I reminded him of the growth the church has experienced in Africa and in the Philippines.
Then he informed me that what I had known as central conferences were no longer part of the United Methodist Church. In fact, there was now a United Methodist Church of Africa, of Europe, and of the Philippines—each a separate denomination.
“The bodies come together every five years in a non-legislative gathering, for a time of worship and celebration,” he said. “The United Methodist Church is now confined to the United States, with no membership outside.”
Bewildered and growing more confused, I said, “That might make the United Methodist Church membership a bit smaller. We had some 12 million members worldwide, and more than 7 million in the United States.”
“You’re talking about the glory days, sir.” He went on, “But, we are doing better than some denominations.”
“We’re actually holding our own—with a little under 3 million members now. But, we are active and vital in the communities where we are located.”
I was eager to ask more questions, but I could see my new friend was anxious to leave and continue his walk.
I was becoming more frightened and confused and wondered what had happened to me, and what had happened to my church.
“One last question . . .,” but I did not get a chance to ask it.
“See you sir. Nice talking to you.” And he was gone.
I guess I had stayed too long on my early morning walk, because Kim had come looking for me. I heard her calling, “Woodie . . . Woodie.”
I responded in a loud voice, “Yes, here I am.”
It was then I awoke.
“What were you dreaming?” Kim asked. “You were talking in your sleep.”
I simply responded.
“I had a nightmare.”
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta. Courtesy of United Methodist Men, published in the fall, 2012, edition of UM Men magazine.